For some years now we – really Mark, but we – have wanted to see Dubai. Big, gaudy, flashy; it just seemed like something we should see. Having now spent four days here I’m not feeling like I need to come back. Kind of like Las Vegas on steroids but without the casinos it’s worth seeing once.
First, just where are we? Dubai is a city of about 2.7 million people, the largest in the United Arab Emirates. But what is the United Arab Emirates? (Or should that be “What are the United Arab Emirates?”) They – it, OK, I’m going with the singular version – it is a monarchy that consists of seven constituent emirates, of which Dubai is the largest. Abu Dhabi is the second largest and together Dubai and Abu Dhabi make up about 75 percent of the total population. The federation was formed in 1971 after the British announced they were ending their role as protectors of the small sheikdoms. As Iran to the north and Saudi Arabia to the south licked their chops at the thought of snatching up these small, vulnerable plots of land Abu Dhabi and Dubai formed a partnership and offered membership to the other emirates. Qatar and Bahrain rejected the offer and thus are independent; Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Quwain said yes and today remain junior partners in the federation.
So Dubai. Just about the same size as Rhode Island with one huge city and a lot of desert. Surprisingly not a lot of oil; oil wasn’t discovered here until 1966 and the reserves are quite small. In fact, oil makes up only about five percent of Dubai’s revenue. Instead it has established itself as a commercial center and more recently a transportation center and has become famous for impressive skyscrapers, particularly the Burj Khalifa.
The Burj (Arabic for “tower”) was the main thing we came to see. Construction began in 2004, when it was known as the Burj Dubai. For years they were cagey about just how tall it was going to be; they said it would be the tallest building in the world but wouldn’t put a specific number on it. Finally in 2008 it topped out at 2,722 feet compared to Chicago’s Sears Tower which was then the world’s largest building at 1,729 feet, so more than 50 percent taller than the next tallest building. Since then a number of extremely tall skyscrapers have been built but the Burj Khalifa is still 30 percent taller than today’s number two, the Shanghai Tower.
Naturally, we went to the top. You sign up well in advance, have a scheduled time, and up, up, up you go to the 148th floor. Above that are six floors of corporate suites and then nine floors of mechanical and communication equipment. Until last year the observation deck, at 1,821 feet, was the highest observation deck in the world but in 2016 the Shanghai Tower’s observation deck opened at 1,841 feet. The views were impressive; on a clear day you can see all the way to Iran but it wasn’t that clear during our visit. In some ways, in fact, the tower was more impressive from the ground than the views from the top; it is a seriously beautiful building.
Oh, and about that name. As I said it was known as the Burj Dubai during construction but the timing for the opening was about as bad as could be: they were marketing it in 2009 and it opened in 2010 just as the global economy completely tanked. Really bad timing and leasing went a lot slower than expected. As a result Dubai needed a bailout from Abu Dhabi and the UAE so, at the opening, Dubai surprised everyone by renaming it the Burj Khalifa in honor of UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan for his crucial support.
What else is there in Dubai? A few things stand out. First, like Qatari and the rest of the UAE it is overwhelmingly made up of immigrant workers. Out of a total population of about 2.8 million people, fewer than half a million are Emirati. About half the remaining residents are Indians, with a large mix of other South Asians – Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, etc. – thrown in as well. And because most of those foreign workers are men there is a huge imbalance between men and women in Dubai. It seems as though that would cause trouble but if people cause trouble Dubai just sends them away. Oh, and it was weird just how spread out the city is. We were staying in the Marina area, a place with big skyscrapers and big hotels and big malls and all that, what one would think of as the city center. In fact the Burj Khalifa and the big malls around that area was nearly 14 miles away from our neighborhood. That’s a long way in a city.
Beyond that, Dubai consists of a lot of big malls. We’re not big mall people, though, so there wasn’t much for us except updating our Apple collection; the AppleWatches we’d bought in China two-and-a-half years ago had started failing and, well, there was this new iPhone that came out recently that one of us needed. There was a beach at a neighboring hotel we had access to and that was OK. We were staying in the Marina area and there was a great two-mile winding walkway with soaring skyscrapers that was pleasant in the mornings and evenings.
Except for the Burj Khalifa, though, the most notable thing about being in Dubai was the crazy mismatch between the cost of meals and quality of meals. Similar to our experience in Qatar alcohol can only be sold in the big international five-star hotels. We had a couple of really good meals at Mom’s, a Lebanese restaurant near our hotel, at perfectly reasonable prices. But if you wanted a cocktail or wine? Absolutely insanely expensive and just not that good.
That settles it, then. We’ve seen the Burj Khalifa, seen the attractive city scape, and satisfied our Apple cravings. No need to come back to Dubai unless it’s the only reasonable transportation connection as we’re traveling between continents.