It would be difficult to get bored in Dubai. Impressed, most likely; shocked, sometimes; outraged, occasionally — well, for some people all the time. For me, it was certainly a city of pleasures and surprises.
Let’s start with the setting. Because it is a city built on nothing but sand, or on land reclaimed from the sea. By day, you fly in for an hour or so over the desert of the Arabian Peninsula, over nothing but wind-blown ridges of sand.
And there it is: the most modern of cities, on the coast of the Persian Gulf (the Emiratis prefer to call it the Arabian Gulf), with high rise buildings set in a wide pattern of motorways.
Flying in by night, the approach is even more amazing: a widespread cloth of glittering lights, surrounded by nothing but blackness. The most distinctive are the lights of the Palm Jumeira, illuminating the palm shape of this artificial island of affluence jutting into the Gulf.
Many of the space-age buildings are designed to be impressive. The best known, because they are so spectacular, are the Burj Khalifa and the Burj al-Arab.
Last week I described the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. The Burj al-Arab is also set on its own artificial island, 300 metres from the shore, and it is reached from a causeway that runs from the Jumeira Beach Hotel.
You might well know that it is shaped like a sail; you might not know that 1,600 square feet of the interior are sheathed in gold leaf.
Until the Burj Khalifa went up and reached for the clouds, the Burj al-Arab was the iconic building of Dubai, manifesting the best and worst of the city – the exterior so stylish; the interior so glitzy.
It is remarkable that whoever drives the policies and plans have been able to make Dubai not only a Mecca of commerce but also a centre for international sporting tournaments and even for tourism: taking a desert safari, riding a surf board – or simply going on a shopping spree.
Despite the recent scare in late 2008, when the economy went into a sudden slide, which was steadied by a $10 billion loan from the Abu Dhabi government, Dubai’s image is still one of progress and prosperity.
But there are some uncomfortable questions that can, or should, be asked. The Dubai economy depends so much on expatriate labour.
Expats make up 90 per cent of the 1.8 million population. I met a few of them around the restaurants and bars of the Meridien hotel where I was staying: a British accountant, for example, and an Indian IT specialist. Most of the hotel staff were from the Philippines. Out in the town, I could see that many of the manual workers were from the Indian sub-continent ....
And then in the airport on the way home I chatted with a couple of Kenyan young women. They were both working in one of the many big supermarkets. They confirmed the story I had heard before. Both had been on two year contracts, earning not a lot but glad of it because they hadn’t been able to find jobs in Kenya.
Both, for the two-year period, had to hand over their passports to their employers. If they had needed to return home earlier they would have had to pay a substantial deposit.
All this, we must be sure, is so that the workers will not get employment elsewhere or in any way “do a runner”. I asked the Kenyans what reason they had been given.
One had been given no reason; the other had been told, “to keep your passport safe for you”. Both resented the practice – but they didn’t challenge it because they didn’t want to lose their jobs. They had renewed their contracts and would return to Dubai after their leave.
Before leaving my hotel for the airport I had a last drink in one of the bars.
It was anticipated that the next day would be the start of Ramadhan. I asked the waiter what this would mean for the hotel.
“We will close the restaurants and bars till after dark,” he said, “but you will still be able to get drinks in your own room.”
I guess you will have heard about the trouble that couples have got into with the authorities in Dubai when showing affection — of a sexual kind — in public. Otherwise, this is the most tolerant Muslim society I have experienced.
Non-Muslim women are not expected to cover their heads, arms or legs. In the shopping malls, though, Emerati women wear the black abeyya robes and shayla veils. You see all manner of dressing among the expatriates.
For most visitors, Dubai is a very sophisticated and relaxed place. For this, I imagine, there is a sense of outrage in some other Muslim societies.
John Fox is managing director of iDC