Whenever I travel somewhere that I don’t like, it makes me feel guilty and ungrateful. Travelling the world is a wonderful privilege, and surely I ought to be enjoying every moment of it?
I had some amazing times during our family holiday to Dubai. We stayed in a beautiful beach resort across the road from a mosque, where the sound of the call to prayer woke us each day, and I could gaze out of the window at the palm branches fluttering in the early morning breeze.
The food was sumptuous, and the weather hot and lovely. The souks in the Old Town were fascinating to wander through, filling our noses with scents of the spices. Watching the sunrise from a hot air balloon was a particular highlight of the trip.
And yet Dubai is a place that I have no interest in revisiting. Ever.
It’s very rare that I feel this way about a destination. Usually, I’m dreaming about returning to a place even as I’m leaving. But in Dubai, there were three main incidences that put me off ever going back there:
1 // THE TAXI DRIVER
The premier form of transport in Dubai (at least for tourists) is by taxi. On one day, we did try to walk the 15 minutes from our resort to the nearest shops. By the time we arrived, we were dusty, sweaty and in desperate need of a cold drink. We didn’t try the walk again. The taxis are air-conditioned, which means that you still feel fairly sanitary when you arrive at your destination.
One afternoon, we got chatting to our taxi driver: a middle-aged man who told us he had come to Dubai by himself in order to make a living that he could send back to his family.
He was initially astonished that we were talking to him at all (apparently not something that the tourists usually do), but I’m from rural northern England, and talking to strangers is just something that I do.
As he loosened up a bit, he started to tell us a bit about his life and work in the city, and how he was renting along with another taxi driver who workeed for the same firm.
‘Renting a room?’
‘No, no,’ he told us, ‘renting a bed.’
At first we didn’t understand, but he was happy to explain: both drivers worked a 12 hour shift. While one was working, the other was sleeping. Then he would get up and go to work, while the other went back to sleep in the now vacant bed.
‘Economy,’ he said: no point paying for a bed for 24 hours when you only sleep in it for 8.
Apparently, this is fairly common in Dubai. What with the hygiene consequences of sharing a bed that’s constantly slept in, and the intensive working rota, the lifestyle can hardly be healthy for the drivers concerned.
2 // STRAYING OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
One of the consequences of all the tourists travelling by taxi is that the resorts and tourist attractions become like little islands. You leave your resort, get in a taxi with tinted windows, get drivn to your next destination, and get out there without experiencing any of the area you’ve just travelled through.
But stray just a little and you find a whole different world.
One day, we went for lunch in Al Dawaar: Dubai’s revolving restaurant. The food was delicious, and the view over the city spectacular. It was like sitting at the top of a glass & steel fairytale tower, gazing out across this urbann kingdom.
The weather was slightly cooler than it had been, so we decided to go for a bit of a post-lunch stroll near the restaurant before heading back to the resort. Within two minutes, we were in an area that tourists were surely not supposed to see. The buildings looked shaky on their foundations, and very few had anything filling the door- and window-frames. There were piles of rubbish against the houses and scattered pieces littering the street. Thin men with huge bags under their eyes leant against walls and squatted in doorways. Stuck to a wall was a piece of paper advertising ‘bed to rent’ in several languages.
In my smart dress straight from our meal, I have never felt so conspicuous or out of place. The poverty of the area was obvious from a glance,. The fancy lunch I had just eaten felt heavy and unpleasant in my stomach. My mouth was dry and tasted like sand. To know that we had been sitting and stuffing our faces not two minutes walk away left me ridden with guilt.
The beautiful revolving restaurant, looking down on the rest of the city from behind glass, seemed suddenly symbolic.
3 // THE SKI SLOPE
Famously, the Mall of the Emirates is one of the largest shopping malls in the world.
It contains two hotels, a number of amusement opportunities like cinemas and a theatre, and more shops than you could possibly hope to shop in. It also houses an indoor ski resort.
All this combines to make the Mall of the Emirates as much of a holiday destination as any of the other resorts in Dubai – for a holiday where the sole purpose of the trip is to spend money on things that half the city doesn’t need and the other half can’t afford.
It wasn’t the poverty itself that got to me in Dubai. I’d seen plenty of poverty on my trip to Egypt. But whereas with everyone I spoke to in Egypt, I got the sense that the tourism industry was helping to solve the poverty problem and providing jobs for people, in Dubai, tourism felt like another way of exploiting people.
Like the city’s two artificial Palm Islands, Ski Dubai seems to be a statement: snow in the middle of the Arabian desert is an unthinkable impossibility, so we’re going to make it happen. It was a statement that struck me as arrogant and unnecessary.
In a way, I suppose you could describe Dubai as a city of realised dreams, but that isn’t the way I see it. The taxi driver we spoke to didn’t seem to be realising any dreams. The men I saw near the revolving restaurant certainly weren’t.
Instead, Dubai is a city that looks to its own dreams, flattening the dreams of others so as to better enjoy the view from the top.