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See the Future in Dubai

Martha Camarillo In the lobby of the Burj Al Arab hotel, in Dubai.

Photo: Martha Camarillo

I putt-putt across. First, I want to stop off and see the gold souk, which is famous in the Middle East. Gold prices, however, are up, and the souk is suffering; buyers are not coming. All around me, down covered streets and alleyways, gold is glittering and no one is looking. I proceed through curving side streets and wide sunny avenues filled with workers with wheelbarrows and early-morning food shoppers in white dishdashas or black abbayahs, until I come, circuitously, to the fish market, which spreads out wide beneath the shelter of a mosque.

Here is an authentic place: women in chadors with the veil shifted away for better fish-selecting, people shouting in foreign tongues, vendors with fish scales and blood all up their arms. At one stall inside the market I find, crammed side by side, Pakistani crabs, Omani shrimp, Dubai clams, and Iranian golden bass—a veritable piscine counterpart to the mixed population of Dubai.

At Sho Cho, I met one of the people who helped develop the ubiquitous promotional campaign for the new Burj Dubai. He's Egyptian. He doesn't want me to use his name.

"Yeah, 'History Rising,'" he says, laughter in his voice. "And don't forget also, 'The Earth Has a New Centre.'" More cynical laughter. "How about, 'The Address,' with the Burj Dubai behind it?Dubai is a big marketing project—it's not a country, it's a business. Everything here is about being the biggest, the best, the first, the tallest, the only. We wanted to do the things that had never been done before in the region.

"The Burj Dubai will be a landmark, like the Burj Al Arab. Dubai needs as many landmarks as it can get, because it's only a 30-year-old country. This ain't Egypt. There is no real Dubai. We went from the Stone Age, basically, to the discovery of oil. And now we have become what you see. Is it good?" He shrugs. "The world will be the judge of that."

Dubai sometimes seems like the Third World racing to overtake the First. We drive through a hidden, garbage-strewn and dusty neighborhood of undocumented, formerly nomadic Dubaians, who live mostly in shanties and shacks behind the condos and second homes that line the boulevard beyond. They're known as bidoun, which means "without"—without passports, without national identification, without a country. Many are low-level police officers. And then we drive to a residential street of skyscrapers.

I'm eating chicken shwarma with Tabasco sauce from the fast-food place downstairs and sitting with Moody on a vinyl couch in his apartment, watching a documentary he made a few years ago on the drug laws of Dubai. I'm on the 30th floor, and it's very windy up here. Meanwhile, a friend of Moody's has come over to the apartment with a production team; they want to shoot part of a reality-TV show out of Moody's window. The show is called Anatomy of Fear, and the nice producer tells me they've already put a British "aristo–'it' girl type" into a coffin with cockroaches. Now, the producer continues, raising her eyebrows, they're going to bring the girl to the top of a skyscraper across the avenue from Moody's, blindfold her, and let her walk a plank as if (crucial words) the plank were extending out over the roof's edge.

There's something low-budget about the whole setup, and I find myself gazing over at the TV screen, where Moody's documentary has been replaced by Dubai broadcasts. On one station is a serious Arab man in a dishdasha talking to another such fellow. On another channel, smiling Arab women—in super-hyper makeup, their cleavage prominently displayed, their hair long and coiffed—are giggling on an inexplicable, brightly lit game show.

One hot day in the desert that is Dubai, I decide to visit the ski slopes. Moody comes along.

"Isn't this ridiculous?" he says, looking up at the gigantic tin-can ski slope that's attached to the Mall of the Emirates. But we go in anyway, past the workers sitting outside on the curb taking a break from the heat, past the booth advertising apartments above the mall: OWN THE LIFESTYLE OF A LIFETIME. We walk beyond Starbucks to the slopes, passing women in long black abbayahs clutching designer purses. Some of their robes are studded with rhinestones at a hem or sleeve—subtle fashion statements. We arrive at the ski slope entrance.

Kids are coming down a sledding hill on plastic toboggans and rubber tubes; they're all bundled up in pastel-colored snow clothes. A ski lift runs above us. Down the black-diamond slope zip all sorts of skiers, some of the men in white ankle-length dishdashas topped by long snow jackets rented in the complex.

It's as if we were in nature. The snow is wet and real, it's very cold, and on the side of the ski slopes, someone has deftly painted a rather lifelike version of an alpine landscape: pines, snow, rocks. There are visible refrigeration ducts, however, that take away from the realism. I feel the usual Dubai disconnect—it's always "as if" you were somewhere else instead of being in Dubai. The Kempinski hotel chain has just opened up a hotel here that faces the slopes; the view is the big drawing card.

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