First Impressions of Dubai

January 11, 2010 § 1 Comment

– “Ambition. Its the reason 208 different nationalities can live together”

– “You’re a capitalist. Capitalize”

– “Ambition. It’s the one thing economists don’t have a chart for.”

– “Markets fluctuate. Ambition doesn’t.”

– “It’s not how much you make. It’s what you make with it.”

– quotes found in student publications around the AUD campus

I was flipping through one of the student publications I found on campus and I saw these quotes noted near the bottoms of some pages as style notes and they really captured how my first few days in Dubai have left an impression of limitless ambition on me. As far as exploring the city, I’ve done primarily touristy type things for the first few days. I figured I would give myself some time to be a mindless tourist before I got sick of that kind of stuff and started looking for something else more engaging.

Malls in Dubai are an experience unto themselves. I haven’t stepped into a single mall with the intent of shopping for anything but have still managed to spend large parts of some days there. So far I’ve visited Emirates Mall (home of Ski Dubai), Ibn Buttuta Mall (modeled after the travels of 14th century Islamic scholar who is the namesake) and Dubai Mall. These malls are all far bigger, more luxurious, way more expensive and certainly intended to be all inclusive experiences than malls in the United States. Dubai Mall, for example, had a beautiful water fountain, a ice-skating rink, a water fall, an aquarium, high fashion stores, a gold marketplace, a 26 screen multiplex and more retail stores than I could begin to look at. Its location right next to the Burj Khalifa meant that I got to sit outside on a patio with a waterfall while eating lunch and staring at the Burj Khalifa. The incident of lunch (comprised of delicious Lebanese food at that) really captured my first experiences in Dubai.

All in all, I’m having a reaction similar to any tourist would. I’m amazed at all the buildings, impressed with the lifestyle, dumbfounded at the luxury, floored by the opulence and constantly experiencing sensory over-load. If you’re interested in seeing this in action, I’d recommend watching any of my recent You-Tube videos as they capture this sense of wide-eyed enchantment pretty well. While talking to one of my floor-mates last night, I realized that this is pretty much a typical reaction to Dubai for most people. He said he would ask me the same question now, as I’ve recently arrived, and again when I’m ready to leave in four months time. He then proceeded to ask me what I thought of Dubai. I answered with some of the same, talking about how elaborate I thought it was, the malls being so big and fancy, the buildings being so picaresque and so on. Rashid said that I answered as expected and as he expects, I will be very disillusioned by the time I leave in April.

In truth, I knew all of this to begin with. I understood relatively well how lavish this city is, although seeing it in person certainly has its own merits. Dubai’s reputation precedes it in many ways. Knowing all of this full and well, I still think there’s something exciting about letting go of my nuanced understandings, my informed opinion or whatever the case may be and just taking it in at first with new eyes. I could have very easily been callous to it all and taken the attitude of “well yeah, so what?” but I think that would have been a disservice to my time here. I have been blessed with this opportunity and I intend on taking everything from it that I can. For the first few days, and maybe a few more since it’s so dang fun, I’d like to just be touristy.

As far as the quotes above are concerned, I think they speak loudly to something I’ve been feeling about Dubai already, which is that all this expansion and luxury is relatively baseless. I haven’t had enough time to formally develop these ideas or test them in any way, but my visceral understanding is that there’s really not much underneath the surface of shiny tall buildings, big huge malls and spaceship metro stations. Sometimes I think the buildings have been built just for buildings sake, not really to house anything as big.

Some of the other highlights include the fact that I’ve spoken more Hindi in my time here than English or Arabic. There are as many South-Asians here in Dubai as anyone will lead you to believe (actually, probably more). In terms of the financial crisis, I really can’t say if Dubai has been hit hard or not since I was not here before, but from what I’ve asked my friends here, the city is less crowded than it used to be as people have left after the collapse. The main remnant of the crisis I can see is halted construction of buildings everywhere. I am loving the food; primarily subsisting on a diet of kebabs, hummus, dried nuts and other meats. I’ve also already eaten some of the best Indian food I’ve ever had (including growing up in New Delhi). The infrastructure (highways, roadways, metro etc) is pretty impressive. I think this is a good case-study in what you can really accomplish with virtually limitless resources. There are some interesting media and public information access details that I have noticed (in newspapers and internet access) which I am interested in exploring further as time goes on. People here are really rich (I was behind a woman yesterday who purchased $6000 USD worth of makeup at Yves Saint Laurent).

In any case, I plan on enjoying my time here and developing a better understanding of the country and the gulf region. I have some plans cooking for some travel in addition to my academic experience on campus which hopefully will be fulfilling as it has been the last few years back at UIUC.

As always, pictures can be found here, tweets here, Facebook here and videos here.

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