The Evil Teen and I just returned from a holiday in Germany, where she got to meet her new grandma, auntie and uncle. It was her first experience of life in Europe and as things would have it, she ended up getting a bonus experience of the Middle East when we had a 20-hour layover in Dubai.
Personally, I like Dubai in as much as it’s as close as I’ve gotten to the Middle East region since I worked for the Saudi’s in 2006. I like hearing the sound of the Arabic language and there’s something special about seeing people wearing their traditional robes amongst the ultra-modernity of an airport.
I don’t feel alien when I deal with the Middle East and dropping the various Arabic terms for the Almighty in everyday conversation come fairly naturally. I believe that if anything decent is going to happen to me, it will probably involve the Middle East and Arabs (the group that will do me a good term is likely to be Indian).
You should say Dubai fits nicely into my world view. It’s easily the most “open” place in the Middle East. When I first went to Dubai in 1994 to visit my stepdad who was living there, everybody outside the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC consisting of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman) needed a visa if they were to move beyond the baggage claim in the airport. The GCC has remained fairly closed to the outside world. In 2006, the Saudi government even insisted that those traveling on United Nations passports had to apply for a visa before entering Saudi soil.
So, my first experience of the new Dubai on this recent trip was a wonderful change. Dubai has become the shinning exception of openness in a region known for being closed. They have a “smart gate” system, where people from certain countries (namely those countries that may produce tourist) may waltz in and out of the city as and when they feel like it. Thankfully, Singapore is on that list and so, instead of spending my day in the airport, I actually had the chance to visit Dubai properly. The immigration officer, who was a UAE National, was the friendliest one I’ve encountered – ever. So, much so that I believe that the USA needs to send its immigration officers to Dubai for training.
The day was spent in the Dubai Mall, which is attached to the Burj Khalifa. The Dubai Mall is probably an expression of Dubai’s ambitions. This four-story mall is the world’s largest by gross area, covering an area of some 500,000 square meters and doesn’t include the hotel complex next to it. There’s an ice rink and a four-story high aquarium that has proudly been named as an “underwater zoo.” Despite the various economic calamities, the Mall has seen a steady increase of visitors since it opened in 2009. The mall even has its own train station (I actually had to double check that the stop for the Dubai Mall was called – Dubai Mall.)
You could say that the Dubai Mall is a microcosm of Dubai itself, which is pretty much Singapore on steroids. I come from Singapore, which is practically a giant shopping mall of a nation and it’s got to say something when someone coming from Singapore is actually impressed by shopping mall.
If one takes the Dubai Mall as an extension of Dubai itself, you’ll end saluting the Al-Maktum family of Dubai for creating prosperity without oil in a region where oil is pretty much the only economic activity around.
How did they do it? Well, for a start, Dubai is exceedingly open to foreigners. If you hang around the Dubai Mall, you’ll realise that its exceedingly cosmopolitan. The work is done by Filipino’s and Indians with a sprinkling of Caucasians from the West. The customers come from all over the place. You’ll see Westerners mingling with Indians and Orientals in the shops. Apart from the men and women in Thobe and Abaya’s, the only sign that you’re in the Middle East are the odd announcements in Arabic and the call to prayer.
The Dubai Mall provides a home away from home for the well to do. Well to do visitors at the Burj and the adjoining hotel come to shop at the mall. Likewise, visitors at the mall can visit the Burj and stay in the hotel. Dubai as a nation tries to be pretty much the same to the neighborhood. Two of the largest investors are Saudis and Iranians, who also treat Dubai as the place to go to for fun or the things they can’t do at home.
The mall isn’t cheap either. I guess you could call it a case of prosperity breading prosperity. Well to do tourist and shoppers are supposed to spend money to keep the local economy ticking. Cheap back packers need to visit. I changed 70 Euros thinking I’d had more than enough and ended up worrying that I might end the day without – when I heard the price of a travel adaptor, the Evil Teen decided that we could do without charging our phones….
There’s much to like about the Dubai and the Dubai Mall. It’s capitalism at its best and everyone around the place is happy making money. You’re not going to get an Arab Spring in Dubai because as far as Dubai is concerned, it’s already summer.
And yet, I can’t get the feeling that there’s something lacking in Dubai in the same way that there’s something lacking in Singapore. I think of my first encounter with my former editor-in-chief, Mr. Khaleed Al-Maeena, who told me, “You in Singapore, stop being an ape to the West and start respecting your own culture.” I probably say those words were most apt when it comes to Dubai. Nearly every brand known to man is in Dubai. Short of starting an Islamist plot against the government, you can probably do pretty much what you want. Yet, and yet, I’m do ask myself – what is there especially unique to Dubai. I often ask the same question about Singapore.
In Singapore, the answer for most people is to head to the food court and to grab a prata or a plate of char kway teow – which are incidentally not unique to Singapore, you can get it in Malaysia too but these are things that remind you that there is perhaps something in Singapore that isn’t an imitation of somewhere else.
In Dubai, I didn’t get anything that was authentic to Dubai or the Arab world’s culture. There was a food court with plenty of burgers or fried chicken but I didn’t see “Kapsa Rice” or “hamoor” (fish unique to the Arab/Persian Gulf waters). One can only take so much of shopping and big brands (and that’s coming from someone who spent a good portion of his life building brands). In the words of the Evil Teen, after we couldn’t find a local version of the kway teow – “Borings – sia”
I understand the drive to modernity and I applaud places like Dubai, Hong Kong and Singapore for prospering in tough regions. These places have made it by being open to the world – you could say they true meritocracies.
Yet, there’s something missing when the drive to modernity comes at the expense of your own soul so to speak. Hong Kong has a special culture. Wan Chai is as much a part of Hong Kong as the Peak. I feel a sense of culture when I speak Cantonese to people from Hong Kong. Apart from street food, Singapore has that special version of English – Singlish.
To be fair, I didn’t have a chance to get to know Dubai the way I know Singapore and to a lesser extent, Hong Kong. So, I hope Dubai, in its hyper drive to modernity remembers that it needs to keep something of itself. The thobes and abayas are probably the greatest relief I see on the streets of Dubai – it’s a sign that people In Dubai and the rest of the Middle East keep their culture and show that their culture can exist alongside the “international” global order. Contrary to what Donald Trump will tell you, you can be unique and global at the same time.