The plane came in over the desert sands, the far off towers gleaming in the evening light. It was our first trip to Dubai, and I was anticipating a unique experience. As tourists, I knew that we might be unable to appreciate all the challenges we had read about, which are faced by the exploited foreign workers, wealthy expatriates and aloof Arabs, but I hoped to get a genuine taste of the local culture in our brief stay there.
Arriving late at night, our first challenge was to get to our hotel, the newly opened Atlantis at the Palm Jumeira. We were disappointed that even though the hotel knew our flight details, they hadn't arranged transportation, and we had to find our own way there. Fortunately, the airport staff were friendly and helpful, and we only had to wait a couple of hours for a shuttle heading our way.
Soon after midnight, we passed through the huge brass doors of the hotel, adorned by sea-horse and other marine motifs, into a lobby of polished marble floors, filled with colorful murals and amazing glass sculptures. It was like entering into a dream – which we soon did for real, after the rigours of the journey. As I feel asleep, I wondered if Dubai's reality would match its reputation.
We were woken before dawn the next morning by a siren – the fire alarm was going off! We'd heard that the opening of the hotel some weeks earlier had been delayed by a major blaze, and were worried about a repeat performance. Fortunately, a voice with a strong Australian accent came over the tannoy, telling us that “the situation is now under control. Elevators are running again. We apologise for the conven... uh, inconvenience.” Reassured, we went back to sleep.
I'd booked us into the Atlantis in Dubai for a few days, on a stop over for a trip to New Zealand. I had followed the hotel's construction details, starting with the creation of a completely artificial island, the “Palm” (one of three such man-made archipelagos off the coast.) Hotelier Sol Kerzner had left behind the wildly successful Sun City and Lost City resorts he'd created under the apartheid regime in South Africa, to build a new gambling complex in the Bahamas, with a strong aquatic theme.
He continued this theme with the Atlantis in Dubai (minus the gambling of course), and again invested heavily in displays of marine life, and an incredible re-imagining of an archaeological reconstruction of what the fabled lost city of Atlantis might have looked like. Marshalling a team of artists, sculptors, architects, marine biologists and creative engineers, Kerzner has produced a unique artistic statement, which repeats mythical and nautical themes throughout the décor and interior furnishings of the 2,000+ room hotel.
The centerepiece is the lost city itself, which includes a massive sea-water tank with a huge variety of sea-life, swimming around the reconstructed throne room of the sunken kingdom. Selected rooms of the hotel abut directly onto one wall of the tank, so well-heeled guests may be observed at their slumbers by a plethora of marine life. A labyrinth of mysterious artefacts and ancient scrolls in unknown scripts, and murals depicting long-lost gods and goddesses round out the illusion, including crystal power sources and dozens of marvellous living aquaria.
In addition to the indoor marvels, the hotel boasts a 160,000m2 water park, including a remarkable ziggurat water slide taking its riders down underneath a shark-filled lagoon, and 2.3 km of tidal river rapids in a tropical setting – highly incongruous in dry and dusty Dubai. These attractions and the hotel's shopping precinct bring in thousands of visitors every day, most of them families with young children, who seem delighted by the attractions.
We found our basic room (which had already stressed our limited budget) comfortable and well-appointed, with a sea-facing balcony and great attention to detail in the furnishings and fixtures. Navigating the warren of corridors was a little daunting, but eventually we discovered landmarks of unusual wall coverings or art work, leading us back to the central lobby with its massive glass sculpture, looking like a fountain of translucent serpents, illuminated and with trickling water.
A selection of restaurants awaited our palates, from the traditional middle eastern (complete with a too-thin blonde belly dancer) to the upmarket Nobu and European mainstay of Ossiano. I found most of the dining options quite expensive compared to other hotels we have stayed in, although the food of course was a very high standard. We were particularly impressed by the effort made by staff of the cafeteria restaurant, who kindly prepared a travel meal for us, as we had to catch an early flight before breakfast was to be served.
Training my binoculars on the far-off Dubai cityscape, the dominant feature of the Burj Dubai tower was impressively prominent, soon to open as the planet's tallest building. The city inspires a sense of vibrancy and energy, with evidence of construction everywhere you look. The latest model cars race around streets that might be seen in a PlayStation game, with mile after mile of aseptic concrete, steel and glass. This is a city that never really followed the slow evolution of European metropolises, but rather sprang as if fully formed like Athena from the brow of Zeus, its towers spearing into the air from the hot dry sands, pushed up from underneath by subterranean oceans of oil.
We took a taxi to visit one of the largest shopping malls in the world at the base of the Burj tower, with over 600 retailers covering 12 million square feet. Size isn't everything however, as I discovered few bargains in the Dubai Mall, with mostly well-known brands and luxury goods which may be found in almost every airport duty free store. Taxis leaving the mall are in high demand – if you depart at a peak time, be prepared to queue for more than an hour.
One highlight which delighted my wife was a perfumery nestled in the Gold Souk within the mall. Eschewing the traditional western brands, this small shop is a treasure house of garish bottles and jars, replete with mysterious herbs and tree barks, essences and attars, merging into a harmonious olfactory note which soothed and uplifted. We observed middle-eastern women dressed head to toe in black burkas, attended by an Indian serving girl, taking tea and sampling the wares.
My impressions of the city were consistent with my understanding of its culture. Dominated by expatriates and low-wage guest workers, Dubai has many faces. To the tourist, it is a shopping mecca, and fantastic children's holiday destination, lacking the sleaze of Las Vegas or the sophistication of Paris. To the labourers and domestic servants subsisting on near slave salaries under harsh conditions, the city recites a litany of broken promises and shattered dreams, especially as the realities of the global economic crisis have closed down all but the most well-funded construction projects. To the less than twenty percent of locals, the emirate presents a Disneyfied face of Arab culture and opulence, untempered by economic modesty yet trammelled by Islamic mores.
I had the sense that there is a darkness at the heart of Dubai, hidden behind a thin veneer of opulence, and characterised by stark inequalities of consumption and excess, both of consumer items and natural resources. The Atlantis stands out as a triumph of engineering and artistry, demonstrating a dominance over the natural world, rather than an efficient stewardship of resources. One cannot fail to be impressed by the grandeur, the excitement and beauty of the surroundings, yet at the same time feel guilt over the exploited under-classes, who must have suffered in building this temple of excess and the city that surrounds it.
Would I go back? Probably yes. As an experience, Dubai is remarkable for its unflinching focus on tomorrow, its apparent disregard of market forces and its steadfast determination to find a new economic reality based on tourism rather than the rapidly depleting oil reserves of the region. The Palm symbolizes the triumphalism of man's expropriation of Nature's bounty, and yet it retains a unique beauty and impressive artistry, that celebrates the latest pinnacle of Marx's concentration of capital. The Atlantis hotel is a meeting place, of Western and Middle Eastern cultures, of economic power and mythical legend, that entertains and sustains the weary soul – until the money runs out.