Dubai is an extraordinary feat of engineering. But then so
is a camel, writes Neville Peat.
The camel that sauntered past us at Jemeirah Beach in the
hazy late afternoon sunshine summed up Dubai's otherworldly
and paradoxical nature.
A cameo appearance by a ship of the desert in a space-age
metropolis setting is an arresting sight.
Camels always look ancient and old-fashioned but this one,
led by its weary handler after a day providing joyrides on
the beach, seemed completely out of context lined up against
an ultra-modern backdrop of 21st-century hotel, office and
apartment buildings, with the contrails of numerous jet
aircraft criss-crossing overhead.
Dubai is a culture shock of an architectural kind. Its zany
built landscape, rising out of the hot desert sands of the
Arabian Peninsula, looks like something out of a Star Wars
movie. Could young Luke Skywalker be whizzing around these
skyscrapers in his personal air vehicle?
The world's tallest building, opened in 2010, is in downtown
Dubai - the tapering Burj Khalifa, 828m high, 160 floors,
US$1.5 billion ($NZ1.78 billion) to build. You can barely
make out its sharp summit, which is twice the height of New
York's Empire State Building. Its lifts reach speeds of more
than 60kmh. Europe's tallest building, nicknamed the Shard,
was officially opened on London's South Bank last year but at
301m is merely knee-high to the Dubai tower.
World records for construction tend to tumble here. Dubai has
the largest man-made port and the world's first seven-star
hotel, the sail-shaped Burj al Arab. Fanning out from the
coast are several artificial archipelagoes supporting hotel,
lifestyle and recreational developments. They include The
World (300 islands forming a map of the continents) and The
Palms - ambitious real-estate jewels tempting the world's
Dubai's many shopping malls - swank colosseums of consumerism
- impress for their inventive themes and sideshows. One even
has a skifield sealed off inside it, complete with
chairlifts; another is divided into Asian and Middle Eastern
multi level shopping precincts, each featuring an iconic
centrepiece. For example, there is a life-size Asian elephant
bearing a bejewelled, canopied carriage representing the
Indian precinct. The Chinese quarter has a huge Chinese junk
with sails up.
Shoppers fly in for the mall experience, knowing Dubai is
duty free and a competitive retail hub. The airport, ever
expanding, is said to be the fourth busiest in the world,
handling more than 40 million passengers a year, many of them
in transit. The Emirates airline is based here.
During the northern winter, eastern Europeans, Russians in
particular, target Dubai to warm up on the sun-drenched
beaches, when temperatures are generally in the mid-20degC.
The height of summer sends temperatures into the high 40s and
visitors are more likely to crowd the air-conditioned
shopping malls than the beaches.
Dubai is also a tax haven, consequently a financial hub. Many
of the tower blocks are occupied by the finance sector, and
before the global financial crisis in 2008, Dubai had
commandeered more than half the world's tower cranes to keep
up with the demand for new buildings. The building boom is
over now, and some developments are languishing.
In contrast, down by the wharves on Dubai's main harbour,
known as The Creek, the souks or markets of old-town Dubai
keep on keeping on. It is a whole new visitor experience, so
different from the concrete and glass towers, and centuries
old. Here the senses are fully awakened by the spice souk,
cloth souk and the glittering gold souk, not to mention the
You get a strong feeling that Dubai is where East and West
meet. Some guided walking tours start and finish at the
fascinating Dubai Museum, a 200-year-old fort. They give
visitors a close encounter with traditional commercial life.
Banked up against the wharves, two and three deep, are
high-sided wooden dhows that transport goods around the
Arabian Gulf and as far east as India and Sri Lanka, a
maritime trade spanning the ages. On the wharves, whiteware
and other manufactured products are strewn about in the open
in cardboard boxes, awaiting shipment or trucking away. The
weather is not a factor. Here it hardly ever rains, and
looters are seemingly not an issue either. Crime is much less
than in Western countries, and streets are safer. Alcohol is
banned except in authorised (typically expatriate) settings,
and drug trafficking attracts the death penalty.
Nipping about the choppy tidal waters of The Creek are
open-sided abra motorboats, which taxi people continuously
from one side to the other and at all hours for a small
charge. More expensive, although highly efficient, is the
Metro monorail, commissioned in 2008, which runs the length
of the built-up area of Dubai, linking with the malls and
other attractions. Trains roll up every 15 to 20 minutes at
spotless, air-conditioned and well-signed stations, where
double doors keep people away from the railway lines. Between
stations the driverless, remote-controlled Metro can hit
Taxis, also air-conditioned and new or near-new, roam the
fast, multilaned highways, their drivers invariably immigrant
workers. There are three parallel societies in Dubai - Arab,
expat and immigrant. Low-waged immigrant workers, mainly from
India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines, are employed
on the construction projects, in homes and in the taxi
One driver we met was from Kerala state in India. Like the
brand-new Audi he was driving, he was smartly presented. He
shared a villa in an outer suburb with other immigrant
workers, four to a room. He said he did his own cooking and
washing and worked 12 hours a day. At home in India were his
wife and five-year-old daughter, whom he saw during one
month's annual leave.
Dubai is a melting pot of wealth and status, poor and
marginalised. And the camels, while no match for the Metro,
maintain a sense of age and tradition.
At a glance
• Dubai is one of seven states in the United Arab Emirates
(UAE) and also the name of the UAE's largest city. The UAE
capital is Abu Dhabi.
• Population: 2.2 million.
• Land area: 4000sq km, expanded in recent years by
• Former British protectorates, Dubai and the other emirates
celebrated independence in 1971.