Dubai is famous for its extravagant wealth, glittering skyline, and a burgeoning business scene, hence its nickname ‘the jewel of the desert’. But once you are out of its mega airport, the place feels weird. It feels more like 3 parallel worlds superimposing on top of each other. It’s the Dubai dream of the foreign underclass coming mainly from the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia who do all of the manual work, from construction to babysitting, from restaurant catering to taxi driving. It’s the glitzy playground of corporate expats who reign over their Middle East business empire from their ivory towers in Dubai and frequent the city’s glamorous malls and covert night clubs. And of course it’s the homeland of the elite local Arab minority, their royal family and the chief architect of the emirate, their Sheikh, whose main hobby seems to be building things – great things, crazy things, unimaginable things. Dubai is home to the tallest building, the biggest shopping mall, the largest indoor snow park, the (arguably) most luxurious hotel in the world. It also boasts Palm Jumeirah and the World, artificial islands in the shape of palm fronts and the world map that host residential buildings, hotels, leisure and entertainment facilities. Out of the desert sand, they not only create a true oasis filled with millions of plants and flowers which are maintained using the most advanced drip irrigation technology and desalinated water, but also a vision of a global city filled with opportunities, hopes and dreams where  financial, technological, and socioeconomic experiments are carried out at grand scales on a daily basis.

Despite its glamour and marvels, Dubai failed to impress me. I only saw its shiny façade, but I could not touch its soul. It is difficult to distill authentic cultural heritages from a place where 80% of the population are foreigners. It is difficult to appreciate the natural beauty of a place where even white sand on its beaches is imported from Nigeria. It is difficult to fall in love with a place where material excess is displayed everywhere. During our trip, I often wondered whether my feeling for Dubai could have been more positive if I had had a much deeper pocket and a few friends among the elite Arab royals. I doubt it, but who knows.

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View from my hotel in Bur Dubai

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Another view from my hotel – all villas in the foreground have at least 5 cars in their yards and garages

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A mosque

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All the roads and highways are superbly constructed

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A yummy lunch

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Inside Dubai Mall

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Artificial waterfall in Dubai Mall

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Burj Khalifa – the tallest building in the world

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Burj Khalifa model

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View from Burj Khalifa’s observational deck on Level 124

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Panoramic views from Burj Khalifa’s observational deck on Level 124

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A Burj Khalifa souvenir

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A crowd gathering at Dubai Mall for a free fountain show

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The fountain show with Burj Khalifa in the background

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Burj Khalia LED show

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The Gold Souk

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The biggest ring in the world – super ugly

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A tourist taking photos of a gold shop display

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Gold everywhere

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The Spice Souk

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Desert tour

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Thousands of tourists take the desert tour everyday. Not recommended if you have been on a desert tour somewhere else.

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All drivers are Arab playboys who like to take their Prado out for wild rides in the desert

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After a stomach-churning ride, guests arrive in camps like this in the middle of the desert…

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…where you can ride camels, have henna, smoke water pipe, and dine under the stars

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