A Dacha in Dubai
Dubai has become one of the most sought after destinations and places to buy property abroad for Russians. The ease of getting visas and residency, the sun, the luxury and the ostentation, all lure Russians to Dubai. Many have bought ‘Dachas in Dubai’, and there are estimated to be 30,000 Russians living in Dubai. Piers Gladstone went there to see for himself.
Dubai is a truly unique city that is attracting record numbers of tourists, investors and businesses, year-onyear. It is a cocktail of cities: Las Vegas meets the Middle East with a dash of Los Angeles; a booming city growing steadily out of the desert, on the back of the discovery of oil less than forty years ago. It is a city of superlatives – the largest, the tallest, the richest, the first, the newest; a living metaphor for the folly of man, some might say. In the space of 25 years it has transformed itself from Third World to First World, with its glimmering and inspirational architecture, 6-laned highways, a plethora of glittering five-star hotels and beach resorts, as well as bars, restaurants and shopping malls galore.
Dubai is one of seven Emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates that came into existence in 1971 after the British left the region. At that time, oil had just been discovered, there were only a handful of paved roads, and all the buildings were either lowrise or simple traditional barasti huts. The rulers set about an ambitious programme of economic and social development from the oil revenues that have transformed Dubai from a fishing village to what it is today, and it is still a city defining itself, reaching towards its future. Indeed, the rulers were prescient enough to realise that the oil would be a short-lived windfall, so they invested heavily in the city so that it could continue to thrive well after the oil ran out, which has essentially happened.
Dubai’s various districts, many of which are distinct, are spread out over a fairly large area. Perhaps the best starting point is to take a tour. The Big Bus Company operates eight open-topped London double-decker buses that take in all the sites and shopping malls in Dubai with a live commentary. Tickets cost $35, are valid for 24 hours and cover two routes – the city centre and the beaches. One can get off the bus at any of the stops and catch a later bus to continue – a perfect way to get a feel for and a taste of the city, and all the while getting a suntan in the process!
Khor Dubai (Dubai Creek) is at the heart of Dubai, its waters are literally the lifeblood of the city, and more than 15,000 people cross the creek on abras (water taxis) everyday to and from the districts of Deira and Bur Dubai. It is possible to hire an abra privately for a cruise on the creek. The best time to do this is just before sunset, and for around $20.00 for one hour, one can marvel at the contrast between the minarets of Bur Dubai and the modernity of Deira, especially the National Bank of Dubai, known locally as the ‘pregnant lady’ – a convex mirror of glass which reflects the creek and all that passes and which is transformed into a shimmering sheet of gold as the sinking sun catches it.
Flanking the eastern side of Dubai Creek, Bur Dubai houses some of the most atmospheric and historical parts of Dubai. Sheik Saeed al-Maktoum House is the traditional house of one of Dubai’s former rulers. It is a fine example of traditional building methods, using coral and gypsum for the walls, and incorporating wind towers, an early form of air conditioning. The ruling family has long gone, but having been fully renovated the house now displays examples of pre-oil Dubai, including beautiful photographs of traditional life and occupations such as pearl diving, all of which have long been consigned to history. The displays illustrate how even thirty years ago, Dubai was just a desert outpost, sharing nothing in common with the metropolis now outside. A sequence of aerial photographs of Dubai over the years demonstrates the exponential growth of the city from its roots as a fishing village.
A similar feeling of a world now lost can be felt at Dubai Museum, located in the Al-Fahidi Fort, Dubai’s oldest building dating from 1787. It is a fascinating mixture of audiovisual and interactive displays which are creative and informative, providing a comprehensive journey through the history, traditions and lives of Dubai and its inhabitants past. However, for me, the most interesting exhibits were the real ones – a group of teenage Emirati schoolboys dressed in traditional white robes, who looked utterly perplexed by the lifestyles being presented, even though most of their grandparents would have lived in such a way.
The Bastakiya quarter dates from the 1900s, taking its name from Iranian traders who settled here. Traditional wind-tower houses, winding alleys and courtyards characterise this area, and it has been painstakingly restored by the municipal authorities and now houses a collection of art galleries and restaurants. In Basta Art Café, the two have been combined wonderfully, providing a tranquil setting for a lunch in the cool shade of a tree in the central courtyard.
The Textile Souk is filled with wonderful silks, pashminas and textiles from around the world, although it seems the majority of items, and those selling them, are from India. Happily, prices are similar to those in India, and there are also shops selling goods from the Middle East, ranging from carpets to Sinbad-style slippers.
The glittering Gold Souk and the aromatic Spice Souk in Deira give an idea of how shopping in Dubai used to be before the advent of mega mall shopping, and both are well worth visiting even if you are not buying. Bargaining for discounts is expected. Shopkeepers are happy to show and explain their wares, and the historical link is hard to miss, as the ancient trading of gold, frankincense and myrrh continues in Dubai.
Another chain in this historical link can be seen ‘creek side’ at the dhow wharf. The word ‘dhow’ comes from a Swahili word ‘dau’ meaning fishing boat, showing the strong historical seafaring bond between the Gulf and East Africa. The design of these dhows has not changed in centuries and they still continue to plough the same ancient trading routes, although their cargo has become more modern. In true Dubai fashion, the ancient and the modern sit side by side, co-existing.
Jumeirah, overlooking the aquamarine waters of The Gulf, is one of the most desirable areas in Dubai. However, not all of its beaches are private. Jumeirah Beach Park, set amongst wooded gardens, has a great beach with good changing and shower facilities, sun loungers and umbrellas for hire, lifeguards, restaurants and cafes. Entrance costs $10.
Jumeirah Mosque is Dubai’s most exquisite building, with intricate carvings and soft sandstone colouring, and is best viewed at night. Free tours are conducted at 10am every Sunday and Thursday. Dress should be conservative, and headscarves must be worn by women.
One of Dubai’s most impressive shopping malls, the Mercato, is situated in Jumeirah. Unlike most of the others, it is the architecture rather than its size that makes it impressive. It is an architectural folly – a recreation of a Renaissance Tuscan town, albeit with Armani and Top Shop.
Dubai Marina is where it seems to all be happening at the moment, both in terms of the intensity of the construction and the extravagance of hotels and nightlife. Dubai has the highest concentration of cranes per square kilometre in the world, and a large proportion seems to be in full 24-hour swing in Dubai Marina. Scores of apartment towers are crawling their way upwards, workers swarming over their skeletons like ants. Once finished, Dubai Marina will be truly amazing, but at present it is a giant construction site best visited at night to enjoy the twinkling metropolis skyline, the grooves at Buddha Bar or a sophisticated cocktail at the Rooftop Lounge in The One&Only Royal Mirage Hotel.
Some of the most striking architecture can be seen on the strip known as Trade Centre, along Sheikh Zayed Road. The Dubai World Trade Centre and The Emirates Towers literally tower over the road, but give a strange sense of loneliness and of a city unfinished because of the emptiness behind them. A cocktail at Vu’s Bar on the 51st floor of the Emirates Towers is a must for viewing a sunset. The speed of the lift to the bar is almost as spectacular. One thing: Wear stylish clothes to make sure they let you into the lift.
On the beach and next door to Jumeirah, Umm Suqeim is home to the tallest and most iconic hotel in the world, and Dubai’s most famous sight, the Burj-al-Arab. Shaped like a billowing sail, the Burj al-Arab sits on its own island and is fiendishly expensive. If you cannot afford to stay here, it is still possible to see the hotel by booking afternoon tea at the Sahn Eddar Café ($50). Ask to have your tea in the Skyview Bar, 200 metres above the sea and remember to dress smartly. Great views of the evening lightshow on the hotel can be seen from Souk Madinat Jumeriah, a new soukthemed shopping mall with small boutiques as well as some great restaurants and bars.
For the young at heart or their children, Wild Wadi Water Park’s 12 acres of aquatic adventures, next door to the wave shaped Jumeirah Beach Hotel, can provide welcome relief from the shopping and sunbathing.
Best of the Rest
For the truly adventurous, or those with a keen sense of the bizarre, there is only one place to go in Dubai: Ski Dubai at the Mall of the Emirates. Opened a year ago, Ski Dubai is the Middle East’s first indoor ski resort, and the third largest in the world. $30 gets you all the equipment (minus hats and gloves for some unknown reason) and 2 hours on the green, blue, red and black runs. The area under snow is the equivalent of three football pitches, with runs built inside a giant, slanting metal tube around 25 floors high. The marshmallow and M&M hot chocolate at the café halfway down the run has tremendous reviving effects and the plastic pine trees are an ‘authentic’ touch…
The Mall of the Emirates is one of Dubai’s ‘Mega Projects’ and is truly a beast of a shopping mall. With over four hundred designer outlets, shops and department stores, such as Harvey Nichols, this place requires time, patience and a map. If mega is not your style, then Wafi City Mall is perhaps a better place to visit. Its stained-glass pyramid roofs and Egyptian architectural themes are verging on the naïve, but are nonetheless impressive, as are its boutiques and shops, as well as the alfresco dining at Biella.
The Cost of Expansion
Dubai is one of the word’s fastest-growing cities. Last year the economy grew by 17%, four times more than the USA and twice that of China. However, the speed of the growth and the change it has brought has had negative effects.
85% of Dubai’s population are not Emirati nationals, but foreign guest workers. The majority of these workers are labourers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh who live and work in terrible conditions for less than $200 per month in salary. They certainly earn much more than they would back home, and many relatives depend on their remittances, but for many years they have been subject to abuses. They have no legal representation in the form of unions and it is illegal to strike. Many employers and agencies take advantage of the precarious position these workers are in, usually in the form of debt bondage or non-payment of salaries. According to Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch: “One of the world’s largest construction booms is feeding off workers in Dubai, but they’re treated as less than human.” Earlier this year, work on Dubai’s most high profile project, Burj Dubai (soon to be the world’s tallest building), was halted when 2,500 workers walked out and rioted over pay and work conditions.
In October a class action was filed in Miami, alleging that the ruler of Dubai, his brother Hamdan and 500 others are involved in the trafficking and enslavement of children from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sudan and Mauritania. The children are being used as child jockeys in camel racing. The use of child jockeys was banned in 1993, although it was not until very recently that remote controlled jockeys replaced the children.
It is not just the guest workers who are suffering. The local population faces mounting problems due to such a radical change of values and lifestyles in such a short space of time. Divorce rates are nearing 50%, road fatalities statistics are some of the worst in the world, and more than 25% of United Arab Emirates nationals suffer from diabetes, a direct result of the large percentage of obese people. Children as young as ten are being diagnosed with diabetes and the numbers are set to increase due to their sedentary lifestyle and bad eating habits.
Nevertheless, Dubai seems set to continue its meteoric rise. The government plans to attract 15 million visitors by 2010, which would account for 20% of GDP, and 40 million by 2015. Dubai has become one of the most sought after destinations and places to buy property abroad for Russians. The ease of getting visas and residency, the sun, the luxury and the ostentation, all lure Russians to Dubai. Many have bought ‘Dachas in Dubai’, and there are estimated to be 30,000 Russians living in Dubai. Some are purely speculating, and with property prices having risen between 200-300% in the last two years, one can understand why. In 2005, official figures show that Russians invested more than $200 million in the Dubai property market.
With such projects as the man-made Palm Islands (shaped like palm trees) and The World, a collection of 300 islands in the shape of the world (more than 20% of which has been bought by Russians), an extra 1000 kilometers of coastline will be added to Dubai and its profile will continue to attract vacationers and investors. Quite where Dubai’s future lies is hard to say, but it is a fascinating story of rags to riches that is by no means over and is worth witnessing.
Places to Stay
To take advantage of Dubai’s incredible hotels at a reasonable price, book a holiday through a travel agent.
For the budget conscious, it is possible to ‘do’ Dubai on the cheap. Dubai Youth Hostel’s (www.uaeyha.org.ae) doubles at $40 are great value. Thanks to the numbers of guest workers, there are plenty of cheap places to eat good quality food – mainly Indian and Middle Eastern.
If you feel brave and want to try your luck with the Dubai traffic, there are many rental car options, including Avis (www.avisuae.com) and Hertz (www.hertz-uae.ae). Taxis in Dubai are plentiful, air-conditioned, metered and usually cost between $5-10 per trip. Buses are very cheap, but can get extremely crowded.
Out & About
For the most up to date listings, visit www.timeoutdubai.com
Piers Gladstone flew on Aeroflot to Dubai for $550 roundtrip.