Entering the Emirates lounge I see hummus and baba ganoush and I feel at home. Having transferred through the Arabic airport previously, I finally get off to stay a few days. Dubai. Well, it ain’t Kansas. The immigration agents have turbans, smiles, and offer mints as they provide on-the-spot entry visas. The rest rooms are spotless, very modern, and sport squat toilets with electric eye flushes and bidet hoses. Hum… while I wait for my car service I am handed a cooled water bottle. Dubai, home to 185,000 Emirati, total population including foreigners is about two million. As of today the Sheik’s Facebook page has 2,943,238 “likes” so either the locals are voting more than once or word is out that he’s a cool guy.
A nation-state, place of peace and relative acceptance, an adult playground rising out of the sand, Dubai evokes Aladdin, Las Vegas, Miami and a giant adobe erector set with buildings made either of matching brick or dazzling glass that compete for wackiest form while reaching to the sky. Some of the soaring edifices are lit up to emulate what looked to me to be ladies draped in diamonds, others twinkle in the night sky like candles. Some structures are shaped like sails, others twist like clay on the potter’s wheel. They seem soft, malleable. Sexy. So many scalloped arches, swirls and bendy wrought iron trims. Interiors are vibrant blues and greens and reds and yellows. Suddenly I understand the black robes covering the women. The surroundings are so sensual females are more powerful whispering a private promise of what can be uncovered. Besides which, your eyes glow when trimmed by cloth. And it’s HOT at midnight when I land and even hotter in the morning when I hit the streets. You want to hide your skin (and I am a sun junkie). If I stayed one more day I might have purchased at least an abaya.
Since his accession in 2006 Sheikh Mohammed has made Dubai a destination for work and play. He’s a benevolent leader cultivating a vibrant safe society. All Emirati are guaranteed an education through university, either locally or abroad. Health care is paid for. You see no poverty. Even in the relatively older souks it’s not menacing. You can’t live in Dubai without a job and foreign workers are guaranteed a month holiday and a round trip ticket home. Airfare is paid for by the employer. Generous. Yes. Also quite clever. I am told that most people fly Emirates business class. What to do about the empty coach seats? Require employers to buy their staff tickets home. It also means you don’t have foreigners loitering for a month with nothing to do during their holiday. Idle people might get in trouble. And trouble is to be avoided. Your mobile phone is connected to your car license and other things. When my friend made a turn of questionable legality she waited for the buzz which she happily didn’t get. If she was caught, within minutes she would have received a text.
I ran down to dip in the salty Arabian Sea at sunset. The sun bounces off the glass buildings and at dusk the flock of construction cranes disappear into the shadows. Pretty magical. I dared to modestly slip off my makeshift swimming skirt under my towel. I was waiting to be fined when I exited the country. If I get a summons for any behavior it should be for skipping out on the burrata cheese wrapped in gold leaf. Sold at? Serafina of all places. There’s lots of gold here. On the women, the buildings and clearly even the food. I am told the authorities are keen to assist the Emirati population who can easily get backing for new businesses. It feels like a very big extended possibly intrusive but basically happy family.
Sheik Mohamed has a vision and he gets stuff done. The city oozes modern possibility. You can ski inside. The pseudo snowy world is aptly called St. Moritz and you can sip hot chocolate by the fire and watch your friends come down the slopes or zip line to your table. And this is all in the corner of a shopping mall. Outside the glassed-in winter wonderland is a Starbucks, Modell’s sporting goods and a Shake Shack. Also a Marks and Spencer to make the Brits feel at home and all sorts of other mall stores from around the world. There’s retail for everyone. And if you want to live in an even more rarefied community you can live on one of the palm fronds in the section of Dubai shaped as… A palm tree fanning out around the giant Atlantis hotel complex with its own combination of indoor/ outdoor aquariums and multiple restaurants.
There’s no shortage of stunning vistas and venues with fabulous food. My first night out I was served sushi on tatami mats several floors up and outside on the deck of the iconic Burj Al Arab. The next night we ate on a terrace of the tallest building in the world, the Burj Kahlifa.
At 8 pm and every half hour after that we were treated to a perfect view of dancing fountains on the Dubai creek. In thirty minute intervals songs and water choreography surprise you including a traditional Arab melody followed by “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” then opera and you get the picture. Except you can’t. I have never seen anything like it. My jaded New York self could not stop taking photos. It was a nonstop two days filled with much talking while sneaking in as much tourism as possible including a quick visit to the souks catching a canal boat to transverse the creek. Which prompts me to toss a hint of Venice into the Dubai “reminds me of…” game. Along with it’s over the top expressions of wealth and flamboyant indulgence I woke up each morning with a call to prayer in a country that models safe acceptance of all religions. Dubai, juxtaposing tradition and tomorrow, energetic and welcoming, a real oasis in the desert.