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.
The 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:
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:
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.
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:
All 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:
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.”