Mention that you live in Dubai and you’ll always provoke a reaction. Often, it’s one of wonder (‘Are the motorways really paved with gold?’); sometimes, it’s one of revulsion (‘Does that building site have any soul?’); but it’s consistently one of interest. The world hasn’t quite got its head around Dubai yet. Compared to London , Paris and New York , Dubai has only had a short time to become a true city. Now it’s relentlessly morphing, rising taller, even stretching itself out into the ocean. Yet, a few decades ago, it was nothing but a desert port. Then the ‘father of Dubai’, Sheikh Rashid, realised it might be wise to invest the emirate’s oil riches in creating somewhere that would catch the attention of the world.
Living here, rather than reading about it in magazines, is rather like taking part in a colossal social experiment. With a population made up of hundreds of different nationalities – only around 25 per cent of residents are citizens of the UAE – life involves a constant culture clash, as contradictory mindsets and religions attempt to align. Rules are vague, blind eyes are turned and everyone does their best to get along.
But whether residents hail from India, Russia, Africa or beyond, everyone has one thing in common: they’ve all come looking for a better life. Whether it’s the Burj Dubai – which became the tallest tower in the world in 2007 – or the seven-star Burj Al Arab hotel that stands proudly over the city’s coast, people here don’t want to settle for second best (or second biggest, or tallest, or whatever record is being broken that week). Indeed, many residents don’t settle for long, but instead squeeze the place for everything they can before heading elsewhere. Thus, along with the never ending construction, Dubai has a perpetual, disconcerting transience.
Of course, many new arrivals see the gleaming towers and imagine they’re in a Western city. When they encounter Dubai’s idiosyncrasies, they get angry. They fume about terrible traffic, lack of expat rights, a rigid social hierarchy in which race appears to determine salary. They’re bitter at the ridiculous rents, now among the highest in the world. They’re flabbergasted that it’s acceptable for the Sheikh to close the entire city for a day just because the American president wishes to drive down the main road.
But later they will wander along one of the free beaches at sunset, passing dozens of Filipinos enjoying picnics, perhaps share a moment of understanding, a joke or a meal with someone from the other side of the world. It’s then that they’ll feel proud to have integrated themselves into such a unique, challenging place -without getting too sucked into to the shallow merry-go-round of five-star hotels, beachside bars and fleeting friendships.
Dubai may well be amazing when it’s finished. Right now it’s fascinating to be part of its progress.