"Welcome, welcome to the boomtown
All that money makes such a succulent sound
Welcome to the boomtown"
David & David
Boomtown Dubai. A Development Supernova! Imagine if you will, several hundred skyscrapers being constructed simultaneously, in a development that will instantly create a city. Now imagine ten of these developments, all within 20kms of each other. Now, add a new one announced every month. Dubai is not so much a city as the World's Biggest Construction Site, a shrine to excess and one man's incredible vision to build a world center in a desert. Excess? The World's Biggest Shopping Mall. The World's Biggest Theme Park. The World's Tallest Hotel. The World's Biggest Airport. The World's Richest Horserace. Three man-made island developments you will see with the naked eye from space, one which will house over a million people alone. And, when it is completed, the Burj Dubai will be the World's Tallest Building. Dubai is what Vegas dreams of becoming when it grows up.
Outside the airport, which could easily be confused for a massive department store, the heat enveloped me, signed, stamped and delivered my skinny legs to Sweatsville. My body feels like your tongue when you burn it on hot cheese. Frosty air conditioning is a relief, even a little cold, but leave the bubble of a car, hotel or mall and you can feel the tarmac sizzle through your sandals. A pattern was clear. Cool. Heat. Cool. Heat. My immune system organizes a protest rally, and according to the CNN, violence breaks out between my heavily armed Sinus supporters and oil-rich White Blood Cells. From the line-up at the airport, I see an international smorgasbord of travelers; Indian businessman, Arab millionaires, Palestinian refugees, Russian hookers, Japanese tourists, and women dressed head to toe in black robes, complete with leather gloves. With a population of 1.2 million, only 20% are local born emiratis, the rest are migrant labourers from India, Pakistan, Philippines and Malaysia, not to mention the UK and USA. Everyone is here for one purpose, and that is to cash-in. It is a development Klondike, a Yukon construction boomtown – there’s a reason why oil is known as Black Gold.
This is no place for the budget traveller. No long strolls in the streets here. Driving on the highway, I stare out the window at jaw dropping construction, cranes surrounding buildings like giant mosquitoes sucking cement blood. 20% of the world’s cranes are here, hundreds of thousands, an infestation of metal.
So you're the sheik of an oil rich emirate, one of the seven that make up the United Arab Emirates, located on the northeastern Arabian peninsular. But the problem is, that oil isn't going to be around forever, in fact, analysts reckon there's just a decade of black gold left to fuel your Gulfstream Five jet. So you have a vision. A vision to create a tourist paradise, bigger and better than anything else on the planet. What's more, you can create tax-free Freezones for businesses to set-up shop, instantly developing a lucrative financial base to attack the African, European and Asian markets. Cleverly, you own a piece of everything, and foreigners can't own land, and have to be sponsored by a local to take part in the excitement (everyone can now get in on the action) . So you hit up your cousins, borrow a few hundred billion dollars, and get to work. No idea is too farfetched. Water? Build the World's Biggest Desalination Plant, and suddenly, you can green the desert. With the heat, everything has to be indoors, so get to work building malls the size of towns. Offshore developments with reclaimed land provide sea-views (and tax benefits). Don't just build one. The World is a US$1.8 billion development consisting of 300 islands, resembling the continents, on the shape of the earth. The three Palm Islands will have more malls alone than the entire Dubai, increase Dubai’s coastline by 1000kms, and have villas, hotels, skyscrapers and thousands of "water homes". Even though the planets next Tallest Building isn't built yet - the Burj Dubai's exact height is a secret to throw off ambitious competitors – another developer has announced plans to build an even taller building, the new, new tallest in the world, on reclaimed land in the sea. Are you getting the picture? Are you imagining the real-estate shark feeding frenzy that is Dubai at the moment? No expense spared. Migrant Indian labour working 24 hours a day, bused in from old-school labour camps. Architecture inspired by Bladerunner, using the best designers from around the globe. Who is going to stay in all these apartments, these high-end hotels? Who cares? If you build it, they will come. 90% of Dubai's GDP is already coming from the non-oil sector. The next emirate up, Abu Dhabi, still has oil for another hundred years. But by 2010, when its oil taps run dry, Dubai has a Plan B. Have to admit, you are one very smart sheik. I would say genius. Pleased to meet you HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum
At the Mall of Emirates, there is a shopping frenzy. All the brand names are here, how could they afford not to be? And all the brand names are at the Ibn Battuta Mall too, and Wafi City – it’s a race to have your name everywhere and anywhere. At the Palm Jumeirah, the first and smallest of the Palm islands, 60,000 people will find a new home on reclaimed land. It is hard to believe, standing on a smooth beach in the shadow of giant condo blocks, that this land did not exist five years ago. Harder still, to believe that Dubai only had its first cement building in the 1950’s, and twenty years ago was just a small, non-descript creekside Middle Eastern town. There’s already been a 300% return on investment for those who first bought a villa on the Palm (starting price $1 million), and I wonder how anyone could live here until I enter a villa to find out. The attention to detail is immaculate, the style, taste, and glitz unmistakable. It’s a reinvention of the picket-fence American dream, substituting the suburbs for private beaches and 5-star shopping. The Palm is a playground for the rich and famous, while the rest of us build their vision, market its appeal, and clamour to join them. Building on the success of the so called “7-Star Hotel” - the Burj Al Arab is a five star hotel masquerading as something more - Dubai’s marketing geniuses are calling the Palm Jumeirah the “8th Wonder of the World.” If you build it, they will come, and if you say it (with millions of marketing and publicity dollars) it is true.
If you can ignore the money, and see through the neon glow and giant LCD screens, this is the picture you see. Emiratis are rewarded lucrative government contracts, migrant workers are routinely exploited (complaints of passports being confiscated and atrocious working conditions are well known, if largely ignored), and the majority of wealth is controlled by the ruling royal family, who have a controlling interest in all the major developments. Every taxi driver I talk to raves about the clean air, the low crime, the good money, and then proceeds to tell me that if it weren’t for the money he would be on the first plane home. Time and time again, I am told what I quickly sense myself – staggering yes, but no soul. If this is the future, a society of sleek monorails and air-conditioned bubbles and science fiction buildings, do we really want it?
In Dubai, you rarely stray beyond the air-conditioned bubble. Want to snowboard? Hit the 25-story snow-dome, or wait for the new rotating mountain at Dubailand – a theme park development four times the size of Disneyland. Every day, there is another billion-dollar announcement in the Property Weekly, adding to the 5000 developments currently underway. Hot in the news, it is like a magnet, drawing in the young and hungry, the rich and restless, the greedy and desperate. Despite its staggering vision, and the most exciting explosion of globalization on the planet, I cannot help but see human folly, the extreme allocation of money to mindless physical comfort when it could be allocated to worldwide progress, health and education instead. In a city with over 40 five-stars hotel, do they really need to build another 50 more?
In Dubai, perhaps it is the money and ambition that is turning the desert green.
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