Dubai: Sim City (1998)

Sim City

transient [tran’zi-ent] -adj. passing, of short duration: making, or for persons making, only a short stay, –n. temporary resident, worker

Half-light in the departure lounge. The feeling hits me as soon as I get through passport control. You could call it the timelessness of international travel. Not as in ‘timeless elegance’ or nostalgia for a sepia-toned past. No, time-less, as in the absence of time, the loss of all temporal markers which might anchor me to the present moment. It’s scary, this feeling that I am now completely adrift. After all, time is just another word for place, and once inside an airport you aren’t really anywhere at all.

So I cruise aisles of internationally-branded goods and snack on food free of unsettling local tastes and ingredients, all the time addressed by terse sans-serif signs which instruct me in uninflected English to proceed, not to proceed, to join a queue, to take care of my belongings, and above all to wait. Always wait.

A man buys a coke from a vending machine. An elderly Chinese couple ease themselves down into the last free plastic seats. Beside me a teenage girl trances out with her gameboy, boxfresh Nikes outstretched, Eurasian face a mask, one Levi’d leg jigging in time to the blip blip of Donkey Kong. Here we all are, waiting. Indians, Japanese, Philippinos, Americans, Saudis, Nigerians, Swedes, all momentarily arrested on whatever path we and our families have been following across the globe, this room with its rows of seats freezeframing a sample of the world’s migrations, permanent or temporary, individual, generational, over in a second or so slow the participants barely realise they’re moving. All these waiting people, continuing a vector started by their parents, their grandparents, their grandparents’ grandparents... A whiff of diaspora always hangs around airports, but the sleeve-tug of elsewhere is especially strong in this particular lounge. For we are waiting to board Emirates flight EK004, destination Dubai.

Dubai is a place of migrants. Barely existing in the global imagination thirty years ago, post-oil it has become the commercial hub of the Middle East. It has a population of 2.2million, of which 1.5 million are non-nationals. 1.5 million transients, 1.5 million people just passing through. Dubai isn’t somewhere to settle. Fifty years ago it was just an empty stretch of flat, iron-reddened sand, whose inhabitants made a little money trading and pearl diving. These days it’s a magnet, a place which draws hopeful immigrants from all over the world, all there for one reason and one reason only. From the Home Counties businesswoman doing a three year stint for her accountancy firm, to the Bangladeshi construction worker and the Malay maid making up the beds in her employer’s beach house, they have all come to generate capital and funnel it back home.

I will be passing through a little quicker than most. I am a guest of the ‘Government of Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing’ , a journalist travelling to the second city of the United Arab Emirates to attend Gitex 18, which I and my hosts would like you to know is now the largest computer trade fair in the Middle East. I am here to spread the word about Dubai, about its fine atmosphere for business, its first class facilities, its phenomenal growth, and above all, about the money. It’s there, waiting for you, my friend. And all you have to do is reach out your hand and take it.

Think about the money, as I board the plane, adjust the four comfort parameters of my superwide business class seat, pop a melatonin and fall asleep to the sound of automatic weapon fire, coming through the headphones connected to my personal LCD screen armrest TV. Ah, sweet dreams.


“Move Your Business Base to the Gateway of the Globe. 1.5 billion consumers await you at your arrival. A business base with a first world infrastructure - at a third world cost.”

Consult the CIA world fact book and you will discover that the United Arab Emirates is “slightly smaller than the State of Maine”. It occupies “a strategic location along the southern approaches to the Strait of Hormuz, a vital transit point for world crude oil.” It also has a “growing role as a heroin trans-shipment and money-laundering centre due to its proximity to South West Asian producing countries, and the bustling Dubai free trade zone.”

Smack, oil and dollars are just a few of the elements in Dubai’s periodic table. You could add horses, water, golf, electronics - and slavery. Dubai’s story is not about Americans and Europeans educating a backwards people in the ways of business. Gulf Arab traders were plying the Africa trade for centuries before the discovery of oil.


Courtesy and hospitality are among the most highly prized of virtues in the Arab world, and visitors will be charmed by the warmth and friendliness of the people...

Abdullah works for the Tourism and Commerce department. He wears the traditional dress of Dubai, black-banded head-dress and a white robe, from beneath which peek a pair of handmade penny loafers. He grins from behind black Rayban Wayfarers, and slips his slimline Nokia phone back into a pocket. Then he leads me to a barn-sized Cadillac where, in a gesture of politeness, he turns up the aircon to arctic levels, giving me a sympathetic look. “Nice weather we are having” he says. I agree. It is November. The outside temperature is pushing 40 degrees centigrade.

Abdullah puts his foot to the floor and we screech out of the carpark onto the eight-lane blacktop highway which links the airport and the city centre. By the time the speedometer touches 155km/h we are tailgating a 4x4 with an “I love Islam” sticker in the rear window. Abdullah punches the horn and flashes his lights. Eventually it pulls over, and we scream past. You should be a rally driver, I tell him. This is already my hobby, he responds. For two years I am driving desert races. It is good, except I crash too much.

To take my mind off this answer I look out of the window. Stare for thirty seconds and you can almost see the Dubai skyline change. Half-built skyscrapers line the roadside. Construction proceeds at a feverish pace, from a giant airport terminal to millions of square feet of new offices. In the next two years alone, six more five star hotel towers will open here. His Highness the Sheikh recently laid the foundation stone for a pair of fifty-storey smart buildings, which will provide infrastructure for a new software industry. Washing lines string the twin skeletons of the half-finished monsters, hung with dhotis belonging to Indian labourers flown over to do the job.

The prevailing architectural style is brash, Dubai’s moneyed optimism foghorning out over its scrubby desert base. One thirty storey tower is half-faced in green smoked glass, the other half in gold, like a giant onyx writing set. Many more make crude gestures at traditional Arab forms, here a pointed arch, there a minaret. These schoolroom attempts at context are often unintentionally funny. There is little context here for the dutiful architect to find, little historical surrounding to be sensitive towards. Buried between office blocks in the town centre are a few traditional houses with square barajeel wind towers. The government bought most of them to prevent them being demolished, as downtown land values began to rival those of Manhattan or Tokyo.

Context has to be gleaned elsewhere. In the new architectural epidemic, the most popular reference is nautical. “Dubai’s seafaring tradition” is a staple of the tourist brochures, and so the new Jumeirah Beach fitness centre “calls to mind the noble prow of a dhow”, the hotel beside it is known as the ‘breaking wave’, and the structure of the extraordinary 45metre high Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht clubhouse is based on “the sails of a boat filled with wind.”

Other contexts are more tenuous. After Islam, golf is the main religion, and one of the office towers along the creek is appropriately topped with a gargantuan dimpled ball. Some of the architecture is beautiful, much just absurd. From the front of the Emirates Air training centre pokes a sort of giant mutant porch in the shape of a 747, complete with wings and engines.

Throughout the city, planning proceeds at Sim City pace, fifty metre behemoths appearing in a mouse-click, CAD-CAM models cloaking themselves in plate glass and steel in the time it takes to output the file to a printer. Sure enough, when Abdullah hands me some promotional material, it comes in a bag with a pixellated representation of Dubai landmarks on the front, a straight steal from the aesthetic of the computer game. Not for the last time during my visit I find myself wondering if this isn’t just a joke, or an enormous lab experiment.

I dismiss the thought. Looking for conspiracies isn’t necessary in Dubai. There’s no cabal, no invisible hand. The direction is open and obvious. Portraits of His Highness Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid al Maktoum hang above every shop counter, every barber’s chair, every hotel reception desk in the city. The Sheikh continues the economic strategy started by his grandfather, the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum. Despite its free market vibe, Dubai is, in the strictest sense, a planned economy. A business model exists to direct the fortunes of this tiny desert state as far as 2030. The plans are flexible, but they will certainly be implemented. The Sheikh’s rule is absolute, and Dubai has no parliament, no democratic vote to muddy the clarity of his vision. Inshallah, God willing, by the time the oil runs out diversification will be complete. For the Sheikh sees the future in service industries. He interests himself in added value and customer satisfaction. The Sheikh would like everyone to have exactly what they want, within the bounds of Islamic morality and reason. And he knows his guests will pay hard currency to get it.

Perhaps His Highness the Sheikh would be proud of the extra services at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. I go up to my room and at once a string of fey young porters arrive, bringing chocolates, a basket of fruit, a spare bathrobe, just coming to fluff sir’s pillows, to ask if sir finds everything alright. Always they end with a direct look in the eyes and the same question - “Is there anything else I can do for you?” I tell myself I’m imagining things. After the fourth visit I stop answering the door.


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I leave my airconditioned hotel room and take an airconditioned limo to the airconditioned trade fair, seven halls of high technology companies making deals, demonstrating their latest products, and handing out forests of leaflets to anyone who strays within reach of their stands. Outside I briefly feel the heat and taste the desert air as my badge is pinned to my chest. Then inside to the chill vacuum of international computer business. In one corner of the exhibition space a group of Middle Eastern firms are promoting Cd-rom Koran products. Muezzins recite holy verses, their distorted treble voices rasping out of multimedia PC speakers, volume knobs turned up to ten.

You can hear the PC-compatible call to prayer while you watch the Panasonic presentation. Two young women stand on stage in front of a giant plasma screen. They are dressed in sexy space outfits, low-cut tops, silver miniskirts and thigh boots. Both wear headsets. Behind them, graphics of a spaceship whizzing over a cratered planetary surface are accompanied by pompous synth-rock. The spacechicks run through a script, talking to “The Captain” over their headsets. It seems he is finding his ruggedised Panasonic laptop rather useful in his exploration mission. The girls draw a big crowd, rather bigger than the word of God or even the displays of industrial process technologies nearby. A gaggle of corporate guys and traditionally-dressed Arabs clap appreciatively as the girls pour water onto their laptop co-star. Then they disappear backstage before anyone attempts to beam them up.


The PR manager is talking. “We all went to the launch of Planet Hollywood last week. Patrick Swayze was there. Cindy Crawford was there. I don’t think any of these people would come to Dubai unless we had something to offer them...” I zone out. Around us in the hotel lobby are small circular tables, each one occupied by a shirtsleeved businessman. In front of each businessman is a mobile phone, a menu and a tall glass of juice topped with a cocktail umbrella and a pair of jaunty straws. Occasionally one of the phones goes off, a shrill chirping which its owner cuts short with a jab of the thumb and a self-important expression. Maybe it’s me, but I can’t forget that while all of us are living together in this sealed 2000-room space, breathing freezedried artificial air and washing in bright desalinated water, somewhere beneath our feet, beneath the roots of this giant atrium with its mirrors and chandeliers, is the red, shifting desert.


“A World Exists Beyond Your Imagination...”

At the entrance to the Breaking Wave, also known as the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, a Philippino man opens the door of my limo. He is dressed in dusky pink plus fours, a pink argyll jumper and an oversize urchin cap. He looks like a psychedelic nineteen-twenties golf pro. Beside him is a Singaporean girl, dressed as a pink explorer, complete with rose-coloured pith helmet. Together they show me into the lobby.

The lobby opens out onto an atrium which reaches up a giddy twenty-six floors. It is themed around the elements, ‘water’ colours shading into earth, air and fire. One wall of this enormous space is given over to what the brochure calls a “breathtaking lobby feature.” This consists of a 90 metre high relief map of the UAE, surmounted by a revolving sun and moon. In the centre is a throbbing red beacon, marking Abu Dhabi. Across the face of this cosmology criss-cross grey arcs, lit up by winking fairylights. I ask what they represent. Those are the Emirates Air flight routes, I am told.

The golf-pro and the explorer show me to one of the Jumeirah Beach’s eighteen restaurants (Argentinian, Lebanese, German, The “Dhow and Anchor British Pub”...). I am to eat at the Downtown Bar and Grill, where it is New Orleans week. The space is hung with bunting and just outside the window is a two-thirds scale model of a Mississippi Riverboat. Behind it, waves lap against the artificially-landscaped beach, fringed by authentic Caribbean palm varieties, which shelter discreet signs giving directions to the Hotel’s five pools, sports club, twenty four collonnade retail units, ballroom, conference centre and marina. Behind my table another sign says “This Way to the Viennese Café”.

I sit down to lunch with several traditionally-dressed Emiris and two of the hotel’s PR’s. On a stage in front of us a live band plays seventies jazz-funk. We make light conversation. No one else round the table appears to find anything strange or confusing about our situation.

The PR’s tell me that:

- Each room has a sea view.

- Dubai has more to offer than the UK, lifestylewise.

- Each tree in the complex has its own halogen light and automatic sprinkler system.

- At weekends everyone drinks in hotel bars.

- The new annex will contain only luxury suites. The largest of these is three storeys high.

- South Africa has gone downhill, but it’s understandable because the blacks hadn’t been exposed to the right business atmosphere.

- The helipad has been added due to customer demand.

- The entire hotel frontage can be used for projections. The last one they did was a Mercedes Benz sign.

When an Indian waiter appears, dressed as a hyperreal Norman Rockwell soda-jerk, I have to excuse myself and go to the toilet. It takes some minutes of deep breathing and hard stares into the gold-rimmed mirror of the marble plumbing fantasy before I am ready to go back outside.


I am developing the theory that all this has landed from space. It is a capsule, self-contained, self-referential, entirely indifferent to where it lands. This is the “international business environment”, as self-sustaining as the Panasonic captain’s interplanetary exploration craft. Any second, in response to some global flow of capital, the whole city could lift off and reposition itself somewhere else, the Mekong Delta, Baffin Island, San Francisco Bay. The pace of life and ambient temperature would stay the same, the towels would be just as fluffy and white, and the rolls would still be warm at breakfast. Perhaps the staff would look slightly different, but their name-badges - “Michael”, “Kelly”, “Paul” would still say the same things.


At the airport, my pockets are full of fine, red sand. A souvenir from last night, from my walk out into the desert. The moon was bright and the only signs of life were distant sets of bobbing headlights, expats doing a little night-time dune-bashing in their four-by-fours. Beside me on the transit bus a middle-aged British woman straphangs and chats to her neighbour. Both are wearing gold shoes, their skin tanned, hair frozen into expensive perms. “Of course it’s cheaper” one says to the other. “And cleaner. You just get a better quality of life all round. We had Simply Red playing the beach club last month.” Then the bus doors open and just for a moment, I feel the dry heat against my face.