Dubai and the 24-Carat Cappuccino

Dubai and the 24-Carat Cappuccino

Fuck. I take yet another wrong exit on the circuitous tangle of highways that make up Dubai’s road system. I’ve been driving for two hours (on the wrong side of the road) in an attempt to find any route that will lead me out of the city. Renting a car was clearly an injudicious decision. The city map has no discernible structure to it. It consists of a labyrinth of freeways of gargantuan proportions, at times eight lanes in either direction, which are sporadically connected by immense roundabouts, all seemingly intended to give the driver an overwhelming feeling of going in massive, aimless circles.

The Garmin that came with the car is about as useful as a knitted condom, and seems intent to send me on a guided tour of the UAE’s shittiest back-alleys. I finally manage to successfully exit the maze and head towards the outskirts. My shoulders ease away from my ears and as the Dubai skyline becomes diminutive in my rear-view; the tense sick feeling I’ve been dragging around with me all day gradually abates. Thank fuck I’m on my way out of that convoluted mess.

After such a short stay, I feel uneasy passing judgement on an entire city, but I can’t help feeling that whoever listed Dubai as a spectacular travel destination has a set of sensibilities radically different to my own – and it’s not just the screwy roads.

Upon entering, I was immediately ill at ease, confronted at every corner by screaming expressions of wealth and excess. Lavish umpteen-story hotels and office complexes flank the highways, reflecting blinding light off their chrome facades. Ornate marble tiles coat huge boundary walls, presumably hiding from view even more opulent residences. The sheer scale of the buildings is overwhelming – incredible feats of engineering designed to make the individual feel impotent and small. And if the size aims at making me feel small, the decor must be an attempt to make me feel poor.

The average roof boasts more intricate designs than my most delicate jewellery; even the bathrooms are inlayed with gold-leaf and mother-of-pearl. The park benches are made of granite or marble that would put my parent’s kitchen countertop to shame. Neighbours seem to be competing with each other for the “most expensive house” title and a technicoloured array of exotic cars queue at every traffic light. Hotel brochures advertise cosmetic treatments involving diamonds or cappuccinos encrusted with 24-carat gold. Each experience is more extravagant, more unnecessary, more indecorous than the next. The building and spending is borderline indecent, and seems to ignore the fact that the source of this newfound income is a finite natural resource in need of conservation. Surely this kind of expenditure can’t be sustainable?

If Dubai were personified, it would be the typical parvenu in a room filled with old-money aristocrats; having gained wealth but not yet the appropriate manners, taste or refinement to allow him to fit in with the rest of the upper class. The city advertises its oil riches in a kitsch, ostentatious manner, simultaneously forcing your astonishment and desperately begging your admiration. The prevailing mood is one of almost obscene luxury, and I’m not impressed. My upbringing has left me with a deep-seated antipathy for this kind of extravagance – it reads only as waste. Everything in this city looks like money, and it makes me uncomfortable.

The Dubai skyline exemplifies this inclination towards excess. Skyscrapers crowd the horizon; vertiginous metal monsters punching vulgar holes through the clouds and then tapering off into the stratosphere. The grand mosques may serve to glorify Allah, but the towering metal phalluses that make up the skyline serve to glorify man, and his insatiable thirst to one-up his neighbour. The neon names plastered over the top tiers of the towers remind the other competitors just who is in the lead.

The Big Dick on the Dubai skyline is a shining example of my point. At 829.8 meters, the Burj Khalifa stands head and shoulders above the rest, making the veritable giants that surround it look like sickly, weedy prepubescents.

“What is the second tallest building in Dubai?” I asked a recent acquaintance who claimed to have pure emirate ancestry.
“What kind of question is this?” was his response.
“I mean…the Burj Khalifa is the tallest building, which is the next tallest after it?” I was staring at the skyline trying to gauge for myself.
He looked at me as if I was mad, moronic or both. “Burj Khalifa is tallest, best in Dubai,” he responded. “There is no second tallest. Nobody cares.”

His words encapsulate the prevailing mood of Dubai perfectly. Whatever miracle of engineering forfeited its title to the gargantuan 163-storey Burj has clearly passed into obscurity. In this city, if you’re not first, you’re not even in the race. But winning carries a hefty price tag (1.5 billion USD, to be exact).

Even if the inclination towards excessive garnishing and flashiness hadn’t put me off, I imagine the disrespect for organic spaces would. The city erupted from the earth at an unbelievable speed, and continues to spread in every feasible direction, upwards being the latest trend. Whatever natural habitat existed previously has been flattened to make room for multi-storey hotels and high-rises.

I search for a place within the city where my nature still resides, but it seems she has been chased out and substituted with massive steel idols. It’s as if the inhabitants of Dubai expatriated Nature, and replaced her handiwork with an amplified, plastic version. Instead of enjoying natural beaches and oceans, the residents flock to immense aquariums and water amusement parks. Indoor ski fields take the place of ancient dunes, and the main attraction for visitors seems to be the Dubai Mall (this is not a joke).

LED ‘Glow Gardens’ are seen as an upgrade on legitimate plants, and the few real trees that still survive in this concrete-scape have been wrapped up in luminescent fairy lights (because who could be impressed by a tree that didn’t fucking radiate light, right?). When the population swelled to a size that the natural land could no longer support, added living space was slapped on in the form of skyscrapers, or dredged up from the ocean in the form of reclaimed land islands with fancy tropical shapes. Progress seems to have been favoured at all costs, and taken precedence over environmental concerns.

I don’t like to be condemnatory, but I feel that 24 hours in this place has been more than enough. I’m having trouble seeing it as anything more than a synthetic oasis in the desert where the only green is found on dollar bills.

As I make my way towards the outskirts, the landscape begins to change, revealing the natural order that existed before Dubai emerged from the desert. Stunning, arid expanses; majestic dunes scattered intermittently with rocks and resilient shrubs. Out here it is calm and tranquil and the simplicity of nature instils a quiet sense of respect. There is elegance in the lines of the dunes, the muted tones, the sky that stretches out endlessly; undisturbed, unadorned and unpierced. The trees aren’t flashing, and I feel like I can breathe.

Cover by Roman Logov; inset via @freegoldkiwi