Thursday, October 26, 2006

Du, Duba, Dubai.

That title will, I suppose, only be appreciated by those old enough to recall the Dubo, Dubon, Dubonnet advertisements of a bygone era. I was reminded of it as I saw the ghostly wraith of the wording on the side of a French house the other day. This goes back to the time when the thrifty French would lease the unused sides of their houses out to commercial enterprises to act like rather solid billboards. I suppose most of them have been painted over now, but they were certainly preferable to those monstrous billboards.

Many years ago an unsung poet penned the following:

“I think that I shall never see,

A billboard lovely as a tree.

In fact, unless those billboards fall,

I’ll never see a tree at all.”

But back to Dubai. As you know, Dubai is home to a lot of sand, sea, camels and obscene wealth. It also happens to be the home of my publisher. Judging by the amount of construction going on there, it also aims to be the home to most of the world population. The place is one huge construction site and, whilst any aficionado of dump trucks, concrete mixers and giant cranes, will feel that he has died and gone to heaven, for the rest of us it can be a bit upsetting. So very different from life in my home town back in France that I chuntered on about yesterday.

Who they are expecting to come and fill the super, super high rise apartment blocks I have no idea. From the uppermost stories of these you would need oxygen and a pair of high powered binoculars to even catch a glimpse of the sea. At the opposite ends of the scale, there is a development called The Palm which is practically underwater. It is, of course, like all these developments, unfinished and one hopes that the melting of the Greenland ice cap doesn’t upset their calculations.

The tallest building in the world is rising apace and, just in case someone like the Chinese should trump them, they’ve designed it so they can add a few stories and, if you’ll pardon the expression, top it.

You can shop in the malls until sated or bankrupt and drink champagne on the top floor of the only seven star hotel in the world, the Burj Al Arab, also the tallest at 321 metres. And then just down the road they’ve built a ski run with real snow, presumably for homesick Norwegians.

From this you can gather it’s a place that delights in excess. A sort of Arabian Nights meets Las Vegas by way of Disneyworld. And the streets are clogged with traffic, as the most favoured vehicles are the sort that the rest of the world is trying to disown.

“Is there nothing about the place you like?” I hear you cry.

Well there is. Firstly, the food is excellent and service impeccable but, more importantly, the local inhabitants are at their most charming. For those who think only of Muslims and Arabs in terms of dangerous religious militancy, a trip to Dubai could be well worth it. For here is a truly intelligent attempt to integrate two very different life styles. Tolerance and respect go hand in hand as do, incidentally, many men, rather to some western visitor’s astonishment. But it's just a sign of friendship, nothing more. Dubai is a little nation that has come to terms with modern western thinking, even if it has meant exiling the camels from town. A pity, since I rather like camels – they seem to have got the human race pretty well wrapped up.

But to me, the most remarkable thing is that, not too many years ago, Dubai was an Arab settlement of pearl fishermen. When I was in the air force, we would fly over on our way into our base at Sharjah and I can’t even remember noting it as being a town. Not until oil was discovered in 1966 was it much more than a minor settlement. And yet here it is, twice life size and immeasurably more gaudy, but at the same time, very secure and most welcoming to the stranger. Longer established nations should, perhaps, take note.

I just hope the global warming doesn’t raise the water level too much for the inhabitants of The Palm. But then, if they can afford a place there, they can always move up to the top floor of the Burj Al Arab hotel and drink champagne until the tide goes out.


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