Back in England after some time in Dubai where it was overcast and the temperature a cool 23C. The locals tell me it was even colder a few weeks ago and it certainly felt chilly on our beach below the apartment. The fabulous city-state is still emerging from the hangover of the economic recession; bruised certainly, but not bowed and whilst one wouldn’t use analogies that include ‘phoenix’ and ‘ashes’ there’s no doubt that the prevailing mood is one of guarded optimism.
And Dubai is busy. Very busy. Cars with Saudi and Bahraini number plates are more common in the much-reduced traffic queues than we’ve been used to and testify to a huge influx of people from around the Gulf seeking solace from turmoil on their own squares and roundabouts.
Tourist numbers – now so important to the economy – have also increased. 2010 saw over a million more tourists than the previous year together with the opening of thirty new hotels. The Gulf News reported that occupancy was averaging above 70% but my straw poll suggested that hotels are running at 90% and over. Several that I visited were full and one manager assured me that earlier this year ‘Dubai was full, completely full’ with not a single room available to rent. Well, perhaps.
Shopping is more popular than driving badly and has always been a major recreational pursuit in Dubai so the malls, even in these post-recession days, remain vibrant and busy. They say in the shops that there are more people browsing and less people spending, which may be the case, but for me the real attraction is being able to sit with a coffee and take in the diversity. With something approaching 200 nationalities registered in the emirate – try listing just half that number of different countries – time spent in Dubai’s shopping malls provides a window on the human race that occurs nowhere else I know. The Dubai Mall is the largest in the world, if you count the 22-screen cinema complex, aquarium, underwater zoo and ice-skating rink. The development also includes the world’s tallest structure, Burj Khalifa, as well as its own luxury hotel, The Address. Dubai is spoilt for bars located above the tree line but the Neos on the 63rd floor of The Address has views that are matched only by its prices. The whole area, which includes the new Old Town, is without doubt very impressive; watching the crowds drift between the Dubai Mall and Souk Al Bahar as the huge fountain sends jets of water some 270m into the air makes it difficult to reconcile the incomplete and abandoned projects that litter the edge of town. The contractors and developers are staying below the parapet for the moment but sightseers, shoppers, diners and strollers are here en masse – people enjoy and indulge in the place on many different levels.
There’s little in the way of active construction but it’s not completely dead – amid the skeletons of incomplete towers and iconic developments infrastructure and a few projects are slowly being completed. That these have missed a ship that has already sailed doesn’t deter developers from adding yet more accommodation to an already over-provided market. Unlike a couple of years back, Dubai isn’t buzzing, but now the combination of a fair wind and reduced traffic and construction noise makes it possible to detect a gentle humming. The hiatus caused by the economic downturn has seen projects completed or abandoned in equal measure and has also presented an opportunity to tidy-up some derelict areas so it was good to see condominium towers and roads finished in Dubai Marina and Marina Walk. Having said that, the traffic on roads that now have no escape route through construction sites was horrendous; one wonders what they were thinking when the layout was designed or, as I suspect, if they were thinking at all.
North Africa, Yemen and Bahrain are in turmoil as I write and there are problems in Saudi Arabia and Syria. There’s no doubt that unelected administrations such as Dubai’s are keeping a watchful eye over their shoulders as the sound of dissent rumbles on the horizon. In this part of the Muslim world there is probably less to fear than elsewhere and, for the most part, the citizens are not turning ugly. That stems from a multitude of factors; a small population, relative wealth, a genuine and far-reaching respect for the ruler and the laissez faire approach to business that provides, above all, opportunity. When it comes down to it, democracy isn’t really what it’s all about – repression and a lack of opportunity have driven the people out onto the streets. Neither appears to afflict Dubai. The western press revels in reporting the eccentricities and extremes of despotic regimes and is smug in implying that our deeply-flawed model of democracy is the only way forward. But the fact of the matter is that, despite the cranes and scaffolding, unfinished projects, a doubling of fuel prices at the pump, some nonsensical legislation and some truly monumental errors, Dubai actually works. And it feels safe. Just ask the Saudis, Bahrainis and Egyptians who are relocating their families there.