Thursday, January 27, 2011

South Asia Diaries - Dubai

It's been a while since I had visited Dubai, and the city has changed so much in those years. They built a whole slew of new stuff while I was away! Of course, the big thing for me was to compare how much the place I was brought up in has changed and if I would still recognize my old haunts.

We also met a very charming couple here - a blogger whose blog I have been following for quite some time, and her husband. I am of course talking about Nadia and Masood. It was a pleasure meeting two such lovely people who could squeeze some time to meet us very late at night! And thanks for that lovely treat!

Before all of that happened though ... here's the Emirates A380!

14 hours later, Dubai! This was just before they changed the rules for Canadian visitors to the country, but for now, I got a free 30-day visa for the UAE. I would, of course, be staying for just 3 days.

A big difference now is parking. Dubai is a mess (and Abu Dhabi an even bigger mess). Parking used to be free when I was growing up, now it's a cash making machine. Besides, when they were building all those buildings in the 80s and 90s, parking was an afterthought, and it now shows.

But Dubai has a shiny new Metro. We took that to Mall of the Emirates. I put some pictures of the Metro on my Facebook album; I found it to be very clean and efficient (and MUCH better than Toronto's creaky old system). Here's a picture of the Burj Al Arab as taken from the Metro:

The Mall of the Emirates is a HUGE mall ...

... but people only come here for one reason ...

... to see Ski Dubai!

It's pretty amazing when you think about it. It may be 40 degrees C outside and here you are, skiing, inside a mall! Whoever thought of this for the first time ... as they say, there's a fine line between genius and crazy. Sure, it's nothing when you compare it to the real ski hills in Canada or Europe, but think about it. SKIING INSIDE A MALL IN THE DESERT. Now that's something.

Of course, sadly, that was the only thing worth seeing in the mall. Most people in the UAE seem to go to malls just to hang out or to go to the food court. No one shops here. We walked by shops with no one inside.

I guess it's because the locals shop in Karama or Sharjah, where it's much cheaper. And the visitors, well, I could buy the same thing here for the same price, so why would I buy it in Dubai?

On the way back home, on the Metro, we entered the front compartment, so I could take some pictures as the Metro sped ahead.

The view does look like something of a futuristic city in a sci-fi movie!

The next day, we visited the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest tower.

For all the hype about this tower, and it's a marvellous and beautifully designed tower, the biggest disappointment for me was that they don't take you all the way to the top. In fact, you only go about half way up. So if you have visited Toronto's CN tower and you went all the way up to Skypod, you actually have gone higher than you would from visiting the Burj Khalifa, which is the world's tallest tower.

Here's a snapshop of Sheikh Zayed road and the buildings around that road, which is Dubai's main business hub now. It's amazing to think that these buildings would be skyscrapers in their own right, but they are now so dwarfed by the Burj Khalifa.

Again, for someone who hasn't been to this place, it's really, really, really tall. You realize how big the Burj Khalifa is until you come up close.

After that, it was time to visit Dubai Mall, the world's largest shopping mall (and possibly the world's most emptiest mall too). It's a shame that they built such a HUGE mall, such a BEAUTIFUL mall, and their business plan is so flawed that not many people visit the mall, and even fewer make any purchases here. Or so it seemed to me. We were there on a weekend and it was dull.

Is this, er, the world's gayest Christmas Tree?

We were outside Hamley's (the toy store) and the mall was eerily silent. Look at the escalators, hardly a soul there. It was quite a different experience.

It's a beautiful mall, very well made. We walked through the Gold Souk, a section of the mall filled with bling, and the place really looked dead. Not only were the shops empty, many were boarded up. At others, the guys stood outside looking hopefully at us, or were playing with their cellphones, bored.

It was then time to visit the Atlantis. This is quite some drive away from the city, but it was cool driving up what was the "trunk" of the palm. And this is where we encountered a security guy who would not let us in! No visitors, he said.

Well I just drove away, parked, and then came at another gate, and told this guy I was going to the restaurant. Which was true, I was going there, but er, not to eat, but to sight see! :-)

On the way home it was time for Isha and we stopped somewhere to pray, only to realize later it was the famous Jumeirah Mosque, one of old Dubai's original attractions.

So what was my over all experience of Dubai? The more things change ...

Let me tell you about an incident while I was waiting for my wife to pick up her visa at the Dubai airport. We were in a line, and in front of us was a white couple (they looked British). And in front of them were two guys, brown, who looked Indian, and were most likely here in the UAE as labourers.

Everyone was going by the queue. When it was their turn, those two Indian guys walked to the official. "Wait!" He told them, "Move here." He motioned for them to move aside.

He told them to move out so he could serve the British couple who were AFTER them. When the guys, in broken English, asked: "Why? We are in line before them!" - this is what the Arab immigration officer said, no SHOUTED, at them, in equally broken English:

"Are you telling me HOW TO DO MY JOB?! I CAN MAKE YOUR LIFE HELL! Now stand here until I call you."

So, for all the stories you hear, when something like this happens in front of you ... I was just shocked. When it was our turn, we felt guilty walking past those guys, who were equally dumbfounded. And the rest of the officers were laughing at them.

And everyone we met in Dubai kept repeating one word - "artificial". As in life here is very "artificial". So, what can I say? I love Dubai, and it's a nice place to visit. The rest is your call.

As for me, I was headed to Abu Dhabi after 2 days.

To be continued ...


Dave said...

Mezba, a very good account of visiting Dubai and I agree things like the Metro system are absolutely world class.

As for the malls, the majority of which were open three years ago were crowded almost all the time. Now with the oversupply and the declining population empty examples as you saw are commonplace.

The racism example you witnessed is unfortunately a frequent occurence in the UAE and a practise that I will never accept. However, it could take generations to eradicate as it is so deeply rooted into the culture of the local population and even evident in UAE laws and legislation.

Nadia said...

The best part of this post, of course, is the second paragraph :)

I've never shopped at the Dubai Mall; I go there to photograph the place and eat. But go to Karama or Nasir Square at any time of the day and you'll find people shopping there! Duabi's gold souq is constantly abuzz with shoppers. The one at Dubai Mall is just prettier, but with no business.

The discrimination incident you mentioned is sad but something that happens on a daily basis to countless people here, specially the labor class. We can't dictate what others do, but we - the expats here specially - can do our part by not behaving like them.

Oh, and I don't understand those who label life here as "artificial". Who is making life artificial for them? We're living here in the middle of a barren desert, for heaven's sake. Did they want to live in tents and travel on camels? Or did they mean lack of social interaction? Is the city to blame for that?

I'm so glad you were able to save the pictures, Mezba. You took very nice photographs. That Burj Khalifa pics aren't easy to take, given the size of the structure :)

masood said...

Glad to see the post with such outstanding pictures, mashaAllah. We had a great time meeting with you guys and we remember you always with that cutest gift :)

Lat said...

Real wonderful pics of Dubai! I'm glad you took your time to visit your other home.

You were right about the Metro pic looking like a sci-fi scene.I agree.Of course the tallest building looks imposingly tall!

I just find the emptiness in the mall a little disturbing that's all.Other than that for the racism part you've mentioned before in other posts,shows Dubai in this area has not changed internally but endeavours to do so externally.

mezba said...

@Dave, I was very impressed by the Metro, and the staff there was also very helpful with tourists.

In general, Dubai seems to have hospitality done right, when it's not done by the locals. In all the malls that we visited, there were scores of staff on duty to help direct shoppers, and in general everything was kept quite clean.

As for the racism, that's the sad part about UAE. Even after going broke they haven't learnt their lesson.

@Nadia, it was a pleasure meeting you guys after only meeting through your words for so long.

I think I sort of understand what they mean by artificial - I like the traditional stuff of Dubai - the dhows, the abras, the creek, the real Gold Souk, the bazaar, the forts - however they are not on any tourist brochure. These malls, etc. they are not the "real" Dubai. Well, I guess they are real now, they are what made Dubai famous.

Also, since there is no way to set down roots in Dubai, every one is biding time here, either building up flats and riches in India/Bangladesh/Phillipines, or saving up to immigrate to the West.

The lifestyle in Dubai is certainly different. I could certainly live there, if not for the irritant that is the local racism. Any time you get in trouble (and there's lots of ways to get into trouble), it might be big.

As for the pictures, guess what - I tried it on a different computer and I could download the pictures one by one. I still haven't gotten them all - some refuse to be downloaded - must be a bad card or something - but I got almost 80% of them.

The sad part is some of the really good pictures (IMO) are amongst the 20% stuck on the card!

@Masood, we were happy to have met you guys. We look forward to meeting you again! :-)

If you read about West Edmonton Mall (largest in North America and 5th largest in the world), you will see they have lots of stuff (even a roller coaster ride!) inside the mall. However, a mall's core task is to be a shopping place, and the mall does that too, with lots of success.

Dubai's mistake has been, I believe, to market itself solely as a luxury destination. First of all, this reduces the market size considerably, and second, the local laws and customs clash with that image. Also, I think Dubai has tried to cater to the Western market a lot. Perhaps they should realize they can get much better returns from visitors from India, Malaysia, China etc.

For any malls, shopping enterprise etc. to succeed you need a local base. If it was purely a tourist destination then you need lots, AND LOTS, of tourists. Dubai's local base of shoppers isn't in Dubai any more, so expensive has it become. And tourists, well, Dubai has started to price itself out of a lot of markets with their focus on luxury.

luckyfatima said...

Yep Dubai Mall is so hard to get around and all of the shops are clustered in a weird way so you get lost looking for them. I usually only went to malls on weekends and they tended to be quite packed. My fave was probably Festival City and also Lamcy Plaza. I love Lamcy Plaza!

That incident at the airport is just infuriating. Why would the officials do that other than just to be mean? That is just evil!

I usually heard white Euro origin non-Muslim expats complain that airport workers, customs, security in the UAE are "mean" to them and frequently search their bags and bug them over every little thing. When they would tell me this, I would just be like "Well now you know how I feel when I land in the USA," because in the UAE I always sailed right through everything, hijab was not an issue like it is in the US airports.

I like the Metro, too. But it still needs some improvements in both working hours and stops.

The Wife said...

Yup! I love all the pics you took - they look very professional.
I miss Dubai even more now!

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of our trip last year :)
I can't wait to read the next part, I'm hoping we can stopover in Abu Dhabi wherever we plan to go in the summer.


Suroor said...

Wow, that airport incidence was not nice at all.

Great photos and I loved the writing too!

TManiac said...

Dubai itself is an artificial place. All the luxurious touristy places are just the sugarcoating of Dubai. In reality, you don't want to live in Dubai permanently. You'll only live there for the luxury and the lavishness, and especially if you've amassed a fortune, but that's it.

When I was in Dubai in Summer 2006, the Emirates Mall and other malls were packed. In 2009, they were somewhat empty. and I agree that the Dubai Mall right now is so vast and empty that its like entering a desolate and ancient cathedral. Just ghostly, and I agree with ur point on the Dubai Mall's Gold Souk: barely any customers there, the store merchants stand out, bored, and it was expected that maybe some of them would be boarded up cuz they're out of business (no customers). Plus, I agree that the same stuff sold at the Dubai mall is also the same stuff I'd see at a local mall in Toronto for the same price.

PS: too bad you're putting me in your limited profile on Facebook

TManiac said...

and u also rode an A380? directly from Toronto to Dubai?

TManiac said...

and apparently, i'm also disheartened to learn u only go halfway up the Burj Dubai. I wonder who are the rich playboys that live all the way to the top?

Musa said...

One of the most "artificial" things in Dubai; grown up men trying to outdo each other in showing off who has the better car number plate (better as in smaller; so 665 is more "special" than 66555).
Also "important" people having "special" mobile numbers like 5556677 reserved for them.

btw I dont think most malls are anywhere near empty on weekends. Sometimes I feel parts of Dubai is becoming more like Singapore, where you never more than 5 metres from another person

mezba said...

@Luckyfatima, I love those small local malls in Dubai where real people go. I used to go to Ghurair Centre. Lamcy was also a favourite!

I have seen some meaner incidents, but almost never in Dubai. Dubai used to be business minded and Arabs respected others. Now it seems the malaise of Abu Dhabi has spread to Dubai immigration officials.

"Well now you know how I feel when I land in the USA," true!

People never see their own faults. The fact I like being in a "Muslim" country is that prayer, halal meat, non-alcoholism, fasting etc. does not need to be explained.

@The Wife, I AM a man of many talents.. :-P

@Liya, when are you heading (and where) next? Btw UAE has visa requirements for Canadians now. There's an ugly spat between Harper and the UAE (all Harper's fault).

@Suroor, oh I was shocked when I saw that going on at the airport. Some people never change. Maybe the Egyptian people's movement will teach them something. Then again, maybe not.

@Taha, amassing a fortune in Dubai is tricky, especially if you want to live a little. Dubai is expensive, as told in my series of posts (Dubai vs. Toronto - see Myth 1) from last year.

I first thought (and someone suggested on facebook) that the malls were empty because it was Christmas and all the expats are away.

But talking to other people I heard the same is true throughout the year. The "showpiece" malls are not packed, and even if they are - no one's shopping.

One has only to visit the Gold Souk to see how deserted it is. If it was packed during non-Christmas times, it wouldn't be boarded up and abandoned.

PS: too bad you're putting me in your limited profile on Facebook

Hmm, I don't think you ARE on my facebook, I think you took yourself off last year. You can re-add if you wish.

@Taha, the A380 is a direct Emirates flight, Toronto to Dubai, about 14-16 hours.

@Taha, I don't think that's open to the general public.

@Musa, lol - I forgot about the number plates thing! I didn't know about the cellphone, but I did see the number '5' on a car in Abu Dhabi this time.

woodturtle said...

Really awesome pictures -- the metro is brilliant! They were almost done construction the last time I was there.

We hired a taxi for 3 days and didn't have to worry about parking or navigating the crazy driving. I was disappointed in how long it took to get anywhere because of the traffic. I suppose the metro is faster... But do you think it's something that locals would take?

As for the artificial feel of Dubai... We went after spending three weeks in Kuwait, which is also up and coming in terms of malls and buildings -- but to me feels more like an authentic Arab country (ew, insert western orientalist assumptions here). The Kuwaiti gold souq, mubarakiyya (the old souq), souq at-ta'abaan (lol, the tired souq) have the sights, sounds and smells of human effort. When I walked into the American designed, air conditioned, British accented servers, and highly over-priced souq in Dubai, I was really disappointed. Though, the area next to the pier is quite nice. We spent a lot of time watching the boats coming in and unloading their cargo. I guess it just depends on where you go and what your expectations are like.

My uncle in law is always overjoyed and impressed at his yearly stay in Dubai after spending a month with family in Yemen.

mezba said...

@Woodturtle, their Metro is truly world class.

This time, the traffic jams weren't an issue - it looks like a LOT of people had left Dubai since the recession - travel times felt much less.

I agree with you - Dubai has none of the old world charm that Fujeirah has, or the aesthetic beauty of Abu Dhabi.

What it has are just malls that are really nice to photograph! :-)

Misha said...

Great photos! The airport incident was a little disturbing, however. Couldn't you or the British couple let those expats go first, or would the airport personnel have made more trouble out of it? It's sad to see what people have come to nowadays.

mezba said...

@Misha, at those places you just do what they say ... they can screw up your whole vacation even if you have all the proper papers etc.

That's why because of these reasons I don't like those places.

Unknown said...

Hey Mezba!
Awesome blog! Reading it made me feel like I was in Dubai a month ago myself! lol. I am waiting for your India trip blog post - AND pictures!


mezba said...

@Zahra, thanks. I am going to post India soon, starting with Kolkata.

Grace @ Sandier Pastures said...

First, thank you for leaving a comment in my blog earlier.

I love this post - a very good detailed account of touring Dubai plus the photos are very beautiful. The discrimination and racism at the airport sounds unbelievable but true because I have seen the same myself. Poor Indian guys who come here as labourers to help build Dubai. It's just sickening to see how they are treated.

mezba said...

@Grace, thanks for visiting and welcome to the blog.

We only had 2 days but we touched most of the highlights of Dubai - next time hopefully can spend longer. I love to visit Dubai but not those racism bits.

The Arabs should think what they would have done without all those labourers.

youngMuslimah said...

you didnt see the dubai mall? i like it more than the mall of the emirates.

and lol its true, we only hang out in malls for the food and to pass time.

mezba said...

@YoungMuslimah, Yes we went to Dubai Mall. The Christmas tree, fountain, escalators etc. are from Dubai Mall.

youngMuslimah said...

oh i think i skipped that part..

was it really that empty? i went there during eid and once over the was pretty crowded then.

did you see the food court? it's so huge. i wouldnt know what to buy.

mezba said...

Yes, the food court was nice.

Unknown said...

That looks a nice place. Thanks for sharing! Anyway, you should also try to visit Market Market. I'm sure you'll love it too.