I have seen the future … and its name is Dubai

Tower after tower of steel and glass, vast eight-lane superhighways, and nights of neon magic, the science-fiction city of the future exists and its name is Dubai.

Visiting this port in the United Arab Emirates is an astonishing insight into what people can achieve when ambition is high and money is no object. Its opulence shows that the travellers’ tales of pearls, silks and precious spices from the east live on.

Rising above it all is the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. Shooting up its levels takes a matter of minutes as your silent lift soars upwards, blue, red and green lights flashing all around you.

Burj KhalifaThe Burj Khalifa is joined to a massive shopping mall, the like of which you have never seen. There is a four-level aquarium where two-metre sharks drift by. Giant groupers float up from the artificial sea bed, their mouths opening and closing as they stare back at the gawping shoppers on the other side of the glass.

In the nearby Mall of the Emirates, there is an even more wondrous sight. A ski slope has been built inside the mall, with artificial snow blowing over the toboggan slides:

Ski slope in the Mall of the Emirates

With so much going on in the mall, you may not have much time to spend on your shopping, but every convenience has been laid on for the emirate’s honoured guests. If you are in a hurry, you can always buy some gold in one of the handy vending machines dotted around:

Gold vending machine in Dubai

Malls are important social centres in Dubai. Like every public building, they are heavily air-conditioned. It’s so hot that you have to steel yourself every time you go outside to prepare for the wall of heat that will hit you and almost knock you backwards.

It was 42c when I was in the country but I still went wandering about, doing some sightseeing. Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. There were no mad dogs. I think they were in the shade.

After three hours of determined tourism, I finally got back to the metro station. Look at it – this is Dubai. I had to cross this open plaza in the direct sunlight, with the desert underfoot.

Al Ras metro station Dubai

As I wandered in and sat down, thinking myself very much the Wilfrid Thesiger de nos jours, an Indian man looked at my red-face and sweat-soaked clothes, and said “Look at you! You look like a chicken tandoori!”

The tower on the left of the picture, incidentally, is a wind tower. This is a traditional structure that is open on all four sides to allow wind to circulate through the building. Everything in the city is designed in some way to resist the heat. They say that even if you go to the beach during the hottest months, you cannot cool down because the sea temperature is 30c and you feel hot in the water.

To get to the metro, I had to cross the creek (the Khor Dubai). This entailed catching a water taxi (abra). These are little open boats with an engine chugging away in the centre. The fare is 20 dirham for the boat and capacity is 20 people. Basically, the driver goes around the boat collecting a one dirham coin from every person. The rule is that if there are fewer than 20 people, all the other passengers have to make up the difference, but that never happened to me.


At night, Dubai transforms into Judge Dredd’s Mega-City One, especially down by the marina which is a hallucinogenic outcrop of gleaming towers and seven-star hotels. My camera fogged up with the still-intense humidity, which is why this image is a bit blurred:

Dubai marinaAll of these buildings are rising out of the desert. There is no oasis or green fields around the city. The skyscrapers end and the desert begins. It is a miracle of human determination to survive in the wilderness:

View from the Burj Khalifa

What I wonder is whether all this is sustainable. Dubai doesn’t have oil – all the money from petroleum comes from neighbouring Abu Dhabi – and the city’s wealth is built on trade. Nevertheless, the fact that oil is almost cheaper than water in the emirates is a major factor in Dubai’s growth.

What will happen when it all runs out? Will Dubai survive? As I stood at the edge of the city with the Arabian sands whirling around my ankles, I wondered whether future generations would find a ghost town where I was standing, with the Burj Khalifa pointing out of the desert, as mysterious as the pyramids.

As I left the country, I could not help thinking of Shelley’s poem Ozymandias:

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”


12 responses to “I have seen the future … and its name is Dubai

  1. Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun… That’s very true! It looks amazing but incredibly hot… Not even your camera could stand the intense humidity! The chicken tandoori comment is very funny too.

    It all looks from another world. The gold vending machine is unbelievable! Just as crazy as having a ski slope in the middle of the desert!

  2. Thanks for sharing your observations, Alastair. A very interesting read, as always. Was your trip for business or pleasure? Either way, I’m envious. What a great opportunity to see what might turn out to be an unsustainable experiment.

    • It was a freebie for work! I made sure to take some time to have a wander about though as I always do.
      It will be fascinating to see whether the Dubai project is one for the ages. What I do admire is the fact that the Emirates are already planning for a future without oil, so that the investments they make today will provide for future generations. Compare that to the Ponzi scheme economic planning of Western governments who have gorged themselves on unsustainable levels of debt, while expecting future generations to pick up the tab!

  3. Fascinating trip, Alastair. Your photos are well done. The lack of color in the last photo is exactly how I imagine Dubai. How fortunate for you to receive this opportunity. I enjoyed your post. The experiment, well, I have no idea if it’ll work or not. My eyes keep returning to the first photo. Stunning.

    • Thanks Audrey! The first photo was taken inside the Mall. There’s a long underpass leading from the metro station to the Burj Khalifa which seems to go on forever and that is the view from one of the windows.
      The tower itself is spectacular but funnily enough you cannot always see it when you’re in the city because other skyscrapers often block the view. I have no idea how they managed to transport all that concrete, steel and stone into the desert but the building work is still onging all over town.

  4. Fascinating read Alastair! Not a place I’d ever fancied visiting but you definitely make it sound interesting! Glad you made the most of your business trip! 🙂 Chicken tandoori, that made me laugh! 🙂

    • He he, I think I did look horrendous at that moment!
      Dubai is perfect for a stopover should you find yourself on a long-haul flight to Asia – easily doable in 48 hours. The airport is amazing too: super-modern!

  5. Do you know a certain scouser you know was there at the same time as you? That would have been an odd meet up.

    It looks intriguing but is it somewhere you would choose to go, or just en route somewhere? My friend has been inviting us there for years but his wife has gone peculiar so have kept a wide berth.

    I see your recent posts certainly have a desert theme – no fremen or sandworms in Dubai then?

    As mentioned before will be in Tamariu in late august – will drop you an email soon…

    • I’m waiting for that email! I have another date in the desert in August which might scupper our plans though (not Dubai – different sands).
      It is a coincidence that I got into reading Dune just as I got a trip to Dubai but the two went very nicely together. I would have liked to have seen a worm, a Fremen or a Scouser but unfortunately I spent all day cowering indoors in the aircon.
      I would definitely recommend Dubai to anyone but it probably works best as part of a two-jump holiday where you do a stopover there before going off to another destination. You can easily see most of the sites in 48 hours.

  6. Not a country I plan to visit any time soon, but a fascinating place nonetheless, as your post suggests. Other friends who have visited or lived there seem to either love it or hate it. Not enough green fields for me 😉 Chicken tandoori – brilliant! 🙂

    • I think it would be difficult to live there, especially because unlike other places with extreme weather, like Scandinavia, you never get a respite. There is a fascination that comes with the desert though…

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