All my preconceived notions about the rigid cultural conservativism of countries in the Arab peninsula were thrown out the minute I entered Dubai, a sprawling and mushrooming megalopolis rising up between the fringes of the Arab deserts and the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia may still be the country of chokingly strict laws, but Dubai seems to be the total opposite. Actually it is one of two major cities in the United Arab Emirates, a country roughly the size of West Virginia, perched on the southwestern corner of the Arab peninsula. I was pleasantly surprised that the immigration police at the airport didn’t even bother to check what I was bringing into or out of the country, other than the perfunctory x ray of bags. Even in my deliriously jet lagged condition I noticed the relative social openness of the country right away: cocktail lounges broadly advertised; women seem to walk around with hair flowing out in the open and clothing cut close to the waist and bosom, something that is unthinkable in nearby Saudi Arabia. Reason enough for me come over here. Maybe even reason enough for Michael Jackson, who, as of late, has been calling Dubai home. This time I wasn’t so lucky to inadvertently come upon the king of pop’s property like I did a few years ago, when I rode my mountain bike near his Central Californian Neverland Ranch and was politely told by security guards that I was about the trespass.
Why am I here in the first place? It is actually a stop over for my long long flight from LA to Pakistan. Dubai seemed to have enough allure to check it out a little closer.
Noticeable about this city was its gargantuan effort to reinvent itself as a major hub for international trade, finance and tourism. Seems like a wise investment to me, as its main source of income, crude oil, can only last for so long. By the way, the world’s only seven star hotel, the amazing sail shaped Burj al Arab, is also located there. Soon it will be home to the new Burj al Arab, Dubai’s quest to erect the tallest building in world. According to the glossy architectural renderings it will handily out climb Taiwan’s Taipei 101, currently the tallest building in the world. I checked out its location and found not much more than a really big hole and a lot of sand being carted away. Looks like we’ll have to continue paying homage to Taipei 101 as the number one for a few more years.
There are two factors I seek out in each country I visit to gauge relative prices: the cost of a gallon of fuel and one big mac. So here you go, one gallon of the regular unleaded goes for just about $2. A big mac sells for the equivalent of $3. Not too much difference from the United States. Interestingly, at McDonald’s here you can order a “McArabia”, apparently a subway sandwich looking burger. Much preferred, however, is the local food, which seems to be a blend of Mediterranean Arab dishes, and all the little restaurants brought along by the South and Southeast Asian laborers, on whose backs this whole place is built. And in typical Asian fashion, food is served well past midnight out on the wide sidewalks along the even wider landscaped boulevards. Jewelry may also be a deal in Dubai, but I am too ignorant to give you my esteemed opinion; I am going by the number of gold and jewelry stores lining city block after city block.
The curses of development seem also to rear their ugly heads here, as I found the traffic ridiculously gridlocked during daytime. Trash tends to pile up where most of the new construction is happening, which is probably half the city right now. The air thankfully did not have the foul smell of fossil fuel emissions, due to brand new cars roaming around for the most part. A brisk wind blowing in from the desert probably keeps air pollution away. An interesting and sad curse of development is the accusation of construction companies horribly exploiting the foreign workers. Astonishingly, three out of four million residents are foreigners, all here to reap the benefit of available jobs and not enough native population to fill them. So those poor construction workers are the ones who are really getting milked. I wonder if the people who built the pyramids four millennia ago got milked like this, too.
On the way back to the airport after my short one night stay, the hired driver almost gave himself a heart attack trying to bash his way through standstill mid day traffic. I was convinced that I would miss my plane, but somehow he pulled it off. Half driving on sidewalks and greenery, we made it just in the nick of time to the Terminal.
I found that this terminal was a different one from the one my flight from Amsterdam landed in. That first terminal is exclusively for flights coming from Europe, North America, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Australia and other rich countries like that. The terminal I flew out of seemed to be reserved for all the riff raff countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, all of Africa and everything in between. This is not meant as a prejudiced remark on my part at all, but is it me or did I really notice a throng of people pushing through lines, hordes of kids, and heaps upon heaps of luggage everywhere? I am serious I saw one Pakistani family on my flight checking in a slew of large trash cans full of clothing and whatnot. The lids were taped on and the whole package wrapped multiple times in twine. A neat “first world” line at the gate? Forget it! The flight attendants lost complete control of people pushing to get into the plane. And screaming kids running up and down the cramped aisle of the plane…I loved it. I felt right at home in this chaotic flight to Pakistan. I did miss the big African women with cages full of chickens, that you see in buses in those countries. Ahh yes, I long for this refreshing dose of “third world” disorder, well, except the corruption. Look for more of my diatribe coming your way in the next few weeks from South Asia, as I continue on through Pakistan, India, and then finally Afghanistan.