I'd always looked down on people who pay money to go Dubai, so when I booked my own return flight there in mid-January, I was given an exciting opportunity to self-loathe in a whole new way. The £330 I'd given Royal Brunei in return for the loan of one of their plane seats for seven hours each way - well, it was not only profoundly wasteful, bad for the environment and selfish, but it also proved without any opportunity for argument that I was a bad feminist and a terrible hypocrite. My excuse? I wanted some winter sun and my friend Dave lives there. By any normal standards, sunshine and friendship might be adequate reasons for choosing a holiday destination, but I do not have normal standards. I feel guilty about spending money when I should be saving, I feel guilty about going somewhere with a bad human rights record, I feel guilty about flying and contributing to the destruction of our ecosystem, and with so many other places on the planet growing hoarse with the volume at which they're yelling my name, I feel guilty about choosing the one who’s only muttering, “Sure, come here if you want, we’ve got good malls that sell the same stuff as your malls in London but at slightly higher prices.” But I wanted winter sun and I wanted to see Dave, so I tried to silence the voices, and I booked my flight.
Let's get one thing straight right away: Dave was great. This is not a blog to rate Dave, but if it was, out of a possible ten he’d score thirty. As a grown-up who chooses to live in Dubai, Dave will inevitably be implicated in some of my statements, but as a host, he was and is exemplary, leaving me a neatly-folded towelling dressing gown on my bed when I arrived, like I was in some sort of five star spa, and refusing to let me pay for dinner on almost any night. If you know Dave and you want to be looked after like a prince(ss), you should go see him. Ideally, however, you would probably be better off going and see him once he has moved somewhere else.
Dubai surprised me by not surprising me one iota. It was precisely how I expected it to be. I thought it was going to be a sunny place with lots of building work going on, where there's some dark shit happening politically but none of the expats really let themselves worry about that too much because they're all there to make lots of money and enjoy the fact that they can look in the mirror on any given day of the calendar year and note that they are looking healthily tanned. And that is what I found.
The good bits are: an old area called Al Bastakiya near the creek (which apparently wouldn't be there without Prince Charles and was pretty much the only thing recommended to me by all three of my ex-Dubai-tourist friends, presumably because it is literally the only bit of the city that seems to have a soul); the creek itself; the huge number of delicious restaurants; the desert; the tallest building in the world; the tear-jerking dancing fountains; the nature-defying aquariums; the affordable taxis and the sunshine.
The bad bits are: the ridiculous quantity of ceaseless building works - the ridiculous empty skyscrapers waiting dustily for more consumers to move in and spend and earn and spend and earn; the fact it's impossible to get anywhere on foot; the ridiculous disregard for the environment; the ridiculous human rights record (that is getting better, and yes, Dave's right, nothing's going to change if people just sit in the ivory tower of London scoffing about it - and he's also right that things are improving a good deal faster than they did in the West at a comparable point in our history BUT STILL. It's not ideal and I do feel like I'm condoning it by rocking up and giving them both of my tourist dollahs). Then there's the ridiculous gender inequality, the ridiculous unaccountability of the police and criminal 'justice' system and the ridiculous fact that it is impossible to get a burger and half a bottle of wine for £20.
There are only two reasons I can see why anyone would choose to move to Dubai: sunshine, and the pursuit of financial success due to the extraordinary business opportunities available in certain fields and the lack of income tax. Since no one who had ‘sunshine’ as their number one priority could conceivably choose Dubai since it's not very nice yet, then my ridiculously simplistic experiment can only conclude that all the expats are in Dubai because they want to make lots and lots of money. And although there's nothing inherently evil about that per se, it does make for a pretty one-dimensional living experience and perhaps accounts for the fact that most people I met either visibly or reputedly had fairly serious alcohol addictions. My own liver went from Code Amber to Code Marlborough Pinot Noir while I was there. On the morning after my first night, I was lying on a lounger in a beach club and was so hungover that I realised that the longed-for sound of the waves lapping a few feet away from my head was making me hyperventilate with irritation. It was even more irksome that I was being charged £20 to lie on a lounger to be tormented by the deafening wavelets. At weekends they charge £50, which is more than the lounger would have cost to buy and own permanently.
Dubai is not the kind of place you can go around working out the price difference between what you're paying there and what you'd pay at home. I mean, you have to do that if you're a tourist, because otherwise you will accidentally order a tuna melt and then, minutes later, receive a phonecall from your bank manager asking if you'd rather remortgage your home or use your grannie as a surety. But basically, the rule is, a) read the price in dirhams, b) go 'Jesus, that's a fuckload more than it would be at home,' and then c) move on with your life. I was excellent at a) and b) but consistently failed at c). Dave generously helped me cope by getting me so drunk most nights that I genuinely did not notice when he paid bills for me. This never, ever happens in normal life - I always, ALWAYS pay my way. But here, paying my way was not an option. I could not afford to. So I just grinned and tried to look pretty. The feminist me weeps for the girl I became in Dubai, although if I went out there to live and work, presumably I'd earn a fat Dubai salary too and could afford to eat in the swanky identical grit-free restaurants with the rest of them.
But I’m not going to move to Dubai. Certainly not in the next seventy years. I think one day it might be a really cool place to live. The climate is great and the infrastructure is getting there. Sure, most of it was built by immigrants working on slave wages with no employment protection, but I don’t see that argument stopping me buying an iPhone. Once the building work chills out, the population starts aging, some of the expats start sending teenage kids to school and university there, then maybe it’ll get some grit and some fire. Maybe Al Bastakiya will turn into the Dubai Hackney, with hipster parties that I’m too normal to hear about and pop-up cinemas showing ironic screenings of The Lost Boys. I’d like to see a few parks, I’d like more graffiti, more anger at injustice, more freedom of expression, more evidence that there’s more to life than earning and spending. Then I might move there.
But not yet.
I had a lot of fun. A lot, really I did, lots, really, did. And if you can stay with Dave, you will have an amazing time too. If you have a friend out there, even if it’s not Dave, you should go see him/her. It won’t be as good as staying with Dave, but still. S/he misses you. S/he wants to show you how well his/her career is going and s/he wants to take you to the desert to ride dune buggies around the camels. This stuff is important.
Friendship aside, though, the fact remains: Dubai is a toddler. It’s quite fun to go see a toddler, but realistically you’ll probably get more out of your trip once it’s grown up a bit and is able to speak in full sentences. Even better: visit it when it’s old enough to drink and vote. That’d be good.