Coming in from the desert, my first glimpse of Dubai felt like a mirage—fast, six-lane highways, and shiny, tall buildings rising above the sands. It’s a 21st century city of pristine, designer-filled malls, manmade lagoons, and the tallest building in the world–the Burg Al Kalifia. A city on steroids, Dubai defies logic. Standing in summer clothes outside Ski Dubai, in the Mall of the Emirates, looking through an expanse of glass, we watched skiers in full outdoor regalia whooshing down ski slopes and riding the ski lift, while children played on toboggans and made snowballs.
Dubai is a consumer economy full of opulent hotels, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, ubiquitous valet parking, designer handbags, and glossy boutiques, all buoyed up by an army of “foreign workers.” Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, and Filipinos, do all the jobs no one else wants to do–menial jobs, cleaning, maid service, and construction in brutal over 106-degree summer heat, with very few rights.
I am more accustomed to the Middle East of souks and bazaars, the centers of commerce for a city, where locals and tourists shop for everything from shoes, to nuts, to spices, to pots and pans. I missed the quiet coffee and teahouses, and the pace of life of old Cairo or Damascus (in a very different time). It did occur to me as we wafted through the air conditioned malls that they have become the 21st century souks, and local flavor and business have been displaced by international chain stores like Gap, Starbucks, Chanel, and Gucci. These are the shops of the brash, consumer conscious inhabitants of Dubai.
I carry with me a memory of a dinner with my family in a restaurant overlooking a manmade lagoon, with a lavish, extravagant water display every half hour, each time choreographed to different music. It was a perfect metaphor for a city that has grown out of the desert and squandered its natural resources in the most flamboyant fashion for pure entertainment.