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Boom or bubble? Unravelling the mirage that is Dubai

April 15, 2014 08:24 IST

Boom or bubble? Unravelling the mirage that is Dubai

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Geetanjali Krishna

Swanky Ferraris, theme parks with European climes and vanity plates may reflect the Emirate's expensive tastes, but how sustainable are these?

Swanky Ferraris, theme parks with European climes and vanity plates may reflect the Emirate’s expensive tastes, but how sustainable are these, asks Oohs and aahs ring out as our plane descends at Dubai.

The Burj Khalifa towers sentinel-like over the city’s skyline. A passenger sighs admiringly: “It could almost be New York.”

As I struggle to insert a local SIM card in my iPhone, her remark gets me thinking. Dubai undoubtedly has more glitz and glamour than most world-class cities, but is it quite there yet?

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Image: Burj Khalifa
Photographs: Courtesy, Burj Khalifa

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Boom or bubble? Unravelling the mirage that is Dubai

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I spend the next 10 days in Dubai enjoying all its worldly pleasures while I try catching glimpses of what lies beneath its façade.

I get a sense of the mood in Dubai as we drive out of the airport. 

The roads are smooth, construction cranes ubiquitous, and all around are billboards announcing Dubai’s latest triumph in the international arena — the Emirate has recently bagged the right to host the World Expo 2020, the largest trade show on earth.

“How we all celebrated when the result was announced!” say my Dubai-based brother and his wife.

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Photographs: Reuters
Tags: Dubai

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Boom or bubble? Unravelling the mirage that is Dubai

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“Burj Khalifa exploded with fabulous fireworks, the following day was declared a holiday and Baskin Robbins gave away free ice creams to celebrate!”

As they describe how they partied that night with other expat friends, I’m struck by the sense of pride and ownership they have in their adopted home.

“Dubai’s tolerant, multi-cultural and offers better job and living opportunities than other international cities,” says another friend, a counsellor. “So what if it tries, often quite embarrassingly, to be the world’s best, richest, tallest and fastest in whatever it does?” 

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Image: Fireworks at Burj Khalifa
Photographs: Reuters

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Boom or bubble? Unravelling the mirage that is Dubai

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My children, predictably, aren’t complaining. The first thing they want to do is to ride the world’s fastest rollercoaster in Abu Dhabi’s Ferrari World.

They’re handed protective goggles (apparently to prevent their eyeballs from popping out) and off they go.

Simulating a Formula One car, they accelerate from standstill to a gut-squashing 150 kmph in just 4.9 seconds.

When they totter out after 20 rides in what is — surprise, surprise — the world’s largest indoor theme park, Ferraris are all they can talk about.

Imagine their delight when days later, friends invite us to drive with the Ferrari Owners Club to HattaMountains, about 105 km away. 

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Image: Abu Dhabi's Ferrari World
Photographs: Courtesy, Ferrari World

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Boom or bubble? Unravelling the mirage that is Dubai

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We drive behind 18 beauties in formation on an undulating highway, and I notice that the model numbers of many of the Ferraris are echoed by their number plates. 

“When it comes to showing your wealth in Dubai, your licence plate must match the car,” explains my friend’s husband.

While vanity plates are common in the US and Europe, nowhere are they more expensive (or more indicative of social status) as they are in Dubai.

The lower the number on the plate, the higher the status of its owner (the ruler of Dubai has the number plate DUBAI 1).

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Image: Dubai's deputy ruler Sheikh Maktoum bin Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum (3rd L) tours Bentley's display with other officials at the Dubai International Motor Show.
Photographs: Martin Dokoupil/Reuters

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Boom or bubble? Unravelling the mirage that is Dubai

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As expected, the world’s most expensive number plate is in Dubai too — businessman Saeed Abdul Ghafour Khouri shelled out over $14.2 million to purchase a licence plate with the number 1.

Strangely enough, vanity plates make business sense too — their value appreciates by an estimated 20 per cent annually.

The drive to Hatta Mountains is our first glimpse of Dubai’s natural terrain, though we’ve been there several days. 

Camels graze amongst the dunes and rugged bare mountains appear in the distance. Even though they own these beauties, they still haven’t tired of taking pictures of them!

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Image: A camel stands in front of the Jumeirah Beach Residence in Duba
Photographs: Steve Crisp/Reuters

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Boom or bubble? Unravelling the mirage that is Dubai

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Chatting with them over lunch, I realise, given that Dubai is surrounded by conservative Islamic and conflict-ridden regions, it offers the rare freedom to many expats to simply enjoy their wealth. 

Later, when we return to our friend’s lush villa on JumeirahBeach, we see a car show at their doorstep, this time, of vintage and custom-made cars.

A young driver is using remote-controlled toy cars to show off the Dubai car enthusiast’s latest passion - drifting.

This is a driving technique where the driver intentionally over-steers, causing loss of traction in the rear wheels, while maintaining control from turn to turn.

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Photographs: Reuters

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Boom or bubble? Unravelling the mirage that is Dubai

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After the Red Bull Car Park Drift Finals were held in Dubai last year, people here have come to love the stink of burning rubber and the tormented screech of tyres that wear out within 15 minutes of drifting.

“This is why I love living in Dubai. The city offers new experiences every day…” says my friend as we watch the spectacle. I can see what he means. 

After the crash of 2009, Dubai seems to have embarked on an ambitious expansion plan, wisely developing its services and tourism sectors instead of focusing on oil and real estate.

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Photographs: Courtesy, Burj Khalifa
Tags: Dubai

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Boom or bubble? Unravelling the mirage that is Dubai

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Burj Khalifa epitomises this; the iconic skyscraper offers premium residential, office, retail and hotel space.

New free-trade zones like the one near Jebel Ali Port are giving cheap business licences to foreign-owned businesses.

Dubai is currently home to over 20,000 international companies, including 124 of the Fortune 500. “The opportunities available today are staggering,” says an expat who’s lived here for nine years. 

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Photographs: Courtesy, Burj Khalifa

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Boom or bubble? Unravelling the mirage that is Dubai

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Affluence and high-octane career opportunities have a flip side too. “Children in Dubai grow up with affluence, but also greater instability. When they say goodbye to friends at the start of a summer vacation, they don’t know if they’ll see them again,” says a Dubai-based counsellor. 

On February 27 this year, a Kerala teen in Sharjah had what his family thought was a normal morning, but then instead of heading to school for an exam, he ended his life in his building’s pump room.

His isn’t an isolated case — since January, three other teenage suicides have rocked the United Arab Emirates.

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Image: Visitors looks up as fish swim in the aquarium tunnel in Dubai Mall, which covers the area of 50 soccer pitches.
Photographs: Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters

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“Many have seen their parents cope with job loss, and feel a greater need to perform well so they can get highly-paid jobs. This leads to raised stress levels,” she says.

I think about this while watching my young niece play in a inter-school football tournament. 

What she says rings true, yet for expats, the quality of life in Dubai is really great. Not only does the city work tirelessly to stay interesting, it offers good schools, infrastructure and safety.

Add to that the easily-available house help, relatively inexpensive real estate and petrol (currently about Rs 29 per litre), and not to forget, zero taxation, and it becomes easier to understand why living in Dubai is a little like a drug with a very, very good high.

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Photographs: Courtesy, Burj Khalifa
Tags: Dubai

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It feels so amazing that you don’t really want to think about the consequences of taking it… 

Late one night, some expat friends show me another facet of Dubai, its dance bars.

“After Mumbai banned dance bars, its dancers shifted here,” they say as we sit in the dimly-lit Kohinoor, where heavily made-up girls gyrate to Bollywood and Pakistani hits.

Unlike in India, tipping them directly is illegal in Dubai. Instead, we watch with fascinated amusement as patrons purchase plasticky tiaras from the bar and present them to the dancer of their fancy.

Most of these dancers come to Dubai on 90-day visas, I  learn.

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Photographs: Courtesy, Burj Khalifa

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Rumours have it that they work in abysmal conditions and are often forced into prostitution if they don’t earn enough ‘tiaras’.

Yet, Dubai’s dance bar culture, fuelled by the hormones of the vast numbers of single South Asian men who work here, is too entrenched for patrons to do something about its seamier side. 

Unfortunately, that’s not all they turn a blind eye to. 

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Photographs: Courtesy, Burj Khalifa

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Walking past a delightful public fountain in the Marina, I remember that a whopping 98.8 per cent of Dubai’s water is desalinated at a huge environmental cost. 

Yet, expats and Emiratis alike love their water parks, private pools, gardens and fountains.

At 500 litres a day (82 per cent above the global average), these desert-dwellers consume more water per person than anyone else on earth. 

Then I remember what I’ve read about UAE-based Kleindienst Group’s $850 million development, ‘The Heart of Europe” in The World (the world-map-shaped cluster of man-made islands off the Dubai coast).

They plan to install a 1.6 km-long climate control air system that will enable the rain and snow commonly associated with Europe to come artificially tumbling down from sunny Dubai skies. Folly or an architectural feat? I guess its buyers will decide. 

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Image: An aerial view of Dubai's PalmIsland, a project of Dubai World.
Photographs: Matthias Seifert/Reuters

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As my plane takes off, I gaze at the sun setting on Dubai’s magnificent skyline. I wonder, as many have before me, whether Dubai’s boom is but a mirage, no more than a beautiful bubble.

Much hinges upon the Emirate’s ability to balance its ambitions with a greater regard for sustainable development, not coincidentally one of the themes of Expo 2020.

If the Emirate begins to practice today, what it plans to preach six years from now, it could well make oil-rich West-Asia the centre of the world.

Else, there’s no telling when the bubble could burst.


Photographs: Reuters
Tags: Dubai

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