Welcome to Dubai: a paradise for grown up children. Neverland with air-con, expense accounts and chauffeurs. Disneyland for morons.
From the sands of the United Arab Emirates, a once-humble fishing village has been transformed in the past few decades into a place where people with no imagination spend weekends gawping at ugly steel and glass megaliths, eating in restaurants where outrageous rudeness to serving staff is welcomed (but wine is not) and being careful to do nothing more nefarious than hold their partner’s hand. Showing affection is illegal in the UAE.
The highlights of your visit will include a trip two-thirds up the tallest building in the world. From the observation deck you can enjoy seeing more extremely high buildings, a vast array of construction sites and the roof of one of the world’s largest shopping centre. While there, why not buy a poster or handbag featuring versions of classic artworks, bastardised to include this phallic column. Meanwhile Andy and Vincent roll in their graves, much as Lou Reed must as Walk on the Wild Side soundtracks the half-hourly fountain show at the foot of the building. The irony of this ode to Lou’s transgender friends being played in this place can’t be lost on everyone. Homosexuality is illegal in the UAE.
Inside the Dubai Mall, thousands of people walk past flagship designer stores, some burdened by their purchases but most empty-handed. For this is not a shopping centre in the usual sense; this is commerce as a spectacle. A veritable zoo of high end fashion, electronics and other objects that favour (questionable) style over substance and procurement over necessity.
It is a temple of greed. A building with 1,200 shops, harsh lighting and headache-inducing air-conditioning. There is an ice-skating rink and an aquarium with water imported from Japan. The cost of everything on sale in this complex must exceed the GDP of several countries, and yet it still requires an annual Shopping Festival to remind you what its purpose is.
And what is the purpose of Dubai as a city? Unsmiling portraits of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum glare at from the moment you arrive in the airport, in bookshops, hotel lobbies and from giant billboards on the highway. Reminders of the power exerted over the citizens of this country. And yet silver-haired expats from London, New York and Marseille live lives that they could never imagined back home.
So is this a westerner’s playground? Or an ultra-conservative Islamic country? The contradictions abound and, along with questioning the modern slavery exerted on thousands of southern Asians who are the cogs in this dreadful machine, the answers make for awkward discussions. Do not expect to hear these conversations; criticism of the government is illegal in the UAE.
No need to worry about that. You’ve got a nice hotel room, the sun is out and the weather is fine. Everything you want and nothing you need is just a few hundred (or, more likely, thousand) dirhams away. Everyone speaks English, you don’t have to think. Never mind that there is more history in a flake of dust on the Berlin Wall.
Go to the beach. It’s beautiful and comes complete with a view of one of Dubai’s many building sites. It is testament to the delights of this city that I begin to doubt the veracity of the sand on which I sit and the suspiciously perfect seashells placed evenly among it, although even they are outnumbered by discarded cigarette butts. Remixes of long-forgotten Eurodance embarrassments soundtrack the scene.
After three days I have come to the conclusion that this vile place is simply not for me. More than that I feel uncomfortable, out of place. I feel uncomfortable in a way that not even Las Vegas, the world’s other great fake oasis of adult-orientated delights, makes me. Because in the end, at least part the attraction of Vegas is in the trying. Of turning that last card or putting everything on black and hoping that it will make you richer than you could have ever dreamed.
But Dubai was not created for the have-nots. This is what happens when that craven dream has been realised, and it is as vulgar and reprehensible as I have always expected.