There’s a Chinese restaurant in the Marco Polo Hotel in Dubai. The name of the restaurant is Chopstix, and it proudly holds the Guinness World Record for having the world’s longest chopsticks, so I was kind of curious as to how this dining experience might play out. On arrival, I voiced mild disapproval that the diners weren’t engaged in a comically messy struggle to feed themselves with oversized pool cues. My old friend Manu, a level-headed engineer type, gestured without looking up from his menu and said the chopsticks in question were probably the two 20-foot long chunks of finely tapered wood bolted to the ceiling. My wife, not to fly in the face of tradition, gestured without looking up from her menu that I was an idiot.
Seriously though, doesn’t this seem like rather an easy world record to achieve, if you’re into that sort of thing? I mean… find a big lump of timber and a bloke with a lathe. It couldn’t take more than a few weeks as a side project. This is no ordinary city though. This is a city on an unstoppable quest to prove it has the biggest and best of… well everything it possibly can, no matter how pointless (or pointy, as the case may be).
Anyway, long, long ago, in the mysterious Middle-east (2005), a guy called George Saunders wrote a lengthy article for GQ magazine called The New Mecca, about a wondrous, magical city that had appeared from nowhere to become perhaps the greatest city on Earth.
I had no idea that the writer of this piece was a celebrated, award-winning American author of short stories, or why he’d gleefully embarked on his ten-page whatever-it-was by revelling in his own buffoonish ignorance of the place he’d been sent. He seemed wonderfully pleased to have absolutely no idea of what, or where the Emirati city of Dubai actually was.
“[Is it] Near Venezuela? No, sorry… Somewhere North of Pakistan, an idyllic mountain kingdom ruled by gentle goatherds? Well, no… Is it dangerous? Will I be beheaded? Will I need a translator? Will my translator be beheaded?”
He wrote that the hotels he’d been sent to (to stay at for free, then write about for lots of money), were the greatest places on Earth, and that the smiling dark-skinned people serving him drinks genuinely loved him. He explained that they were happy simply to be there, ensconced in levels of opulence they would never be able to enjoy as guests, and how this arrangement works well for everyone, because the lower classes understand that to be servants to the rich is by far the best they can hope for from life… especially if it’s in Dubai! Saunders also noted their remarkable ability to speak English.
Even in the primeval darkness of 2005 however, this scorching desert non-oasis had already conjured itself a water park called Wild Wadi, where Saunders had an epiphany. Water slides are fun and they bring people together. Doing things that are fun, in addition to rampant steroidal consumerism for its own sake will one day bring peace and unity to all the world’s people (at least, the people who matter). Deftly avoided was any speculation as to where the hell all the water-park water may have been coming from (or mention that the price of admission is about a week’s wages for the people who actually built it). Dubai isn’t about logic or accountability. Dubai is about luxury. It’s about making other, inferior cities like Las Vegas appear modest and tasteful… and it’s wonderful in every way.
In a sudden twist however we learn on page six that even the greatest place on Earth is not without its challenges. It turns out that the writer had, for some inadequately explored reason, traveled half way around the planet without any cash or a credit card. He earnestly described how terribly difficult it was to enjoy his lavish surroundings after the managers of the world’s only (self-awarded) seven-star hotel repeatedly asked him to actually pay for his room (it was GQ magazine’s job to do that).
The page seven mini-chapter was entitled, “Dubai is what it is because all the countries around it are so fucked up”. More valuable Middle eastern insight was gleaned from the random corporate bankers and Thai prostitutes Saunders bumped into in elevators and hotel bars. Anyway, you get the idea. Dubai is the most unbelievably fucking amazing place in the universe (people audaciously requesting payment for goods and services notwithstanding); a global beacon symbolising the glorious wonders of unrestrained hyper-capitalism devoid of consequences or accountability. It’s a billionaires’ playground built on credit, with a glitz:substance ratio unlike any place on Earth.
This is The World, just one of the ‘Only in Dubai’ projects that had people so fascinated with the city, which by 2010 was no longer an unknown Middle eastern port city, but rather one of the most famous destinations on Earth. Of course, five years is a very long time when you’re busy accelerating through several centuries in a single generation.
This is The World as it actually looked in 2011… or the end of The World perhaps, as the artificial islands continued to sink back into the waters off the Dubai coast. The story of The World, with its unsold, unstable, sinking fake islands is of course a highly simplistic metaphor for Dubai, but not one easily unnoticed.
Things had changed in the five long years since Saunders’ amazing adventure. The world’s tallest (and pointiest) steel and glass penis now showcased Dubai’s superiority over all other cities with their lesser cocks, but some people were starting to talk about a darker side. Suddenly Dubai was being subjected to questioning and criticism.
Writers began openly suggesting, not only that Dubai was and still is being built by slaves, but that this is perhaps just a tad unacceptable. Newspaper articles with headlines like “At least we are not Dubai” suggested that the city has no culture, no soul and is both morally and financially bankrupt. Some claimed that the only way to really appreciate the fake trees and synthetic grass is ironically, and yet even with all that fake greenery Dubai has been labelled the “Nemesis of Sustainability“, whose residents, per capita, leave the world’s largest carbon footprint, not least perhaps because of the incomprehensible amount of energy required to desalinate enough sea water for all those fountains, golf courses and indoor ski runs.
One of the most well known and brutal commentaries on the new Dubai came from the poison pen of English writer and critic, A.A.Gill, whose vitriolic and somewhat bitter 2011 Vanity Fair article, Dubai on Empty, drew global attention. To quote one of the kinder things Gill had to say…
“Dubai has been built very fast. The plan was money. The architect was money. The designer was money and the builder was money. And if you ever wondered what money would look like if it were left to its own devices, it’s Dubai”.
Gill is, to put it mildly, an angry man; a talented and acerbic writer who unleashes his infinite wrath upon individuals or entire countries with relish. His rather vicious assault on Dubai and everyone in it really shouldn’t have come as a great surprise. Some Emiratis weren’t exactly thrilled though, and weren’t placated by the fact that Gill was equally dismissive of the 85 percent of Dubai residents who aren’t Emiratis. Of the professional and managerial expat crowd in Dubai, Gill had this to offer…
“[They are]…parasites and sycophants for cash. For them money is a driving principle and validation. They came to be young, single, greedy, and insincere. None of them are very clever. So they live lives that revolve around drink and porn sex and pool parties and barbecues with a lot of hysterical laughing and theme nights, karaoke, and slobbery, regretful coupling”.
Ok, so the truth about Dubai isn’t exactly as described by Saunders or Gill (nobody is going to give guys like these their buckets of money to not have strong opinions). As with pretty much everything, the truth lies somewhere in between (exactly where is up to the individual).
Personally I’m not a fan of the place. I’ve been there a few times, and I’ll go back again (mostly because it’s nearby and I have friends there), but it hasn’t grabbed me like it has a few of my friends, who say the hardest thing about Dubai is leaving at the end of the weekend. It’s a place you can enjoy yourself (if you’ve got cash), though my enjoyment of Dubai is typically ironic, with lots of shoulder-shrugging and looking around saying, ‘What The Fuck?’.
Whatever opinion you may have on Dubai, it’s a city that demands an opinion. It has smashed its way into the global consciousness with narcissistic aggression, obscene amounts of money and an endless supply of cheap migrant labour. It’s not quite like anywhere else, so for that reason alone Dubai is worth checking out (if you happen to be passing by this way), at least once.