As a kid I don’t recall hearing much at all about the United Arab Emirates, but in the last 15 years the UAE (and Dubai in particular) has been all over the business press. All those articles and ads in the Economist made me curious: what’s the big deal about this giant city that’s risen almost overnight from the desert?

Dubai is big and ostentatious and obsessed with being the biggest and the best. Everything is brand new: practically the entire city was built within the last 15 years. There is a master plan for the Emirate (to wean it off oil as the source of income) and they have some great PR people. There is some exciting architecture; this seems to be the place to be if you are an aspiring architect. Parts of the city look futuristic; we heard one section aptly described as like it’s from a comic book. Incredible amounts of money have flowed from and into this city-state in a very short time. While the streets weren’t packed with exotic cars the way I expected, they were instead clogged with countless Toyotas and Nissans. Traffic was often miserable.

One day we took a tourist sightseeing bus around the city. The weather was delightful – in the 70s and sunny – but getting from place to place on the roads took forever. We had plenty of time to think deep thoughts as we sat at what must be some of the world’s longest red lights.

The tourist bus’s main stops were all malls. I think I spent more time wandering around shopping malls during our 5 days here than I have collectively in the last 10 years. To be fair, the malls are impressive from a certain point of view. They boast hundreds of stores each. One has an aquarium and a full-sized ice rink inside; another boasts an indoor ski area (really). Shopping seems to be the thing to do for locals and visitors alike: the Dubai Mall is reportedly the most-visited building in the world. Throughout our time in the emirate we wondered if staff are all on commission: I’ve never seen so much up-selling. At a sporting goods store where we were buying Jack a new hat, they tried to get us to buy one for Nate, too. Lauren made the mistake of implying we might need socks and some were quickly brought to the register. When she said no, we don’t really need them, a different pair appeared. At a food court restaurant they wanted to upgrade our hamburger to a steak burger. And so on.

Ice rink at the Dubai Mall
If memory serves, the giant aquarium is just to the right of the ice rink. We never figured out how to get to the go-kart track. The mall also has stores.

We visited the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. From the observation deck on the 124th floor we could survey the city. We saw hundreds of high-rises, the Persian Gulf to one side, and plenty of sand to the other. Southwest through the persistent haze was the Burj al-Arab, the famous sail-shaped hotel. Down below us, at the base of the building, were a large mall complex and one of the world’s largest fountains.

View of the Burj Khalifa
The Burj Khalifa
Buildings, construction, and sand. The sail-shaped Burj al-Arab hotel is on the coast in the distance.

Through a bit of serendipity we ate dinner one night at a restaurant overlooking the fountains (TGI Fridays. This embarrasses me more than a little). Every 30 minutes in the evening, the fountains give a light-and-water show set to music. They are talked up online and in guidebooks as some sort of amazing spectacle. Perhaps I am jaded, but I felt quite let down by the 4-minute shows. We saw the fountains “perform” 3 times during our leisurely meal of burgers and microwaved pasta. The sunset was far more impressive than any of the fountain shows.

Dubai Fountains at night, from TGI Fridays
In the contest to name the $200m fountain, the winning entry was “The Dubai Fountain.” So original!

Another day we took a taxi out to the Dubai Miracle Garden. The Miracle Garden is “the world’s largest flower garden,” set right on the edge of the desert (which is the obvious place for a flower garden). It’s huge; they boast it has 50 million flowers. Many of them decorate large statues of Disney characters. There is also a life-sized mockup of an A380, the world’s largest airliner, covered in flowers. We spent an hour or so there and left bemused and bewildered.

Statues in the Dubai Miracle Garden
The giant statues were slightly terrifying
Flower-covered A380 airplane at the Dubai Miracle Garden
A greener way to travel?
Giant bathroom sink at the Dubai Miracle Garden
I am trying to imagine the conversation that led to this:

Boss: “Anyone have ideas for filling this empty space in the flower garden?”
Worker: “…”
Boss: “…”
Worker: “We could build a giant bathroom sink.”
Boss: “Brilliant! Make it at least 8 feet tall and don’t forget the toothpaste.”

Throughout our time in Dubai, we observed how diverse the city is. More than 80% of people in the UAE are immigrants. The flip side is that nobody is from there or has roots there. People come to shop, to party, or to work so they can send money back home. Nobody seems to have anything more than a superficial connection to the city; everyone’s relationship with it is purely transactional. We looked about, but we couldn’t find much of a soul to Dubai. Dubai is huge and packed with people, but there’s an emptiness to the city that no amount of consumption or good PR can overcome.

Sunset over Dubai
I’m not sure if the city is always hazy, but it makes for some nice sunsets. This shot is from the roof of our hotel.

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