Friday, March 12th, 2010...23:06

Dubious Dubai

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Burj KhalifaLast year, my wife and I planned a trip to Dubai and Pakistan (for a friend’s brother’s wedding). February 20 – 22 we’d be in Dubai and the rest of the trip would be spent in various parts of Pakistan. While my friends and many people on the Internet claimed a Desert Safari should be #1 on my TODO list, heading to the observation deck of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest everything, was at the top of mine. The price, just like a Marc Jacobs wallet, was ridiculously high ($30 for a reserved timeslot or $100 for a walk in?). Would the 2 hours experience be more memorable than going to Disneyland or eating a Chez Panisse? Unfortunately I did not have the chance to find out as the elevators broke a month after the grand opening. This epitomizes Dubai, over-promising and under delivering, too much effort put into marketing and not enough into execution.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking the ideology behind Dubai. I agree with much of Sheikh Mohammed’s goals tolerance, education and self sufficiency. Even the attempt to cluster common interests into cities e.g. Information, Agriculture, seems sound on paper. However, the implementation is questionable, exacerbated by the recent collapse of global credit and real estate markets, both of which are Dubai’s core e.g. spending lots of money to build up the land.

Taxis are not my preferred mode of transportation; I’d much rather walk or ride a bus, ferry or train. This presents a challenge in Dubai as the points of interest are so spread out. If you’re planning on relying on mass transit, ignore the signs and pamphlets recommending the red “tourist” metro card and pay the extra 4AED ($1) for the silver one. The silver card can be recharged and reused on ALL modes of public transit (train, bus, boat) for any number of zones. We got the run-around from a number of metro employees who were probably just trying to keep things simple for us, not understanding that we were in the minority of tourists that would actually use multiple modes of public transit quite a often in two days.

Unlike the Burj Khalifa elevators, the Dubai Fountain was functioning. The shows run every 20 minutes from 6p-10p. It did not disappoint, shooting water so high in the air even my wide angle camera lens had trouble capturing the totality of the blasts. In addition, the music our show was choreographed to sounded quite “Arabian”, which was quite different from the selections we’ve heard outside the Bellagio in Las Vegas (created by the same company, WET).

The Dubai Mall and Emirates Mall are both worth visiting as they have huge indoor attractions e.g. waterfalls, aquariums, ski slopes, etc. and are great places to kill time during the middle of the day when it’s hot and the traditional Souqs are closed. From 9a-1p and 4p-7p though, it’s worth checking out the Souqs if for no other reason then there’s not much else to do. The main purpose of Dubai seems to be to reduce the balance of one’s bank account. We tried to visit some of the cultural sites at the Northwest end of Dubai Creek but even though they were “open” none of the exhibits or demonstrations were functioning save one Bedouin looking woman kneading some dough. One of the historical buildings, Sheikh Obaid bin Thani House, seemed to have been converted and contained a bunch of religious propaganda.

Luckily we had booked a desert safari and had an excellent guide, Bobby. He was from Nepal and had been working in Dubai since 1977. Prior to that he was in Iran during the overthrow of the Shah. He provided in-depth, albeit one sided, commentary and historical perspective about the government, people, culture and religion. In addition, he was a great driver on the sand dunes and our 4×4 did not get stuck like some other suckers. We only had 2 other people in our vehicle, a couple of cousins from Sweden who build/design prefab houses. They were pretty laid back, just like us, and they handled most of the question asking e.g. what percentage of the population is native (10-20%), is there much crime (no, the penalties are harsh e.g. deportation and the police are paid well enough so they are not corrupt), what is the purpose of the camel farms (they’re all owned by the Sheikh and mainly used for bragging e.g. I have xyz camels, how many do you have?).

Camel Farm

I booked this particular safari, through Viator, because it was all inclusive (sandboarding/henna tattoo/camel riding/etc.) and could be reserved on-line. The actual tour was handled by Orient Tours and I would recommend them to anyone. Both the sandboarding and camel riding were on relatively short “courses” (about 100ft of sandboarding and 150ft of camel riding). The food was decent with a variety of lamb and chicken dishes, salads, veggies, rice and roti/naan. Our belly dancer was from Russia and, while not the best we have seen, seemed to connect with the crowd and pick good sports to interact with.

Who knows when we’ll go back to Dubai, maybe never; after all, Las Vegas is a 90min flight for us. Maybe when Dubai World is completed and has its kinks worked out; though the Burj Khalifa may no longer have the highest outdoor observation deck and there might not be anything else worth seeing. I suppose that’s a general problem with focusing on superlatives instead of substance, you’re always one step away from being obsolete.

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