Saturday, August 31, 2013

DUBAI - Ugly Duckling

To be fair, I knew Dubai was going to be pretty remarkable. The biggest this. The tallest that. The shiniest, most gleaming, diamond encrusted one of these, all thrusting unapologetically from the desert like an amped-up Oz. And until recently I could kind of take it or leave it. Dubai, to me, seemed contrived. A constructed freak show. A grotesque, urban, Frankenstein's monster. Bits of this and that mashed together and forced brutally onto a culture desperately trying to create the future at all costs.

I should declare a bias here. I was for a time employed by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, and the look-at-me-ness of neighbouring Dubai was, I felt, tolerated in the way an older, more conservative sister might a brash, attention seeking, superficial sibling. What has she done this time? So, when I visited to attend Arabian Travel Market 2013 (courtesy of the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing) my expectations were, I guess, framed by that experience.

Without a shadow of a doubt, Dubai is now the real deal. Transplanted, manufactured and derivative? Absolutely. Unmistakably Dubai? You bet. And woven through it all is an Emirati culture that is justifiably proud of this new reality. There are, I'm sure, plenty of locals who still remember the old, almost subsistence economy of date farming and pearl diving. And when you see photos of the place taken in the 70s, 80s, even the 90s it's hard to believe such a transformation is possible in such limited time - Frankenstein's monster seemingly has new bits bolted on daily.

But time is a slippery critter, and in none at all I found myself totally seduced by the sheer chutzpah of the new Dubai. Its determination to bring the best of everything on the planet here is most evident in Dubai's malls - its commercial cathedrals. I've never seen anything like it. Almost every store window in every mall is a jaw-dropper. Food like you've never seen, sourced from every corner of the globe, flown in fresh that very morning. A skyline defined by the world's tallest building that stands like the exclamation mark you'll feel every time you see it.

In the course of a week we worked our way across Dubai's veneer of constructed amazing. But we also broke the surface and encountered an emergent contemporary arts scene. Not something transplanted from anywhere in particular, but a community of passionate collectors and gallery owners tapping into veins of modern, Middle-eastern art that challenges stereotypes and conventions. This, to me, is the future of Dubai. I don't mean art, but a thriving society built on a thoroughly modern mash-up of the global influences swirling around in the sands of this surprising place.

So where to now for the new Dubai? More of the spectacular same, I'd say. Its roots are firmly down. Its reliance on rapidly diminishing oil revenues is no more. And despite its vulgarities it is utterly beguiling - this ugly duckling.


Many thanks again to Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing for kindly hosting my trip to Dubai, and to ABC North Coast Radio (Australia) for the audio clip below of our regular Planes, Passports & Postcards segment on the United Arab Emirates.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Ben for the article. It was a pleasure hosting you and we look forward to showcasing Dubai to more people. Veronica Rainbird - DTCM Australia and New Zealand