The Magazine

Goodbye, Dubai

The best way to see it is receding in the mirror.

Oct 15, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 05 • By ANN MARLOWE
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Last February I woke up one morning in New Jersey and realized I couldn't take one more winter there. I had to move to a warm climate. I was thinking Scottsdale, but then the chance to work in my family's business in Dubai came up.

Samira is a tall, attractive Afghan-American woman of 40, as typical as anyone of the constant influx of people to Dubai. We're struggling to make ourselves heard over the deafening international thump-thump music at Buddha Bar, the restaurant of the moment where we're having dinner with my friend Karl.

Samira likes Dubai. I loathe it. I've visited briefly 13 times, on the way to or from Kabul, never for more than a week, beginning in 2002. While it has expanded enormously over that time, it has also become ever more traffic-choked and homogenous. And although an article touting Dubai's "fabulousness" appears in a reputable American publication almost weekly these days, the truth is that it's a bad place that people from worse places think is a good place.

The hotels are, after all, packed with vacationers. If you are from a small city in Russia, or the eastern part of Germany, a third-rate hotel on the beach in Dubai is probably the best place you can imagine. Posh décor! All-you-can-eat buffets! (The smoked fish is often outstanding.) A beach in the hot sun! (Well, there is a cement plant next door, but only part of it shows over the big fence.) A bathtub-warm sea! (Even if it has a visibility of about one foot, and no discernable marine life.)

If you like to vacation in Las Vegas and enjoy the climate in Phoenix or Houston, Dubai might be the place for you. It joins the worst of urbanism with the worst of the suburbs: sterile towers, no parkland, traffic murderously dangerous to pedestrians, full of chain stores and restaurants galore. About the only thing in its favor is ethnic diversity. But I dislike the people--a few friends aside--as much as the built environment.

Who are the worst? It could be the fawning, passive-aggressive politeness of the Filipinos who fill many service positions here. They are probably homesick and exploited and behind the murmured "No" to your request is a burning hatred of what they do and where they are. Or the pedantic nature of the Indians higher up on the hospitality ladder. They relish explaining why you cannot have a cappuccino in the dining room with your dinner, but only in the lobby bar. (The Russians are probably worse on this count: A return to their repressed inner commissar gives a peculiar zest to their "No.")

It could be the many Emirati men, who treat the Filipinos and Indians like dirt. Or the overstuffed Germans working as engineers and architects, who take a certain relish in recounting how young Arab men, on finding out they are German, will explain how much they admire Hitler. ("Of course I tell them that this is horrible, but if Israel continues to behave in such a brutal way .  .  . ")

The Europeans are here for a degree of responsibility or level of earnings they can't find in their no-employment economies, but they also lack the refinement and cultural awareness that is the saving grace of most Europeans' bad politics. They are the kind of Europeans who don't mind eating imported processed food and living in jerry-built, air-conditioned towers.

Not everyone who comes here for business reasons likes it. Karl has spent years in Saudi Arabia and Kabul, but his home is Washington, and he shares my interest in places with character and texture.

"They keep telling me if I go here or there," he says, "I'll see the really exciting side of Dubai. But whenever I get there, it's like the restaurant we were at last night. Dead."

That was an intriguingly tacky Russian nightclub with very inexpensive blinis with red caviar. It had a floor show featuring a band and a half-dozen well-trained dancers of both sexes; but it was only half-full, and the other customers were a stolid lot--a mix of Russians, Arabs, and who-knows-what who didn't seem to be having a great time. No sense of revelry. I hoped the dancers weren't among the many immigrants from low-wage economies in a sort of debt slavery to those who brought them here. Every day the newspapers report the rescue of some woman in this predicament.

Buddha Bar doesn't have a sense of revelry, either--despite its reputation as the most happening restaurant in Dubai, and despite a punishingly loud sound system. But Dubai is about business, not fun. We were talking business, too. I was impressed to learn that Samira not only has an undergrad degree in finance, but is an M.D. Karl has two degrees in finance and did a stint at the World Bank. Everybody around us looked as though they had studied some crushingly boring stuff at one point or another--except for a petite Emirati couple in local dress, he all in white, she all in black.