Stretching Your Travel Dollar

A shower in the sky: Part 2

By Elaine JS

We landed in Dubai one hour early, at 4.00am. I stepped off the plane into a deserted terminal, just as the dawn adhan was being piped through the airport PA system.

Dubai has fascinated me for a long time. I had visited twice before, once in 2005 and again in 2007. A lot had changed in the intervening six years, and I was keen to revisit and also catch up with an old friend from uni.

Since 2007, Dubai had endured the financial crisis, almost becoming bankrupt in the process until its big brother, Abu Dhabi, came to bail it out, before rebounding and going back to its old habits of rabidly constructing improbable buildings in the middle of the desert. (In 2010, Dubai opened the world’s tallest building. At over 800 metres high, it was supposed to have been named the Burj Dubai. At the last minute, it was renamed to the Burj Khalifa to honor its benefactor, the Emir of Abu Dhabi, whose deep pockets contributed to the financial bailout.)

The friend I was meeting was with had an eclectic background. A Bangladeshi by heritage, he had grown up in Papua New Guinea, studied in Sydney, worked as a technology consultant in Singapore, and finally ended up in Dubai working in the hospitality industry. He was multilingual but still spoke with a solid Australian accent. After attending the same undergraduate program for four years, we kept in touch periodically until work took him abroad. I had not seen him since he moved to Dubai, which was about six years ago.

We almost missed each other in Dubai. I was going to be there for less than 24 hours, and he was flying out to London that same morning to meet up with his wife, who was attending a course in Cambridge. After exchanging a few messages on Facebook and Whatsapp, we eventually established that we were going to overlap for a few hours in the early morning, just enough time to catch up somewhere in the city.

So it was at 5.00am that he turned up, somewhat bleary eyed, to pick me up from the airport. It turned out that he had decided to pull an all-nighter. At least in that respect, he was exactly as I remembered him from our undergrad days.

As we drove into the city, we caught up with the usual obligatory gossip about classmates and eventually moved on to the topic of Dubai itself.

Things definitely felt a lot better than a few years ago, he remarked. The construction boom was back with a vengeance, and unemployed expatriates had stopped ditching cars they could no longer afford at the airport in a bid to escape debtor’s prison (in exchange for never being able to set foot in the country again).

The locals really know how to do business, my friend said. Any one of them will be involved in two or three businesses at the same time. He was referring to the local Emratis, who were actually a distinct minority in Dubai. In a city of 2 million, less than 20% were locals. The rest were expats. There were the usual westerners professional services industry types taking advantage of the zero percent income tax rate and the glitzy expat lifestyle, but the mainstay of the population and, some would say the Dubai economy, were the expats from the subcontinent: Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Filipinos.

Two local brands have really put Dubai on the world map: Emirates and Jumeirah. Jumeirah runs a chain of luxury hotels, including the famous Burj al Arab, a so-called 7-star hotel whose sail-like structure has become almost synonymous with the image of Dubai.

We arrived at the Emirates Towers (a Jumeirah property, naturally) and ate breakfast there. With technology being not just a tool anymore, but being an enabler of all things, my friend explained that he saw his job not so much as technology consulting, but as hospitality consulting. He used technology to determine things from how to price rooms, how to optimize occupancy rates, where to situate guests from different countries within the building, and how to lay out the floor plans of their restaurants. ìI love my job,î he said. ìOur company treats its staff well, even though the salaries in Dubai are not what they used to be during the boom times.î He said that without any trace of irony, despite the fact that a few minutes ago he was driving me in what in any part of the world would be considered a very nice car.

Oh yeah, there are a lot of nice cars in Dubai. When I went to Italy last year for a holiday, I was surprised because it turns out that all the nice cars the Italians make aren’t there. They’re here. My neighbor bought an Enzo last year. And this year he bought a Maserati. Even our police force has an Aventador and an Aston-Martin. I think that’s ridiculous. You’ll see their SLK cruising around our neighborhood on a Friday night. I guess things are all relative.

My friend was clearly enjoying the expat life, and in general, it was a good one, at least if you were not an expat laborer working on one of the skyscrapers springing up around the place. (While building the Burj Khalifa, the contractors decided it was taking too long to send workers up and down the building at the start and end of each workday, so they built sleeping quarters on one of the upper unfinished floors to shorten workers daily commutes.)

A lot of expats were still leveraging their credit cards to maintain the expat lifestyle that everyone was outwardly displaying, but there was a bit more restraint than there was four years ago. They worked hard, but also set aside time for leisure, including on weekend nights. From a cultural perspective, neither my friend nor his wife felt that local laws or customs had curtailed any aspect of the lifestyle they had enjoyed in Sydney. Yet, his time in Dubai would be limited. I’m going to move back to Sydney at some point. I want to retire there.

Dubai was clearly still a city of excesses. I bid my friend farewell and continued my visit. I visited the Burj Khalifa, which was a beautiful monolith standing head and shoulders above an already bustling skyline. I had a Friday brunch at Spectrum on One, a multi-hour affair with a sumptuous buffet and an all-you-can-drink alcohol offering. I relaxed at the Ritz-Carlton’s private beach, where a friend happened to be staying. I rode the Metro, a new, gleaming transit system that was initially feared to be a white elephant but turned out to be quite well used, even if it was mainly by tourists and expats who looked like they provided household help. I walked through Dubai’s gigantic shopping malls, filled with international brands, restaurants, an ice bar, and an indoor ski slope (complete with chair lifts). The air conditioning bill for the city must have been massive. It was not yet the peak of summer, but already the heat and humidity was stifling as soon as you walked outside.

In fact, it gets so hot during the summer, that most Emratis clear out of the city in July. Some even take their cars with them, so you might see a Veyron being driven around the streets of Mayfair with Dubai license plates.

The affluence was jarring to me. Back home in Silicon Valley, there’s some serious wealth there, but it’s rarely flaunted. It’s hidden behind the high walls of Atherton and secluded in the forested ranches of Woodside. Despite a large number of Porsches and Teslas, you’ll only catch the occasional glimpse of a supercar. I also knew in the back of my mind that the Dubai economy was being powered by the darker side of laborers working under harsh and inhumane conditions, as several journalists have reported upon in the past.

We had dinner at a Lebanese restaurant at the Dubai Marina with a Swiss couple, Aliando and Vera. Aliando worked for Emirates. He described how Dubai was building an even bigger airport to replace its current one which is already better than most international airports in the world. He mentioned how Emirates planned to order and maintain a fleet of over a hundred Airbus 380s. We asked Aliando and Vera whether they thought Dubai was doing too much, too fast, and whether things were just a little too excessive to be sustainable. After an honest moment of contemplation, they just shrugged and said that they didn’t know the answer. I suspect no one really does.

After dinner, an Emirates driver came to give me a ride to the airport.

Read Part 3 – A shower in the sky

Article written by Stuart Loh – posted by Elaine JS

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