Thursday, August 25, 2005


The August sea breeze in Dubai feels like someone waving a hair-dryer in your face. Thankfully the aircon in the car that picks us up at the airport has been set to power chill, but when I put my palm up against the window it's warm to the touch - 44 degrees outside, and keen to get in.

After check in I am drawn to the massive window of my room on the 25th floor. The horizon is a beige blur. Everything has a slightly bleached appearance, even the palm trees. The vista features the kind of skyline usually rendered by the algorithms of a strategy game, the result of a controlling ambition rather than a mainstream organic economy.

"The bubble will burst", a colleague observes over dinner on Sunday, "but I hope I'm not here when it happens". One well-placed act of terror could do the trick - and a local extremist group has recently theatened to rise to the challenge unless the US ambassador goes home unreplaced.

Dubai is the most completely intercontinental place that I've ever experienced. This I conclude on assessing the depth and breadth of exotic fare on offer in the breakfast buffet. There's even a Japanese section with tofu and natto beans, and the soundtrack to all this early morning indigestion is one of those Buddha Bar compilations. Back in 1978 Edward Said's postcolonial classic Orientalism told us westerners that we tend to unconsciously filter our views of all things Arab through a "system of represntations". Well guess what, it looks as if we exported this back to them and now they're using it to decorate their own ersatz consciousness, gold taps and all.

Anyway, there's far too much unarguable beauty and elegance around for anyone to be able to adopt a position of facile disdain, but a childhood's worth of summers in places like Marbella and Monte Carlo long ago drew the sting of ego-materialism for me. My mother might still feel an adrenaline rush at the sight of a Bulgari shopfront, but for me its more like a bilious oesophagal reflux. Here too there are cliquey clusters of displaced greedy people, but perhaps fewer have will have come to pickle themselves and die, as the ex-pat community is comparatively youthful.

More than any other mutant metropolis, Dubai perhaps reminds me most of one small, exclusive spot in Antigua, Guatemala - a sumptuously fitted out cafe-restaurant with a secret garden ambience. You knock on the heavy wooded door and if you look the right sort, you are let in and shown to a table. I've never been there when guests outnumber the cordial-to-excess staff. Yes it's a business, but the Swiss millionairess that imagined the place doesn't depend on your custom; it's just a means to her ends.

There's an ever-present desire to "anticipate your needs" around here too - I'm asked if I want coffee by three separate people within moments of taking my seat at breakfast. My colleague calls reception for help with his broadband connection and four helpful individuals ring back in short sequence. Encumbered by an anglo-saxon unwillingness to put anybody to any unncessary trouble, I quickly learn from the frowns that negative responses produce that there's really only one right answer to questions like "do you want that on separate plates?" or "can I get you something to drink?".

Before finally locating our restaurant on Sunday night we circumnavigate the tennis stadium, dodging several smiling waitresses hawking their respective cuisines. "Mexican Portuguese? Mexican Portuguese?" one particularly insistent one calls out. This brings to mind AA Gill's review in the Sunday Times that same morning: "Jabberwocky food is now expanding into jabberwocky environments. You get food from Lisbon, wallpaper from Stockholm, wine from Chile, water from Fiji, music from Ibiza, waiters from Poland and a bill from the Cayman Islands."

Baksheesh warned me about the hookahs. Our eatery that night is Al Mazaj, a Lebanese restaurant in a part of town called Century Village, where share a selection of cold mezze in a large embroidered tent, surrounded by attractive local couples listlessly sucking on the old hubble-bubble in a mist of fruit-flavoured fumes. Certainly one way of dealing the perennial problem of what to talk about over dinner with your life's companion.

It feels like most of the travelling I get to do in Dubai is in the Emirates Towers' ear-popping panoramic lifts . Our meeting is over in the sister 'scraper, separated from ours by a shopping arcade called the Boulevard, essentially a swankier version of Whiteley's on Sunday afternoons. From the presentation room, 30+ floors up, I can peer down on the three sandy ovals, large, medium and small, of the city's camel racing centre, a winter sport here in Dubai, though not one we're likely to see at Turin in 2006.

The Emirates flights to and from the Sheikh Rashid Terminal skirt around the edges of Iraq as if it were some sort of dirty secret. The eerily unmarked landscape of northern Iran is positively Martian. In places the topology looks as if it has been spread around by a spatula and left to set, then covered in a fine reddy-brown dust that you could lean out and blow away, but for the dangers of explosive decompression at 35,000 feet. Further south this is replaced by massive streaky canyons. How did Xerxes and the rest of his Persian host ever find their way out of here?

There's no United-style channel 9 with pilot to air-traffic controller banter, but you can keep an eye on the output of cameras mounted on the front and underside of the fuselage. Channel 23 on the audio system is supposed to relax you: "Did you allow enough time to get to the airport this morning?" asks the soft female voice over the ambient music. "Try not to have too big a meal..." Too late for that!

Somewhere near Frankfurt a jet speeding in the opposite direction passes close enough for me to be able to read "British Airways" on the side livery, and to wave the remains of my lobster tail at the half-starved, voucher-munching passengers no doubt at that precise moment staring anxiously back at our 777.

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