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Depressed by Dubai

We’ve had the brandy and the caviar, and now it’s time for me to leave. As I get up from my kitchen stool,  Andrei, my landlord, a big Russian bear of a man, gestures towards me. He clearly wants to say goodbye, but speaks not a word of English. This could be tricky. Thankfully Matvik, my housemate, is on hand to translate his compatriot’s farewell gestures. Andrei reaches for his pocket, and holds up his wallet in my direction. He says something in Russian. “Dubai gives you…plenty…for the bank,” Matvik translates. Then Andrei clasps his hand to his chest. “But…nothing…for the soul,” his interpreter continues. A simple, but perfect expression. Andrei may have charged too much rent; he may have kept a mangy Russian cat which pooed in my suitcase; he may have harboured dubious guests, including an ex-con from Russia who tried to steal my clothes, even when I was wearing them. But, with two small gestures, he’s summed up Dubai perfectly.

I’d been in Dubai barely two months when I began to harbour doubts about the place. It was during Dubai Summer Surprises, the annual festival which attracts millions of visitors from across the Emirates, and for which my company did the PR. ‘DSS’, held in Dubai’s shopping mall, has everything. A week devoted to sweets, with a 50-foot chocolate castle; Eastern European Gymnasts dressed as flowers; even a yellow-and-blue mascot, called Modesh, who looks like a giant tapeworm. But it doesn’t have any stars, no definitive characters. No Mickey Mouse to entertain the crowd, no Mickey Rourke marching down the red carpet. I soon learned that DSS is purely, simply, a shopping festival. The shops are the stars. People flock to see Ralph Lauren, Valentino, and Tommy Hilfiger, and wallow in their own wealth. The commerce isn’t a by-product of the event, but the event itself. As the event dragged on, it became clear that DSS was merely a three-month synopsis of Dubai life. And it offered the perfect symbol of this city; a chocolate castle, built on sand.

As my doubts expanded, my social life began to contract. When I first got to Dubai, it seemed great. Giant billboards heralding the arrival of the world’s biggest DJs, spinning their wares under shimmering lights. Yet there was a catch. Every bar, every club, every big event, is held within the confines of a hotel. That’s the law. The hotels, for all their glitzing modernity, left something to be desired, something held dear to every Briton. Not scuffling skinheads or fifteen-year-olds vomiting in the toilets, but a communal buzz. In Dubai people go out to be seen – the Mediterranean beauties in lashings of make-up, and their black-suited boyfriends throwing money around. They don’t want to be disturbed by small talk. I’d come from Manchester, where people always want to have a natter and put the world to rights. In Dubai, all everyone wanted to do was stand around and look at each other, comparing gold watches and breast implants until the night reached a merciful conclusion.

On night, in an effort to break the monotony, we went to Dubai’s biggest Lebanese nightclub. The Lebanese run Dubai. Three-quarters of the population may be Indian, but everyone knows where the money is. All the big companies I worked with had a Lebanese at the top, and with good reason; they can speak three languages, after all. Yet, when we rocked up to ‘their’ social scene, common courtesy seemed to be beyond them. A bouncer with biceps the size of watermelons addressed us. “There is no room inside,” He told us, even though the club had only been open for half an hour, and there was no queue.

Undeterred, we came back an hour later. Girls with heaving cleavages and exotic bling were being allowed in all around us, but Hulk Hogan still refused to grant our passage. We even tried again two hours later, but this time he simply shook his musclebound head. The following week, I asked my Lebanese workmate what we had done wrong, why a British presence would have been so offensive. “Aaaah, you English,” she replied, flicking a bejewelled hand. “You get drunk, you argue, you fight…we Lebanese are not like this, we are sophisticated.”

This sweeping generalisation held hidden truths. It showed the extent to which suspicion lingers in Dubai, between peoples thrown together for mutual convenience, with little interest in interaction. The Americans suspect the Lebanese of being lazy. The Lebanese look down on the Jordanians for lacking class. Everyone looks down on the Egyptians – many of them are reluctant to admit their true nationality when asked. Westerners are tolerated for their commercial nous, but the Israeli conflict still casts a sad shadow; Arabs are reluctant to meet their white peers outside of work. I asked my Arab workmates around plenty of times, but they were always too busy, playing Pro Evolution 4 or smoking shisha at home.

The Dubai authorities have encouraged this rigid social structure. In building a city for visitors, they have given little thought to those who live there. Dubai lacks the basic communal building blocks – cafes, parks, libraries – and so people just return home after a day’s work, stick on a DVD and shut the world out. This was perhaps the most disheartening aspect of Dubai; I had come hoping for a cultural melting pot, and all I found was a smorgasbord of sour grapes.

With the Arabs unwilling to make friends, I joined a rugby club, in the hope of at least meeting like-minded westerners. But no use. The New Zealanders, South Africans and Fijians rejected the sort of social activities I had been searching for. I never wanted it to be like home, and in any case it would have been hard to re-enact British rugby rituals, such as forcing debutantes to run through the street naked (if thieves get their hand chopped off, you can imagine what happens to streakers). But I did hope for something. The odd team night out, the occasional laugh, even a filthy chant about a pirate’s daughter. But no, nothing.

I joined the Hash House Harriers, the famous running club which had been recommended by a former ex-pat. One extreme to the other. I’d been warned by my American boss that “a lot of British people out here have come to escape the UK – they weren’t good enough to succeed back home.” It seemed all those people were members of the Hash House Harriers. After going out on their weekly run, the group repaired to a member’s house, where they got stuck in to a crate of beer smuggled in from a more liberal emirate. The Harriers swore profusely, like a bunch of boys who’ve just been to their first football match and want to show off their new vocabulary. I might seem like a prude, but a group of men calling themselves “c*nt face” and “arse shagger”, and making constant reference to each other’s daughters just didn’t seem funny. I didn’t go back a second time.

There were some good times. Like when my housemates and I went sandboarding, or when our house party attracted guests from at least twenty different countries. And Dubai certainly offers untold luxuries to its inhabitants. I was able to afford a decent room in a brand-new villa, rent a car and buy the sort of clothes which had been out of my reach at home. We had a pool in our complex, ensuring tranquil relaxation after a hard day at work. And I was never ever skint, never counting my pennies towards the end of the month, never having to scrimp and save to make ends meet.

But money seems less important when you can’t enjoy it. There’s only so many bars you can go to, so many times you can go out to watch people playing with their phone all night, having thirty-second conversations to look important. After a while, it all becomes a blur, one neverending night of nothing. Dubai might be a golden ticket to a married couple in their early thirties, looking to accumulate a nest-egg before they start a family. But to me, a young, single guy, the money was merely a peripheral issue.

Yet, at the same time, it underpinned my view of Dubai. I found a city that was selfish, covetous and rude – bucketloads of cash had taught the inhabitants to think only of themselves. If you have your own car, why share a lift to work? If you can afford a one-room penthouse, why bother with a houseshare? If you can afford everything you’ve ever dreamed of, why worry about the Indian with a wife and kids at home, who gets paid £4 an hour to hand you a towel as you leave the restroom?
I left on good terms. I found a replacement flatmate, and last I heard she had settled in well (even though I forgot to tell her to hide her suitcase). Andrei gave back the loafers his guest had nicked from me. And the driver’s licence. My boss told me I’d be irreplaceable – then hired someone else a week later. I guess that’s the way in Dubai. It’s a city for the future – history is for anoraks. But they say you ignore the past at your peril. If they’re right, Dubai could be headed for an almighty fall before too long.

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