Anyone who says Rome wasn’t built in a day has never been to Dubai. The entire city (and surrounding Emirates) appears to be a never-ending construction site, with ever more dramatic buildings being constructed. Indeed, the advertising landscape is dominated by property developments. Advertising for the usual range of consumer products is barely visible, so ubiquitous is the hype around property.
It’s all part of a grand and ambitious plan that aims to prepare Dubai for the day when the Gulf runs out of oil (20 million visitors per year by 2020 is the aim). Desert is being converted to state-of-the-art modern city on a scale that is almost inconceivable. One has to admire the bigness of the thinking, and part of me thinks that they could actually pull it off.
The horse racing component is already huge. The Dubai World Cup, the world’s richest horse race, is now an important part of the globe’s annual racing calendar. There are also plans for futures exchanges, sporting events, and anything else that can draw major media interest and attendance.
I was in Dubai last week (my second visit), and feel it necessary to point out that the Emperor is without underwear. Sure, the designer exterior is all there, but a large number of basic essentials are absent.
It is almost impossible to navigate the non-shopping areas of the airport, as the floors are covered in (ostensibly) low-income sleeping migrants from various parts of Asia. While walking through these areas I noticed that my wheelie laptop bag was not moving so smoothly. After 10 or 20 metres I investigated, only to find a woman’s shoe stuck under the wheel. Needless to say, I had no hope of re-uniting the shoe with its wearer.
Queues for the toilets were at least a dozen people long. I do realise that public toilets, by their very nature, are used by many people, but spending 15 minutes in the company of the people after whom I’ll be ‘going’ is really not the most appealing thought. For obvious reasons I have a phobia of liquid on toilet floors, even if it’s as innocent as water. And, given the cultural environment there’s generally a large quantity of water splashed all over the place. My advice to anyone transiting Dubai – use the toilet on the plane before you land.
Assuming you’re entering Dubai, and don’t hold a passport that grants an exemption from visa, you’ll need to have acquired a visa. You do this by paying money to a hospitality service provider. The drawbacks: they take a rather large authorisation on your credit card to cover overstays, the visa is valid for a mere 14 days and may only be used for one entry. So, if you need to go to Bahrain as well (as happened to me) you may need to purchase an additional visa. All that is delightful, compared with the hour-long queues of people waiting their turn to be ignored by disdainful immigration officials. It was completely at the opposite end of the spectrum to the experience I had when arriving in Dublin (read about it here: http://oscarspleasure.blogspot.com/2006/10/18-hours-in-dublin-on-recent-phineas.html).
Dubai itself is a mess to negotiate. The rail network is still under construction, and is unlikely to deliver sufficient coverage (walking even 100 metres is a serious hardship when the temperature is over 40 degrees). So, in the interim everyone uses cars, which completely constipates the roads. It’s as if the planning has all been around these icon buildings, with hardly any thought given to the ‘how’ parts of people getting to those buildings.
A prime example of absent planning is the Jebel Ali Free Zone, which is at the opposite end of the city to the lower-cost housing areas. Employees can spend three hours just getting to work in the mornings.
As if getting around isn’t enough of a hindrance, the administrative bureaucracy is totally anti-enterprise. A friend, who set up a Dubai-based hedge fund in answer to the government’s strategy of becoming a financial services centre, eventually shut it down because of the difficulty in getting anything done.
So, I look at their ambitious plans at the same time as asking myself: Why would 20 million people want to visit Dubai?
I may not be the target of Dubai’s commercial aspirations, but I can’t help feeling that a city needs to be built on more substantial foundations.