Oil has made the United Arab Emirates fabulously wealthy. Outrageous, audacious Dubai, as FIONA McCANN discovers, has shown what you can do when you’ve got vision, money, determination and, perhaps, few scruples. Abu Dhabi, its earnest big brother, wants to be known for its cultural life – which, writes KATHY SHERIDAN , further down the page, it is buying in from the Louvre and Guggenheim
DUBAI: ‘THE THING about Dubai,” trilled an expat from England as we sipped drinks at the foot of the Burj Al Arab, the sheikhdom’s 321m-high landmark hotel, “is that it’s so authentic.” I almost choked on the mint in my mojito. We were sitting beneath a hotel shaped like a sail in a state where 250km of the coastline is man-made and where the shopping malls contain ice rinks and ski slopes. Authentic was not the first word that sprang to mind.
Yet speaking to another Dubai resident about this ludicrous claim, I was told that my search for authenticity in the man-made islands shaped like the world’s countries, and the ostentatious hotels dressed up like coral reefs and ocean waves, might be missing the point. This was Dubai, built in a frenzy to be exactly how it came across: an outrageous, audacious – and, now, unsustainable – display of bling and an example of just what you can do when you’ve got vision, money, determination and, perhaps, few scruples. “Dubai never asks you where you got the money,” one young man from nearby Sharjah explained with a wry smile. As long, it appears, as you spend it there.
The vision behind modern Dubai is credited to Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, father of the current ruler and the man who oversaw the emirate’s growth from tiny trading town to skyscraping cosmopolitan hub. His concern that Dubai’s oil would some day run out – he famously warned: “My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel” – prompted him to plan an economy to outlive the oil boom, and he went about it with purpose, courting foreign investors, industry and a slew of new inhabitants that have forever altered the landscape of this tiny sheikhdom, which is smaller than Co Kerry.