Dubai: the glitz, the glory, the future

As Dubai unveils its vision for 2040, I make an overdue visit to THE city of the early 21st century

While most destinations are fretting about the next six months, Dubai is looking a bit further ahead: to 2040.

At the beginning of the month, Dubai announced its Vision 2040 Urban Master Plan. 

There were some predictable – you’d almost say ‘compulsory’– buzzwords in the press release: sustainability, efficiency, diversity, inclusivity among them. There’s also a new ad campaign called Live Your Story. It’s one of those tourism campaigns ad agencies always manage to flog to clients because it has the words ‘live’, ‘your’ and (above all)  ‘story’ in it. (A little test to take in, say, 2022: name the destination where you can ‘live your story’? I bet you’ll struggle). 

But there was some real substance and some genuinely eye-catching figures too: 60% of Dubai is going to be turned into nature reserves; and there will be 400 percent more beaches over the next two decades.

Dubai likes masterplans. This is the seventh since 1960. But since then, the population has multiplied 80 times from 40,000 to 3.3 million, while the built environment of what was then a glorified fishing village is 170 times what it was. That does require a bit of planning.

Put the masterplans aside for a minute. It’s easier to see COVID as a great dividing range between the second and third incarnations of Dubai. 

Dubai I: fly-blown fishing and pearl port on the edge of the desert. Dubai II: arguably the 21st century city – a hub of business and tourism, attracting millions of workers and visitors for whom a trip to the Arabian gulf would once have seemed as likely as a short break in Papua New Guinea.

Dubai II has minted new global landmarks at an incredible rate. It has aspirations to become a financial centre to rival Hong Kong and London. It has risen and risen despite the epoch-making war of ideology and religion that seemed to be looming after 9/11.  Yet it could not stay immune from the financial crash of 2008/9. Its most prominent monument, the world’s tallest building, had to be renamed to honour its biggest creditor: and so the Burj Dubai became the Burj Khalifa, after the ruler of Abu Dhabi and president of the UAE, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

So what shall we expect from the third Incarnation?

Can green and glitz go together?

There used to be a desert around here somewhere: Dubai’s sustainable city vision

The headline on an article published in early December (before both the UK and the UAE saw spikes in COVID infections, and it was one of the very few places UK travellers could visit) described Dubai as a ‘glorious, glitzy wonderland’.

I wrote that article, but not the headline. And whereas I was expecting ‘glitzy’ before I went, and got it; to my surprise, I also found something glorious about Dubai. As for ‘wonderland’? Well, with giant building-sails and palm islands, magic fountains and monumental picture frames in the sky, there is more than a touch of the fantastical about Dubai. (Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland also had a capricious and all-powerful royal ruler).

Dubai: will wonders never cease?

A lot of travel writers have an instinctive aversion to the place, and I guess I was one of them: that’s why, until last year,  I’d spend precisely 30 minutes in Dubai, back in the early 2000s, on my way to the sublime desert resort of Al Maha.  

On my 2020 trip, driving between the Museum of the Future and the old trading route of Dubai Creek, I looked through the Dubai Frame and saw how wrong and snooty travel writers can be.

We like history and evolution, not sudden reinvention. We’re suspicious of places where there’s lots of parties and hedonism, where the local culture takes up about as much space as the indigenous population (in Dubai’s case, about 15% of the whole).

I gazed up through the frame and, instead of feeling viscerally hostile to Dubai and all its works, I felt profoundly grateful to be there. It’s not very often you get to see a new, era-defining city growing up in front of your eyes. You’d have to use your time machine and see Philip II’s Madrid or Hausmann’s Paris under construction, or go yet further back to Trajan’s Rome or Tokugawa’s Edo.

I spent some time in Shanghai a decade ago, and that had the same feeling: relentlessness, invention, reinvention – some of it inspired, a lot of it mad, flashes of real beauty, glimpses of sheer gimmickry and the sheer spectacle of unfettered human energy, acquisitiveness and endeavour.

Like all those cities, Dubai is a place that projects power and wealth and – though I’m not sure everyone will believe this – permanence. 

Unlike most commentators, for whom the future is synonymous with ‘dystopia’, I’m an optimist. So I’m ready to stream Dubai IIIThis Time It’s Green.

Rulers love their long-term masterplans: anyone around long enough to see them will have forgotten the details anyway.  But I want to be in Dubai in 19 years’ time. Having looked to Shanghai and Manhattan before, I think their planners now look to Singapore and its ‘city in a garden’ vision. I see an oasis of the mid 21st century, silent roads and verdant skyscrapers, the hanging gardens of Babylon reborn for a new Arabic world.

But I’ve a feeling I won’t have to wait until 2040. This is a place in a hurry.

With thanks to the Residence and Spa at the One@Only Royal Mirage – almost an historic hotel by Dubai’s standards, but quiet, civilised and an excellent place to watch the city unfold around you.

Leave a comment

How should we respond to the Sheikha Latifa case? 

In February, the BBC’s Panorama broadcast a programme about Sheikha Latifa, daughter of SheikhMohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Prime Minister of the UAE. Latifa had earlier tried to flee Dubai and was now being held captive, apparently in a luxury villa. The official explanation was she was being cared for by her family. The official version didn’t get much mileage. The United Nations registered its alarm and asked for proof that the Princess is still alive.

After the Panorama programme, the former British Foreign Secretary, Sir Malcom Rifkind, was asked on BBC radio what action the British Government should take. His answer: they should do…absolutely nothing. This was a private family matter involving a friendly overseas power. It might jeopardise our trade with the UAE – and it was none of our business anyway.

Rifkind spoke with the blunt pragmatism that’s inseparable from his trade. But he was right. The UK government kept schtum. There has been no boycott of Dubai goods or holidays; and it’s fair to say that the influencers who are doing so much to keep Dubai high in the Instagram rankings (see Marklands, January 19) are rarely influenced by human rights issues in the places they bless with their presence.

It’s hard to boycott the world; and tourism can be an influence for good, and for reform. Besides, since I started travelling, the world has become a better, fairer, freer place. The first two overseas places I ever went to were then run by brutal military dictatorships. Where were they? Greece and Spain.   

So, yes, I would go back to Dubai. But the champagne would seem a bit flatter and the skyscraper lights that much darker in the knowledge of this poor rich woman’s unhappy fate.

What English football and the US aviation sector don’t have in common (but nearly did have)

Wimbledon’s Plough Lane ground: this is how we like it

I haven’t quite supported Liverpool Football Club all my life. I don’t think I was a fan when I learned to walk and talk. But ever since I learned to read, I’ve been a diehard Red: so maybe all my conscious life I’ve been a Liverpool fan. It’s an inseparable part of my identity – and one from which I came perilously close to being separated this week. Had the breakaway European Super League happened, I’d have had to make a choice: support the team but disown the club. 

I get that Liverpool is a worldwide brand: I’ve seen them play in Hong Kong and Doha as well as Burnley and Wimbledon. But for all the glitz and glam and merchandising of modern football, you still remember those chilly afternoons and nights at Turf Moor and Plough Lane…. and watching a bunch of pampered multi-millionaires plying their trade in the shadow of gasworks and terraced houses – and enjoying (almost) every minute of it.

The US sports/business model has failed to pass the export test, which must puzzle the strategists at J P Morgan, the breakaway consortium’s bankers. I wonder if the billionaire owners left with so much egg on their faces will ask how their advisors failed so miserably to do their due diligence?

American capitalism is a fascinating thing. It creates great innovation and disruption and then moves as fast as it can to shut down the competition. Winners really do take all and they carry on fixing things up so that no new innovators and disruptors can bother them. Ever wondered why American airlines – who invented modern commercial aviation as we know it –are so rubbish compared to the rest of the world? Because they don’t allow foreign competitors to compete with them on their home turf; and however miserable their performance, they are guaranteed their airport landing slots and bail-outs. The free-form, free-trade, intensely local way Europe does business and runs its sport must be a puzzle. But this week, the Spirit of Burnley walloped Brand Liverpool – and I couldn’t be happier. 

Hong Kong’s Liverpool fans with a handy print-out of the club’s anthem


Songs that take you places

For What is Chatteris

Half Man, Half Biscuit

I’ve written a bit about patriotism this year. And you know what make me really proud to be English? That we can produce a pop group that calls itself Half Man, Half Biscuit.

I wrote that I Vow to Thee, My Country makes the Jones bosom swell with pride and affection for its native country. Well, so does For What Is Chatteris

It is a paean to those modest municipal virtues which are every bit as much a part of the English landscape as Wordsworth’s field of daffodils or Shakespeare’s precious stone set in a silver sea. 

One way system – smooth and commendable

Go by bus – they’re highly dependable

The swings in the park for the kids have won awards

The clean streets acknowledged in the Lords.

Yet Nigel Blackwell’s song, with its deliberately archaic-sounding title, reaches back to a deeper lyrical tradition. Like the Elizabethan sonneteers, the absence of the Beloved renders the beauties of nature and the achievements of man meaningless. ‘I may as well be in Ely or St Ives’, he laments. 

Anyone who has witnessed the intense rivalry between English market towns will understand how much melancholy, loss and resignation resides in that final line.

The full Marklands playlist is here.

Chatteris bus: Highly dependable

Envy corner: Nicola Chilton

In my line of work, you often come across journalists and writers who cross over into public relations. A tiny percentage go the other way. Nicola Chilton is one who has made the transition, and made it very well.

Nicola is based in Dubai, where for many years she had a big job in the Four Seasons hotel group. She always had a great eye for a photo. Now she’s shown she has one for a story too. I’d highly recommend her insider’s view on the UAE and other places in her blog.  

Let’s end with ….Roff Smith’s photographs

Copyright: Roff Smith

The COVID era is already producing some beautiful creative works. The travel photographer Roff Smith has been documenting his lockdown-era bicycle rides from his Sussex home. See the set here.

See you next time.