Bedouin. No, it isn’t something from Star Wars. The inhabitants of the desert and forefathers of the hyper-city that lies before us was no more than a nomadic tribe diving for pearls only 100 or so years ago. Before the discovery of oil in the 1970s and the mass development of Dubai, it started off from fairly humble beginnings. I was convinced before I came here that Dubai had no history at all – it was one of the reasons that I avoided coming here, but there is a heritage. It isn’t something that you are going to find in Dubai Mall or in a 5* hotel (of which there are many). You have to dig a little deeper.
The city tour that we booked ourselves onto this morning was to settle us in. After resting our swollen feet from the floors of the Burj Khalifa, we decided that it was time to sit on a bus. The national museum had told us the brief story of this place, and now it was time to see the effects. Bur Dubai, where the old gold souks (markets) lay were noticeably empty – it was the quietest street market I had ever seen. However, it had a character that did not shine with the veneer of the imported marble that we had seen everywhere.
Jumeirah. You have heard of it. It means chandelier and relates to the most expensive part of Dubai, probably the wealthiest street in the entire world. A road filled with the emirati, descendants and loved ones of the royal family, that own the UAE and its rich contents. Whilst the oil may have dried up, the wealth has never left. Only the distant descendants of the Bedouin tribes are able to open businesses and own property in this country – which means that the only thing that we can take away is what we can carry in our Prada bags – the real wealth in estate and citizenship don’t go any further than the Arabian Gulf.
What struck me about this place is the sheer size. It is like an enormous Monopoly board in which someone has put hotels on everything. From the breathtaking Atlantis hotel as a window onto the ‘Gulf; to the familiar sail of the 7* Burj al-Arab hotel on the Palm Jumeirah; the word ‘luxury’ is ripped out the dictionary and replaced with a map of Dubai. The only place for modesty here is in clothing, with its unspoken yet strict Islamic laws.
However there are contradictions. The pork aisle in the Waitrose supermarket labelled “non-Muslim”. The variety of cigarettes and alcohol on offer to any tourist willing to pay the tax-deductible price. The emphasis on greed and spending, and the absence of humility and humanity. There are thousands that build these buildings and maintain this 24/7 tourist attraction, but they do not exist in the minds of those who come here. The backbone of the populace is almost invisible outside of their uniforms and duties – it is as if they are the ghosts that prosperity left behind.
It is easy to get caught up in the hype. The thousands of shops, crystal white beaches and unimaginable luxury, but it is not real. It can’t be real when 80% of it is dependent on foreigners and there is no incentive to work for the vast majority of residents. Yet, the destructive circle continues. More skyscrapers are built. The world’s largest zoo is in construction. Companies continue to pay no tax. And investors continue to pour talent into this man-made oasis.
For me, a society built on this level of consumerism is a recipe for disaster. Imagine how many people in Syria could be saved if the King sold his solid gold Rolls Royce. Perspective is a very damning indictment. And it doesn’t seem to exist here.