Dubai is a very odd place. Someone told me it was the Las Vegas of the Middle East. But it is Las Vegas without the sex, without the gambling, without the booze, without the theatre, without the FUN. You do get shopping, luxury and the feeling that being rich has no downsides. You also get lots of visually interesting buildings – many an architect must have made a fortune if not a reputation out of the place – but it does look like ToyTown built from pocket money counted in billions.
Spatially the town is odd. It does not have a centre surrounded by its ever expanding periphery. The old centre seems to have been abandoned and several other centres have been built, all separate from each other and miles from the old centre and from each other. Each new centre has its contingent of multi-story hotels, offices and, most importantly, its shopping mall, built along a wide dual carriageway, often with a little railway running alongside. Between the centres there is not very much, just desert awaiting development and wide roads.
Our hotel, which was very satisfactory, was called the Radisson Blu Downtown. The last part of its name was aspirational rather than descriptive. It was a twenty minute drive from what I would call “downtown” – the old city, and surrounded by building sites which may have been in abeyance.
The iconic building of the new Dubai is the Shopping Mall. These are bigger and better bigger than any you may have seen. They are full of shops, many of them luxury, many of them world famous brands. But they are for more than shopping. They have ATTRACTIONS. The one we saw has a huge aquarium with the largest acrylic panel in the world (30m long, 8 m high, 10 inches thick, weighing almost 250 tons). It is full of fish many of them very big. Other malls have ski slopes. Public spaces are part of the shopping experience.
And they are pre-eminently places to see and be seen. Italy has its piazzas, Dubai has its shopping malls. In its air-conditioned comfort, groups of young ladies, not all of them chaperoned, walk; observed by group of young men, dressed in their best robes. But this activity is not confined to the young. People of all ages frequent the hallowed halls.
Most of the people in Dubai are not citizens of the United Arab Emirates – perhaps only 20%. The rest are from all over the world but primarily from the region. All the taxi drivers we spoke to were from Pakistan on renewable 2 year visas. One guy had a 2 year old whom he had never seen.
We were in Dubai in Ramadan and our second day was Friday – the Moslem Holy Day. As a result the place was very quiet during the day and shops were often shut. We went to the Gold Souk in the Old City and found it open but all the shops shut. We wandered round the local area and noticed lots of men walking in one direction with a purposeful air. We followed and found they were all going to the local Mosque.
But Ramadan has its advantages. We were able to check in at 9 AM rather than the advertised 2 PM and out at 6 PM, 8 hours later than we should have – I suspect the hotel was not busy.