How Dubai Is Getting Bigger, Brighter, Shinier….
I’m at a party. It’s a fancy one. It’s at a restaurant in the tallest skyscraper in the world. I’m sipping champagne and surveying the glittering city before me — my new home. The brightest, shiniest city I’ve seen, surpassing Las Vegas at points even. I gaze at the perfect seven-lane arterial road, with smaller roads criss-crossing, cars gliding smoothly along — it’s almost hypnotic. In the far distance, I can see the Palm Islands and beyond them, I know that work is underway on the World Islands. Buildings shimmer, glasses clink and more elaborate adventures are planned for the next day. I’m in Dubai — the world’s newest super city.
In one year, I’ve been to nightclubs that turn into circuses. I’ve witnessed the launch of a new tramline. I’ve seen wonders in progress like the Dubai Eye and Dubai Parks and Resorts, which will have the largest number of theme parks in one place in the world, including a Bollywood park and Legoland! I’ve been to brunches where entire rooms were devoted to desserts from different regions of various countries. I’ve seen the latest Hollywood movies being shot here. I’ve partied in the most lavish hotel in the world, shot ad films in the middle of the sea, jumped off planes, attended some of the biggest concerts in the world, rubbed shoulders with celebrities and sampled the most delectable dishes from scores of cuisines. In every way, this is a city of superlatives.
Yet for me, as for all the other newbies — many of who make up the 85 per cent expat population of Dubai — none of this is as surprising as it is for the old-timers. Their eyes glaze over as they remember Sheikh Zayed Road before it was widened. They recall simpler times, when ‘disco chai’ was just 0.25 fils and there were no sports cars on the roads — just the meter-less Toyota Cressida cabs. They remember roundabouts choked with traffic before highways were made when Dubai was practically a village, when people were simpler, rents and inflation were low and high-rises were few and far in between. When, most importantly, everyone knew everyone.
Friends recall the seminal moment of change being around 1996, when the Sheikh Zayed Road was widened. Earlier, news of a new apartment complex or hotel coming up would get people excited. Now lakes are moved, islands are built, roads and parks cut through and buildings get taller and taller and everyone seems to take it all in their stride, wondering what will come next.
They recall a time when there was no Marina, no Springs, no Barsha, no downtown Dubai, no Mall of the Emirates (MoE), no Dubai Mall, no Festival City. When the city was developing at a rapid pace and the desert was being fought back to create a modern metropolis. They saw one tiny airport being converted to one that transfers more passengers than Heathrow. They saw vacant expanses of desert growing into a formidable cityscape rising like a futuristic oasis. And they’ve met thousands of people from all over the world streaming in to make their city a global capital.
They remember when people were not spoilt, rents were low and BurJuman and Karama were the places to be. The city was small and safe with not too many outlets to spend big money at. Which seems like a direct contradiction to today’s Dubai that is full of designer malls, expensive adventure sports, brunches that cost the moon and expensive cars flooding the roads.
But in spite of its contrasts, Dubai’s basic identity remains intact. It was always known as the hub of trading and pearl diving and was still at the centre of globalisation even in the 19th century when traders from India, Iran, Baluchistan, Arab Gulf, Zanzibar and so on were constantly in and out of the city. It may have grown in terms of scale, but has always been a place where different cultures meet.
Today, its all-embracing nature has invited professionals from across the globe — and its spirit of coexistence through cuisines, dance and music still exists. Dubai is a significant example for surrounding regions and the world that proves that it is possible for people to enjoy their own culture while living abroad. It is possible for so many different languages, cultures and religions to coexist in the same city. For Syrian and Iranian clubs to thrive, Egyptian comedy shows to be sold out, Pakistani restaurants to be packed and Diwali to be celebrated with as much aplomb as it is in India itself.
With the same kind of frenzy one sees in old, established cities like Hong Kong, Singapore and Mumbai, Dubai, like a race car, is tearing ahead much after the race has started, but smoother, faster and better than the rest, and inching towards reaching the finishing line first.