Dubai: Introduction

  • © MPOnlineRedaktion,

    © MPOnlineRedaktion,


Dubai – you have to see it for yourself. Spectacular luxury hotels, mega-malls for shoppers and utopian construction projects have turned an Arabian trading port on the Creek into a global village measured in superlatives. The world’s tallest building and largest man-made waterway, artificial islands that are visible from space, the biggest airport – unparalleled construction projects are announced all the time and carried out in no time at all.

Whole new city districts surrounded by lakes and marina have been built on the sand, with a transport infrastructure of multi-lane highways flanked by skyscrapers with mirror façades. The opening of the seven-star Burj Al Arab hotel in 1999 was just the beginning; within a few years Dubai became a sought-after destination for short breaks, the eighth wonder of the world at the start of the 21st century.

The emirate, which is ruled by a sheikh, drew visitors to the Arabian Gulf like a magnet with sunshine, beaches and the invention of awe-inspiring sights. Seen from the observation deck of the 2716-ft Burj Khalifa a sea of houses stretches to the horizon. From up there even the nearby skyscrapers seem like cute toy houses. At the foot of this tower, the most prestigious place to live in Dubai, a residential settlement was built in the traditional Arabian style. Alongside villas that look like historic desert palaces, the old-world Souk Al-Bahar and an opulent hotel, The Palace of the Old Town, there are also attractions such as a man-made lake and the astounding jets of the Dubai Fountain.

Dubai is pushing back the desert further and further. 16 miles from the city centre, the Dubai Marina is a spectacular new district that boasts a huge man-made marina and (when it is finished) about 200 high-rises with out-of-the-ordinary architecture. One reason for the rapid development of this mega-city is that the oil reserves are being depleted. In 15 to 40 years, it is forecast, no more oil will be extracted in Dubai. As a centre of finance and commerce, Dubai is taking precautions and opening up new sources of income such as international tourism, which already bring the emirate more than 25 per cent of its revenue.

Sunshine all year round and clean, light-coloured sand make a beach holiday in the Emirate a pleasure for many. Add to that 40 large shopping malls with goods from all over the world at moderate prices. Uninterrupted growth and the realisation of crazy-sounding visions following the motto ‚nothing is impossible’ was the ever-present mantra in the emirate. Nowhere else in the world is such a large number of attention-grabbing construction projects being carried out.

In summer the pool water has to be cooled

But Dubai also polarises opinion: while some people see it as the most modern and vibrant city anywhere and are intoxicated by the dizzying speed of its development, others are put off by its excess and feel that the extravagant luxury and consumption that is normal here are ostentatious and trivial. If you speak to the foreigners who live in Dubai, you get a different picture. In their judgement the most important things are not the size and superlatives behind the frenzied growth in Dubai, but the quality of life that is on offer in this emirate on the Arabian Gulf.

Now that the economic and financial crisis of Dubai has largely been overcome, Europeans who work here are once again enjoying the enormous opportunities that are available to them: the dynamic life of the sheikhdoms, the countless leisure facilities – and the permanent sunshine. They say you can get used to the summer months, when it is as hot as hell, the water in swimming pools has to be cooled, the city heats up like a huge oven and public life becomes more and more lethargic.

'We simply compare the temperatures over 40° C (104° F), which make it impossible to live outdoors, with the icy winter months in Europe. When it’s freezing, we don’t want to leave the house either.' It depends how you look at it: at the start of the cooler winter months, when the thermometer falls below 30° C (104° F) again, the latest winter collections are displayed in the boutiques and shopping malls, and fashion-conscious women kit themselves out with woollen skirts and boots in air-conditioned buildings. On winter evenings the temperature can fall dramatically in this region, and then it pays to have a pullover. 

At almost 3900 km² (2440 sq mi), the second-largest of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates (CAE), is about as large as Mallorca. As most of the emirate, which extends approximately 45 miles inland, consists of desert, over 95 per cent of its 1.7 million inhabitants live in Dubai City and its surroundings. (The United Arab Emirates are described in detail in a separate MARCO POLO guide.)

Dubai’s meteoric rise began with the export of oil

Dubai has changed by holding its finger on the fast-forward button. A huge construction boom drives the dynamic economy and brings in people from all corners of the world. The real estate and service sectors have been growing for years. ‘Only a very small part of my visions for Dubai have been realised’, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid al-Maktoum, head of government and the most important stakeholder in the emirate, is reported to have said. As recently as the 1960s Dubai was an insignificant Bedouin settlement by the sea that had a population of a few thousand people living from oasis agriculture and fishing.

The region’s meteoric rise began with the discovery and export of oil. The ruling Al-Maktoum family gave the native population a generous share of the new affluence. Young couples are given a house and land as well as an interest-free loan. The Dubai people have unique facilities for education and training. The state pays for health care and pensions, which is probably the main reason for the political stability of the emirate and for the fact that the population are happy with their standard of living, one of the world’s highest, even though they have no political influence.

90 per cent of the residents of Dubai are foreigners

The locals also have to live with the fact that they have become a minority. Only 10 per cent of the residents of Dubai are nationals or locals and can benefit from the financial advantages granted by the state. 90 per cent or residents are foreigners, usually expatriates with a fixed-term contract of employment. They represent 120 different nationalities. Everybody has to abide by the local laws. Drink-driving, for example, leads not merely to the loss of the driving licence and several days or even months in prison, but sometimes to deportation. Despite liberal attitudes in Dubai, Islamic values and laws apply still here in the 21st century. ’Allah u Akbar’ – five times a day the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer from the minarets of the mosques.

When darkness falls, thousands of lights make the Jumeirah Mosque look like a building from the distant past, even though it is only 30 years old. Record-breaking, luxury and the desire for profit are only one side of the emirate. While champagne flows in the bars and clubs and the fashionable rich party in locations that get ever more spectacular, the people of Dubai live according to the rules of an Islamic state. The Koran is not only the basis of justice but also dominates everyday and family life. Local women are expected not to go out alone at night, to wear a long black robe in public and cover their hair. During Ramadan, the annual month of fasting, all public life slows down. And the life of Arab people continues to revolve around the extended family.

Dubai is growing without any restrictions: faster and faster, higher and higher, bigger and bigger. The Burj Khalifa with its over 2600 ft had not even been finished when Dubai announced the construction of a building that would exceed the 1000-m mark – we are talking 3200 ft! Until recently such energy-intensive prestige projects were more important for Dubai than a careful use of resources. And so the emirate became the world’s biggest waster of energy. Reports about this in international media have had an effect: Dubai increasingly plans to consider ecology.

Since 2008 it has made a commitment to complying with its own environmental guidelines by saving water and resources, by recycling and by favouring renewable energy sources. However, it remains to be seen whether this ‘green construction’ is more than a marketing gimmick. An awareness of ecological issues is still absent. The locals love luxury and technology above all else, and the guest workers from Asia who want to raise their low standard of living are scarcely in a position to concern themselves with sustainability. There are only sporadic signs of a change in thinking. It is often the Western expatriates in the emirate who set a good example by saving electricity, turning down the air conditioning, taking a bag with them when they go shopping and asking for organic products. 

Understatement is not the order of the day in Dubai. Nevertheless, during the international financial crisis the prices for luxury properties fell even here. Ambitious building projects were halted, façades with nothing behind them can be seen all over the city. In mid-2010, however, the end of the crisis was officially announced: the indebted Dubai World state company plans to pay back its borrowings of 14.4 billion US$ by 2018, partly by selling some of its real estate. The markets recovered after this plan was made public. Dubai, described as the ‘bankrupt sheikhdom’ in western media at the peak of the financial crisis, seems to have made adjustments and is forging ahead again. Anyone who visits Dubai will notice that the optimism has returned.

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