FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

Dubai: High Profile

Jun 1, 2010
2010 / June 2010

DubaiIt is a 2,717-foot-high desert bloom, a metallic icon of contemporary Islamic architecture, built on a footprint inspired by the three-lobed form of a local wildflower. Some 160 stories high, the Burj Khalifa became the tallest building in the world when it opened to the public in January, a lofty symbol of this city’s thrusting ambitions.

The tower was to be called Burj Dubai, but it was renamed in honor of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the ruler of neighboring Abu Dhabi — and therein lies a tale. It was Khalifa, president of the United Arab Emirates, who authorized loans of $10 billion to bail out the debt-ridden holding company, Dubai World. The rescue was designed to restore confidence in Dubai, which has emerged in recent years as a financial center, tourist mecca, aviation and shipping hub and “party central” of the Middle East — not to mention a playground for the rich-and-maybe-famous from Saudi Arabia, Russia, Kuwait and elsewhere.

Dubai, like much of the world, is far off its economic peak, but the move by oil-rich Abu Dhabi to rescue its more glamorous, globalized neighbor seems to have cushioned Dubai’s tumble. While real estate values are nearly 50 percent below their 2007 peak and newly built business towers — Burj Khalifa amongthem — have plenty of unused office space, work continues 24/7 along car-clotted, 16-lane Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai’s main drag, on a curtain of even more glass-and-steel skyscrapers. In glittering Dubai International Airport (DXB), designer shops, airline lounges and restaurants are packed with well-heeled travelers. Even the Dubai police drive BMWs (the 5 series, if you’re curious).

Despite the economic slide, many new projects are going forward. Dubai opened a new cruise ship terminal in January capable of handling up to four ships at a time. Last September, it debuted the first phase of the $3.9 billion Dubai Metro, a network of automated, driverless, light-rail carriages scheduled to be completed in 2012. By the end of this year, city fathers claim they will have 2,100 air-conditioned buses stopping at hundreds of enclosed bus shelters, also air-conditioned — a necessity when temperatures soar well above 100 degrees. In short, the global recession has cooled Dubai’s super-heated expansion, but reports of its demise — as Mark Twain would say — are greatly exaggerated.

All this is heady stuff for the former pearl-diving and trading town on the Persian Gulf — called the Arabian Gulf here — that only began to prosper and modernize after oil was discovered in 1966. Founded in 1833, Dubai is still ruled by the Al Maktoum family. In 1971, Dubai joined Abu Dhabi and five other Arab statelets to form the United Arab Emirates, a loose federation run by hereditary rulers. Defense and foreign policy are federal matters, but most matters are left to local sheikhs.

When its modest oil reserves began to tap out, Dubai diversified into finance, transportation and tourism. It is now one of the most international of cities; only 17 percent of its 2.6 million residents are native Emiratis. Low-wage Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers comprise morethan half the population. Many multinational corporations — including Microsoft, Reuters, Oracle and IBM — have big footprints in business-minded Dubai, where income is not taxed and free trade is integral to the economy. Major homegrown companies, most of them state-owned, include Dubai Ports World, the Jumeirah Group of hotels and petrodollar-fueled Emirates airline. Companies are clustered in mega-developments such as Dubai Media City, Dubai Internet City and Dubai Maritime City. Dubai’s big trading partners are India and neighboring Saudi Arabia and Iran. The United States, China and Japan are additional important sources of imports, chiefly cars, electronic gizmos and other consumer goods.

Most of Dubai’s 1,588 square miles are covered by white sand dunes and wadis (dry valleys carved by occasional winter rains) and fringed by mountains and the waters of the Gulf. The city of Dubai encompasses about a quarter of the emirate’s territory and nearly all its people.

Dubai is obsessed with superlatives, and in normal times it can afford to have them: not just the world’s tallest building, but the world’s largest shopping mall (Dubai Mall), the world’s largest manmade harbor (Jebel Ali), enormous artificial islands and manmade beaches shaped like a palm tree (Palm Jumeirah) and a map of the world (The World), and the world’s highest free-standing hotel (the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab). Additionally, the city puts on what it touts as the world’s richest thoroughbred horse race (the Dubai World Cup) and dedicates a month-long festival to the national pastime: conspicuous consumption (the Dubai Shopping Festival).

Underneath the cosmopolitan sheen is a conservative Muslim Arab society, one that occasionally represses the licentiousness it attributes to outsiders. This is the society that in 2008 sentenced a young British couple to three months in jail for having sex on the beach. The sentence was subsequently suspended, but in April a Dubai court upheld one-month prison sentences for two Britons convicted of kissing in public. Bottom line: Dress modestly away from the hotel swimming pool and respect local customs despite the apparent air of “anything goes.”

A visit to the emirate begins pleasantly at Dubai International, one of the world’s most modern and well-run airports. DXB handled 41 million travelers in 2009, making it the sixth-busiest airport in the world for international traffic. Emirates, the glitzy, high-profile Dubai airline, is the dominant carrier, occupying all of Terminal 3, which opened in late 2008. Once in the city proper, visitors quickly discover that Dubai’s residents are hospitable. Most speak some English. Serious crimes against foreign visitors are rare.

With temperatures topping out in the high 70s, December through March are appealing months to visit. Otherwise, it’s hot and humid, even in the desert, thanks to Dubai’s location on the coast. Once, deciding to stroll alongside Sheikh Zayed Road, I walked four blocks through wind-whipped sand before ducking into a Starbucks for an icy coffee drink — necessary refreshment for the trek back. When I made it back to my hotel, Shangri-La Hotel Dubai, I repaired to Hoi An, the hotel’s toothsome Vietnamese restaurant, to recover and sip a glass of wine. In Dubai, alcohol is served only in bars and restaurants located in hotels.

Happily, all of Dubai can be accessed by taxi, and there are sections of the city that are fine for short walkabouts. The best places are promenades along Dubai Creek, which divides the city, and the old part of town, Bastakiya, with its alleyways and traditional markets, the Arab world’s legendary souks.

Be prepared to bargain in a souk; a contrast to modern malls and department stores where prices are fixed. Souks are good places to buy keepsakes and even more serious items — Persian carpets, Arab coffee pots, bronze work, silver jewelry. Some souks specialize: the spice souk, the textile souk. At the gold souk in the Deira district jewelry made from the precious metal is usually sold below international prices. The byways of Bastakiya are also good places to find Arabian meals built around rice with meat or fish. Not in the mood for local food? The globalization of Dubai has brought scores of Indian, Moroccan and Lebanese restaurants.

In their rush to embrace the future, Emiratis effectively bulldozed their past. In 20/20 hindsight, Dubai has built replicas of authentic villages such as the Heritage and Diving Village; this tourist lure is located near Dubai Creek (a misnomer — it’s not a flowing creek but a saltwater inlet of the Gulf). The nearby fish souk is an authentic and aromatic place to see the briny bounty of the Gulf, such as enormous hammour (rock cod), hauled in on board vintage wooden dhows. Dubai Creek is a prime setting to view the skyline from a traditional abra (a small wooden boat) or an air-conditioned water bus. The Dubai Museum, installed in the restored 1787 Al Fahidi Fort, gives additional glimpses of old Dubai. The city is also the jumping-off point for four-wheel-drive desert safaris, desert barbecues under the stars and winter camel races.

It is in modernity, however, that the spirit of today’s Dubai resides. Modern Dubai is the disco, the shopping mall, the view from the 124th-floor observation deck of the Burj Khalifa (reopened in March following a malfunction of — yes — the world’s fastest elevators), the businessman in a kaffiyeh buying a beer from a waitress in a slinky cocktail dress, the woman in an Islamic head scarf taking photos with a mobile phone, the burnished wood of the corporate boardroom.


Diversions

Size matters in compact Dubai, and Dubai Mall, the world’s largest shopping mall, is proof positive of this. Curious, I decided to go to the mall, just six blocks from my hotel. In some cities, this would be easy. Not Dubai. Crossing 16-lane Sheikh Zayed Road on foot to the mall, easily visible just a short way off, was out of the question. So took a taxi. Thanks to the disruption caused by construction, it took 15 minutes for my cab to cover the six-block distance to the mall, situated at the foot of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa.

Everything in the Dubai Mall is designed to impress and is thus enormous: Enormous central atrium; enormous food courts; long, marble-floored corridors; an enormous indoor aquarium with the world’s largest shark tank behind a vertigo-inducing glass wall. The fact that attendance was light on the day visited made the mall, stocked with designer labels and world-renowned brands at eye-watering prices, seem even more cavernous.


Info to Go

Rental cars are available at Dubai International Airport (DXB), three miles from downtown. Some hotels run shuttle buses; a taxi from the airport takes 10–30 minutes, depending on traffic. The newly opened Metro, air-conditioned and modern, makes it easier to get around congested, construction-mad Dubai. Taxis — cream-colored, metered, some government-run — are plentiful and reasonably priced.


Lodging

Armani Hotel

This 160-room luxury hotel, the first hotel designed by Giorgio Armani, has guestrooms and suites in the Burj Khalifa. 1 Emaar Blvd., $$$$

Fairmont Hotel

A new luxury product from the Canadian hotel group, recently opened in a busy business district. Sheikh Zayed Road, tel 971 4 332 5555, $$$

Shangri-La Hotel Dubai

A well-appointed, 43-story business hotel from the Hong Kong luxury hotel group. Sheikh Zayed Road, tel 971 4 343 8888, $$$


Dining

Almaz by Momo

Lavish Moroccan restaurant run by the entrepreneur who founded in London. Spicy, tasty North African fare brightens the menu. Mall of the Emirates, Harvey Nichols store, Level 3, tel 971 4 409 8877, $$

Hoi An

Contemporary and authentic Vietnamese food; the best of its kind in the city. Located on Level 1 of the Shangri-La Hotel. Sheikh Zayed Road, tel 971 4 405 2703. $$$

Mezza House

This atmospheric restaurant in the Yansoon building, Old Town, features savory Levantine food such as Lebanese tabbouleh. Yansoon 9, Old Town, tel 971 4 420 5444, $$$


Checking in With Jerad Bachar
Director of the Dubai Convention Bureau

What Are The Hot Business Topics In Dubai Right Now?

There’s a lot of talk about the long-term diversification of the economy. Aviation continues to be at the core of the growth forecast. We also anticipate that shipping will drive growth. With Dubai International Airport on one side and Port Jebel Ali on the other, transfer of cargo has been reduced to four hours from six hours. Tourism, directly and indirectly, is about 36 percent of gross domestic product and is a very big part of what is going on in Dubai.

We Hear A Lot About The $24.5 Billion Debt Of Dubai World And Its Restructuring. How Is That Going?

Dubai World’s restructuring is ongoing. They’re making progress with their creditors. There aren’t many headlines about it here anymore.

The International Recession Hit Nearly Everywhere. What Were The Overall Effects In Dubai?

There’s a much more realistic path based on more sustainable growth. Some projects have been delayed, a few have been cancelled. Many are going forward. The Armani Hotel opened in April in the Burj Khalifa. It’s a very exciting and amazing hotel. Giorgio was personally involved in the design. minute you step into the hotel, “lifestyle representatives” greet you and take care of you. Dubai opened a new cruise ship terminal early this year. In 2009, there were 80 cruise ships calling; in 2010, we expect 120 ships. JW Marriott is building a 1,600-room corporate hotel with a large amount of meeting space. Three new hotels will open this year at Palm Jumeirah.

Although It Has A Reputation For Openness And Vivid Nightlife, Dubai In Some Respects Is Very Conservative. What Advice Do You Give International Travelers When They Visit Dubai?

We often tell people just use their common sense. Some people forget that they’re not at home. It’s a very pleasant place to live, a very easy place to live. As with any culture, some people here are conservative; they want their children brought up in a conservative environment. Visitors need to remember to respect local values and local customs.

What Do You See Ahead In Terms Of Global Conventions And Meetings In Dubai?

The MICE market is important to us. This year we are adding 30,000 square feet at the convention center; it has nearly 1 million square feet. Dubai is becoming much more convention-friendly now. Many 3- and 4-star hotels are opening not just luxury properties but more budget-friendly hotels, and it’s much more affordable.

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FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

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