Thursday, April 22, 2010

Scooby Dubai Do

Dubai is a remarkable city built in the desert. Fourteen years ago most of this place was sand. Today it has a skyline that looks partly like it was designed by the graduate architectural students completing their theses and partly as if it was built by kids who ran out of Legos.

It is famous for its excesses. It boasts the world's tallest building (the Burj Dubai - a picture LK took from our balcony), the world's only 7-star hotel, the world's biggest water fountain show, the world's biggest gold ring. I believe it also is in the running for the world's biggest inability to pay its debts.

It also boasts an indoor ski slope (which even functions in the summer when the summer temperatures soar to 120F). This competes, apparently, with the ice skating rink in the Hyatt Regency.

And best of all for the residents of this Arab state, there are no taxes. As in zip.

Ring a bell? A city created in the desert for no other reason than because somebody decided to do it, figuring it would make them a lot of money. Huge buildings of fanciful shapes tower above you. There is a massive emphasis on having Guinness-level features and attractions. And an almost religious fervor in trying to bring to the parched, scorched earth things having no place in the desert.

As LK pointed out - it's Las Vegas without the neon lights. I should add "and without the showgirls, gambling, free drinks at blackjack and 99-cent all-you-can-eat breakfast."

That said, Dubai is still an interesting place, struggling to convince itself and the world that it's having heaps of fun, in spite of its Muslim roots and the shock impact of the global financial crisis.

So what do you do if you've built mini-Vegas but don't have the casinos? No worries - Dubai pitches itself as the shopping capital of the world.

It is famous for its spice market, where just about every aromatic thing ever grown is available. LK was dazzled by the profusion of saffron.

But let me be frank about Dubai shopping. Spices aren't going to put any place on the map (OK, except for the Spice Islands). No, Dubai is famous for its emphasis on gold. They have a marketplace - souk in Arabic - that was the final stop in our tour today. LK had started out today's tour saying she had thought about it and decided she was not going to buy any gold here.

Given where we were, I thought I would reinforce that decision. Twice I said "I divorce you" to her, and warned that I would complete the ritual with a third declaration if her trip to the market threatened our nest egg. By the time we left the Gold Souk thirty minutes later, she had only melted one corner of the Visa card. (And to be honest, I encouraged her so she shouldn't bear the whole blame.) It's probably a sign of our new lifestyle that she did admit to me afterwards that she would have done a lot more damage a few more years ago when she was still working.

Being in a more-or-less traditional Muslim country does make you well aware that you're not in Kansas, or Sydney, anymore. Dubai is actually one of the more enlightened Arab Muslim states, permitting complete freedom to practice other religions and even allowing alcohol to be served in some licensed pubs and hotels. We even saw women - obviously European women - wearing bikinis at the beach near the Burj al Arab - the ultra-luxury hotel (in the picture) where, our tour guide assured us, even Brad and Angelina come with the kids.

Given that the ruler's grand scheme involved convincing major western companies to set up shop in Dubai, these concessions were perhaps inevitable. It is very hard to imagine a western money guy being willing to move to a place where there's no booze, no gambling and the only way you can check out the chicks is by looking at their eyes.

Despite its willingness to accommodate western ways, you still see a large number of women wearing the traditionail burqa, and the mosques' amplified calls to prayer fill the city air several times a day. And LK and I both recalled the couple who were jailed last year for kissing in public.

So in the end, I never had to say "I divorce you" a third time, but I didn't give her a kiss until we got back on the ship, either.

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