My very first glimpse of Dubai was in 1975. After a wander along the sandy Creek I stopped for coffee in the newly-opened Inter.Continental - then the emirate’s only luxury hotel. Today Dubai boasts more than 300. When I mentioned Dubai to friends back in London, only one had ever even heard of the place. Just 32-years on and just about everyone on the planet is either talking and writing about Dubai or heading for its shores. Most are admiring, some are hoping to capitalize on the economic miracle, while a few sound faintly envious. Let’s see what they’re saying.

It appears writers are running out of adjectives to describe the phenomenon that is Dubai and are being forced to come up with innovative expressions to drive home their point.

Graham Norwood writing in the Daily Telegraph says “No-one can be indifferent about Dubai, which he dubs a “Manhattan-on-speed city”.

Michael Kanellos, a staff writer with CNET News writes Dubai is like “Singapore on steroids”.

Author Mike Davis writes “Welcome to paradise. But where are you? Is this a new science-fiction novel from Margaret Atwood, the sequel to ‘Blade Runner’, or Donald Trump tripping on acid?”

In reality, of course, Dubai is an Arab hybrid, a one-off mélange of the best the world has to offer blended with local traditionalism. Trump or Atwood wouldn’t have been able to envision Dubai in their wildest dreams.

The CEO of a financial services company Bob Gogel puts it succinctly:

“Dubai is an unpolished gem polishing itself very quickly. You could look at it as a CD compilation – the best of London, Sydney, Miami, and Las Vegas”.

Gogel misses one important ingredient though – the input of Dubai’s rulers, nationals and expatriates, who have dreamed the dream and worked so hard to achieve so much in such a short space of time.

In the conservative Times, Tim Hames writes “Dubai is a place that plainly believes that size really is everything” and refers to parts as resembling “Disney in the desert, though with a coastline”.

“It already has the largest airport in the world. The tallest building in the world is almost ready, and the largest shopping mall in the world is under construction. It has the only “seven-star” hotel on the planet” and uses “a quarter of all the cranes existing on the globe”, he writes.

Boom Town

In an article published in the Guardian titled “Boom Town” Adam Nicholson says ‘Mushroom City’ is the fastest growing city on earth and asks whether it “could become the most important place on the planet?”

Nicholson estimates there are “US$ 100 billion worth of projects underway or planned for the near future”, the equivalent, he says of “every single dollar invested in the United States from abroad last year” and “almost twice the foreign investment in China”.

He asked a 75-year-old local textile trader “why Dubai was going through this world-busting surge?” The man responded with an old Dubai joke indicating that commerce is in the blood.

“A young boy is asked by his father ‘what is two plus two?’. ‘Am I buying or am I selling?’ the young boy replies.

He ends his article with questions. “Is Dubai, in fact, the fulcrum of the future global trading and financial system? Is it, in embryo, what London was to the 19th century and Manhattan to the 20th? Not the modern centre of the Arab world but, more than that, the Arab centre of the modern world.

Many foreign journalists appear bowled over by the nation’s ambitious architectural styles.

Alex Frangos, writing in the Wall Street Journal, says “Dubai puts a new spin on skyscrapers”.

“In skyscraper-crazy Dubai, tall isn’t enough” he says before going on to describe a planned 68-storey “combination hotel, apartment and office tower where the floors would rotate 360 degrees”; each floor rotating independently to create a constantly changing architectural form.

He describes each story of the tower as “shaped like a doughnut” that would rotate…although, not fast enough to “give guests upset stomachs”.

“Playpen for architects”

“Dubai has become a playpen for architects, where the deep pockets of oil-rich developers drive some of the most eccentric building projects in the world,” Frangos says.

He quotes Eugene Kohn of the New York-based firm of architects Kohn Pedersen Fox as saying “Some of these buildings are going to the absurd”. Professional envy perhaps!

Mike Davis is scathing. “After Shanghai, Dubai is the world’s biggest building site; an emerging dream-world of conspicuous consumption, which locals dub ‘supreme lifestyles’.” As though enjoying a supreme lifestyle would be somehow beneath him.

Seth Sherwood writes about the entrepreneurial spirit of HH Sheikh Mohammed in the New York Times. His article begins as quoting Dubai’s ruler as saying “Money is like water. If you lock it up, it becomes stagnant and foul-smelling but if you let it flow, it stays fresh.”

He points out that “Sheikh Mohammed seems dedicated to fostering a spirit of unbridled creativity in Dubai” and quotes Jean-Claude Baumgarten, the President of the London-based World Travel and Tourism Council thus:

“If I look around the world I can’t see another place that’s having such an influence on neighboring countries. Qatar, Bahrain and Oman are all trying to build something around the Dubai model”.

Afshin Molavi, writing a profile of Sheikh Mohammed in Newsweek titled “The CEO sheikh” calls Dubai’s leader “a thoroughly modern prince”.

“From his offices on the 44th floor of a sleek steel-and-glass skyscraper, he juggles nonstop cell-phone calls and dashes off salvos of quick-fingered text messages,” Molavi writes, quoting Sheikh Mohammed as saying with a wan smile “Sorry. It’s a very busy time”.

It alleges Sheikh Mohammed once told a British ambassador “Whenever Tony Blair or Gordon Brown wants to see me, I’m happy to do so, but please don’t bring me a stream of ministers. I don’t have the time. But bring me any British CEO. I have time for that”.

“Full throttle”

Sheikh Mohammed was trained as a fighter pilot and once famously said of his plans “I have only one speed. Full throttle”, writes Molavi while stressing on Dubai’s 11 per cent economic growth, an anticipated tripling of GDP by 2015 and plans for Emirates to grow into the single biggest airline in the world.

“What you see today is only 10 percent of my vision,” Sheikh Mohammed apparently told Molavi.

The Newsweek article says “Dubai is well run and honest…ranking ahead of Japan, Britain, even Germany in terms of government efficiency and economic competitiveness.

It quotes a Jordanian businessman thus: “The story of Dubai is the story of good governance. Good governance does not require democracy or free elections. What is required is a good leader with a vision and accountability, and Dubai has one in Sheikh Mohammed”.

Hester Lacey writing in the Independent begins her article on falconry confessing that she “went to Dubai prepared to dislike the place”.

“I had imagined a soulless desert, not in the sense of austere, sandy dunes, but in terms of endless gruesome shopping malls flogging designer rubbish…and Ski Dubai, the snow dome that churns out artificial snow in the Middle East heat. How mad is that?” However, she ends her account with wishing she had stayed longer to take advantage of everything there is to do.

“Dubai’s glitz goes global”, writes Emily Flynn Vencat in Newsweek. “In the beginning,” she says, “Dubai built man-made islands in the shape of a world map so large it can be seen from space. Now Dubai is recreating the actual world in its own image.

“Property pioneers”

Vencat then goes on to list mega projects in Morocco, Syria, Pakistan, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Turkey “and half-a-dozen other developing countries around the world” being undertaken by Dubai “property pioneers”. Real-estate experts are calling these ‘the new Dubais” she writes.

Dubai is not only building overseas but also buying real estate according to Richard Wilner in the New York Post.

“Dubai is snapping up trophy properties worldwide, including London’s One Trafalgar Square, the Atlantis Resort and the Queen Elizabeth 2 Ocean liner,” he writes.

“Here in the US, Dubai’s various investment companies have recently snatched up Barney’s New York, the Helmsley Building, the W Hotel Union Square and…a sizeable stake in MGM Mirage”.

“Nurturing Arab dignity”

The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman writes “Dubai is a model we should want the Arab world to follow”. In a politically-charged editorial he says:

Dubai is building “a future based on butter not guns, private property, not caprice, services more than oil and globally competitive companies, not terror networks,” he writes. “Dubai is about nurturing Arab dignity through success not suicide. As a result, its people want to embrace the future, not blow it up”.

For once I agree with him. Dubai has come a very long way since the days when camels, goats and chickens wandered the Jumeirah Road; a traffic jam signified a probable accident up ahead; the Trade Centre was the highest building in town, and the clock tower the best-known landmark.

They say the past is another country and if that’s so then Dubai becomes another country every decade or so. Foreign writers will go on variously praising and attacking Dubai but those of us who over the years have lovingly watched it grow can only feel but one all-encompassing emotion – pride.


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