Dubai and warm Arabian sand

February 27, 2009
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, DUBAI, Feb 27 – The emirates (ee-mah-rat in Arabic pronunciation) flight came in late in the evening and to the warm Arabian sand and soft Dubai evening lights that made for a very welcoming arrival.

We disembark (this time onto a sky bridge) and make our way into the brand spanking new and impossibly glamorous Emirates Terminal Three.

If you ask why ‘this time onto a sky bridge’ it’s because about ten years ago none of this existed.

Passengers disembarked off the plane by good old fashioned ladder, onto the tarmac and air that makes the blast from a hot oven like a cool autumn breeze and  took a bus to the terminal.

Coming from Kenya I found this somewhat surprising at the time, because even then Dubai was known as a land of milk and honey.

Well, as soon as I got into that old terminal one began to notice the wealth and power of this tiny emirate, that was a peasants fishing port, plowed by dhows, much like Lamu, until oil was discovered in the emirates, then, of course, everything changed.

The old terminal was beautifully designed, with a roof structure that imitated the flowing troughs and peaks of a Bedouin tent.

The windows had that distinctive minaret shaped silhouette so favoured in Arabic culture and all the interior appointments were typically elaborate, traditionally motifed and stunning.

What surprised most was the visit to the loo.

Back then that was my first outward bound flight through the city and a visit to the men’s loo,  where I found they had a toilet that would flush itself, after I did my business, without any manual intervention, but no tissue paper, which was somewhat confusing.

That is, until I learned the point of the bidet to the left of the loo, that looked like a tiny sink, too low to wash your face in and somewhat out of place in a toilet (I mean, who brushes and gurgles from the throne right? Weird Arabs!). By the way, never shake an Arabs left hand like we sometimes do in Kenya, especially with girls, there’s a pretty good reason why that’s considered a grave insult.

Well, as Kenyans, we’re used to progress being nowhere but  in the latest government white paper, due to gather dust and eventually block out all light from that civil service office window when the stack reaches the fifty years of independence in height.

In Dubai, progress, from year to year is visible, tangible, noticeable.

The new Terminal 3 is astonishing in every way. Its size, its detail, its beauty but also to some extent, it’s over-the-top Arab crassness.

Some of the time you get the impression that things are built overly big, overly spaced and overly done just to make a statement about overly abundant amounts of money in the state coffers.

The distances between everything are unbearable, you walk half a kilometer from the gate to your restaurant, another kilometer from your restaurant to the ATM and another from the ATM to duty free and you sometimes can’t help feeling, is this place so big because it actually needs to be, or is this big because needs to show it can be?

Top marks to ‘eemarrat’ though, even on a short stay over,  passengers can take their boarding passes to the emirates lounge (yes they have an economy class lounge) and they get served a full breakfast in a  what would pass for a posh restaurant in Nairobi.

The waiting lounges have rugged patted seats with comfortable retractable foot rests for those unfortunate souls who have those awkward 9-hours stayovers that are too short to justify a transit visa and too long to spend in a lavish if cavernous and cold airport terminal watching rich Arabs swipe credit cards (why does anyone need credit if they have all the money in the world, in my eyes, the richest dude should have a gold debit card – or since this is the emirates, a platinum, diamond studded, palladium lined, ruby embossed, by royal invitation only, limited edition, emir class card)  buying twenty thousand dollar Cartiers, on their way home like you would a take out from Topaz.

Luckily, I’m not one of them, I gots me a hotel, courtesy of my (very unlucky) employer and I proceed to the immigration desk.

On my way I notice that all the menial jobs in Dubai are done by brown and yellow foreigners.

Virtually all the shops are staffed by Philipinos and the janitorial staff are all Indian, and the only time I see a black face, is at our service desk, where Kenyan Emirates staff give me advice in Swahilli about what to do next.

So off to our desk, say I need a transit visa, lady tells me, uh okay, for your hotel we need you to swipe your card but for your visa, we need cash.

Uhm okay, where can I get cash. Well sir, it’s back half a kilometer to the lifts, four levels down and three travelator trips away. Courtesy smile.

Jeez! I don’t know who trains these people to think that smiling after you’ve handed down a torrent of bad news is any way to pacify an irate soul. Hey your cat just died. Smile. Uhm, your granny has Alzheimer’s, smile.

So I make my way back all that way and coming up to the ATM, get sick knots in my stomach thinking, oh man, this isn’t Kenya, this machine don’t spit out Kenyan, it spits out foreign, will it accept visa (silly everywhere takes visa right? Wrong! In Morocco, the daft ATM only took Mastercard) oh no I’m gonna end up having to watch Philipinos selling glitzy watches to rich Arabs for the rest of my life! Yikes!

Mercifully, the machine works and I take the trip back to the visa desk, excited to be leaving this giant mall cum airport, with palm trees on the inside, yeah, really, and only once demoralized by the Indian that drives past me in a golf cart on his way to mop the floor the same place I’m going by foot!

Hey, that should be for the passengers! I almost shout at him.

So off to the immigration desk to get subjected to the usual immigration officer memes, looking at your passport like they have Superman’s x-ray vision and can see Lex Luther’s thumbprint on the third last page, meaning you’ve spent some time at Luthercorp developing lasers for the Saudis and thus represent a national security risk for the Emirates! Damn Saudis have always envied our low sand : oil ratio! Maybe you have one waiting in your hotel room! Can’t let you in!

Next the compulsory penetrating stare into my eyes, the windows to the soul, don’t you know? Oh no! He might see what I surfed on the internet last month and decide I’m a threat to the nation’s otherwise intact moral fiber – Can’t let you in!

Thankfully, I pass the screening and finally have the privilege to walk the 10 kilometres to the terminal front door as a legal alien in Dubai.

As is customary in Dubai, everything was very well organized, we were picked up at the front of the terminal by an emirates bus and taken to our partner hotel.

On the drive in, Dubai looks less like the glitzy over the top city from travel magazines and TV adverts and more like a simply very well run city should look.

The roads are pristine, well lit, signed and furnished. The bus stops neat and uniform with digital bus schedule signs (and even come with sliding doors to shelter occupants from the rain – they don’t have to worry about homeless people making them a home here, they don’t have homeless people).

Why can’t Nairobi, heck, every city and town in Kenya be like this, oh yeah I forgot, our leaders are more interested in lining their pockets and staying power than making our country better. Silly me!

We get to our hotel, which to me comes across as a pretty nice but you can’t help feeling, pretty routine for this place.

Get over exposed to luxury and you know what, before you know it, you begin to take it for granted.

It becomes passé. Stops impressing and simply becomes what you expect. Your expectations adjust. That’s what exposure does to you. Whoever wrote the prince and the pauper must have realized this all too well.

I have a target in mind for my next day’s tour. I’ve always wanted to visit the Dubai International Financial Centre.

I have an interest in capital markets and I better not get into that lest I risk boring everyone to death. But I am determined to go there and see it for myself.

So the next morning bright and early, I get up, survey the debris left over as a result of my last night’s enthusiastic assault on the mini bar, shake my head in amazement at how when one thinks they are being perfectly normal when drunk, they are actually raising hell and decide to put the thought to the back of my mind and hit the shower.

Naturally the shower isn’t and ordinary shower and the towel racks are heated and blah and blah … and I change, get myself a bottle of water from the mini bar and go down to the street to holler a cab.

I holler a cab and a. the first one stops b. unlike Casablanca, 30 more people don’t hop in with me. Cool. At least in some ways things are a bit more like home.

I want to go to the DIFC I say and the Pakistani cab driver gives me a knowing nod and a smile as if to say, you know you’re going to get your socks blown off ‘dude’ or whatever ‘dude’ is in Pakistani.

We start to make our way there through the city. For a Saturday the traffic is surprisingly light, then I realize, that Sautrday is their Sunday and their weekend starts on Thursday and work week on Sunday! Try getting your Kenyan head around that!

As we approach the CBD, this large silhouette starts to emerge in the distance our of  a hazy fog. It has that strange grayscale tone that nature seems to give to things that are large and far away when looked at with the naked eye. Then I go, “oh my goodness”! My cab driver repeats that knowing smile and there it is, poking right into the sky, the tip of the building almost out of sight, the Burj-Al-Arab, tallest building in the world, a good half a kilometer in height and looking like something out of Coruscant in Star Wars. All that’s missing is the flying cars.

We approach the front of the DIFC district and come to its first two signature landmarks, the twin towers of Dubai, two beautiful buildings across ‘The Gate’, that face each other and are Dubai’s equivalent of the world trade centre before 9-11 and ‘The Gate’ itself a large enormous cubic office building inspired I would imagine by a similar building called the Grande Arche in Paris that is also the centerpiece of la defense, the CBD of Paris and the largest business centre in Western Europe.

Like the Grande Arche, the Gate is surrounded by an artificial moat with fountains and magnificent underwater lighting that has to be seen to be fully appreciated. When one approaches the Gate, the exquisite detailing of the building comes to light. It is tiled, all over, in the three striped motif of the DIFC, god help them if the ever decide to rebrand themselves KRA style. The will have to invest in a whole lot of tiling!

Between the Gate and the twin towers lies a lush green roundabout with giant brass ants crossing. Yes, brass ants the big as  dogs, cross, in still life of course, I guess symbolic of the busy bodies that cross between the trade centre and the exchange as they wheel and deal in the financial centre of the middle east.

I could wax lyrical about this place all day but I’ve had enough. I’ve had impression saturation and my overall feeling is one of disappointment.

Disappointment? You say, and I say yes.

You see the thing is this. No matter how much money Dubai has and how hard they try to impress you, the fact is, they only seem to be able to do so by imitating the accomplishments of the west.

The west has sky scrapers, let’s build the tallest skyscraper in the world, that will show them. The west as the Grand Arche, we’ll build le super Grande Arche, that will show them. They have Heathrow Terminal Four (which is a run-down hulk these days as anyone who’s had the bad luck to pass through there recently can tell you) we’ll build a truly magnificent Terminal Three, that will show them.

That’s just the thing. Nothing is original. Everything is a mutation of something first thought of somewhere else, even the ants are an attempt to bring an original twist to the brass bull of Wall Street.

All of this betrays the thinking that we can catch up by imitating and doing one better than the west, which isn’t the way it should be.  If you feel you have to ‘catch up’ you’ve already lost because you’re not going your own way, you’re living on someone else’s terms. Dubai maybe cash rich, but it suffers from a poverty of original thinking.

That old terminal may not have had a sky bridge but it had a lot more originality and if you ask me, because of that, a lot more class.

I’ve seen enough, I look for a taxi and find a special taxi rank with ‘Lexus only’ taxis that are the only ones permitted to operate from this place (eye-roll, for the love of god!) and ask the taxi driver to take me back to my hotel and to the airport as soon as possible.

Leaving by day the first thing that strikes you about Dubai airport is the number of private planes on show. Forget GDP statistics. Those are so World-Bank/UNDP.

The way to tell how rich a country is, is by how many private jets per square foot of landing apron it has its international airport.

By those standards then Dubai is certainly the richest place I’ve ever been, though they say that Abu Dhabi is even richer and is actually the donor emirate of the UAE.
 
The idea that Dubai takes aid from anywhere seems highly incongruous in this environment, which just goes to show, you can never be too thin or too rich or too extravagant, not if the UAE is anything to go by.

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