January 31, 2012

Everything You Desire

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My first adventure of 2012 was a visit to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. I came at exactly the right moment, smack dab in the middle of the most important event of the year.  A national celebration of all things shiny, luxurious and expensive: the pinnacle of Dubai culture and the essence of Emirati commerce… Yes, I had arrived during the Dubai Shopping Festival!

You might speculate, what does one do during a shopping festival? Do they parade elephants through the malls? Do people create festive costumes from shopping bags and craft headdresses of customer loyalty cards? Is there an Extreme Couponing-style race to see who can dash their credit the fastest? Would spectators gather at the Mall View Café (this actually exists) to make bets and nod knowingly at plum transactions?

It turns out that the Dubai Shopping Festival involves no elephants or competitions, but is disappointingly just a month of national sales to encourage people to go shopping. This is National Shopping Month, something that would elsewhere seem absurd but here seems even overly obvious. The wealthy denizens and visitors of Dubai need no occasion or incentive to shop.

For retail tourists, this is shopping mecca; Dubai has more brands than any city in the world. Not only luxury brands are represented, as one might imagine, seeing the Saudis or Japanese browsing the Guccis, Celines, and Pradas. Retail tourists also come from areas of the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia, trolling for non-luxury goods that simply aren’t available where they live. As for locals, shopping and retail culture are an omnipresent aspect of Dubai life. Malls are more than just retail centers; they are hubs where people have business meetings at restaurants, visit doctors and have medical operations, go skiing or ice-skating, and exercise.

This retail-based culture is easy to mock. In fact, all of Dubai could easily be caricatured as an overly slick jungle gym of silky highways curling around sparkly skyscrapers, studded with ostentatious cars transporting the citizens of a glamorous society. The police cars are BMW 5 series for crying out loud. And even after the real estate bubble burst and Dubai scaled back some of its lofty ambitions, there is still the overall impression of massive wealth and grandeur. There is a dancing fountain much larger than the one at the Bellagio in Las Vegas,  the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, and there is the only “7-star” hotel, The Burj al-Arab.

At the turn of the century Dubai was a small pearl-diving port with a modest population. Throughout the 20th century, the discovery and export of oil allowed the emirate to grow into a well-funded modern metropolis. The slogan of Dubai Mall is “Just imagine having everything you desire,” a phrase that could just as easily describe the recent history of Dubai. The ruling family, led by several influential sheikhs, set forth on a mission to make Dubai into a contemporary wonderland of “everything you desire.” For the most part, these decisions have proved quite savvy, attracting international investment and tourism. They have created artificial waterfront properties, attracted a majority expat community where there are few natives and imported foreign labor (frequently living in unsavory conditions) to build these towers upon towers.

Dubai is redeemed by the necessity and sheer pluck of its ostentation. It was conceived in lofty visions, brought down to earth by the economy, and bounced back as a viable global city.  But the high-gloss luster of Dubai is tempered by the playfulness in its bold architecture and also by a pervading sense of calm. Although it bears a resemblance, this is not Las Vegas. This is a religious state where the locals set a standard of privacy and respect. While foreigners overwhelm the town, they are always the guests of the natives, and thus dependent on their hospitality.

One of the main tourist attractions in Dubai the o bservation deck of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. I didn’t have a chance to do this on my trip, distracted as I was by the dancing fountain, etc., but a friend made it to the top for a sunset drink. He told me that the view from the top of the tallest building in the world was disappointing because everything just looked so small. And beyond the shrunken city, all he could see was the vast empty desert, the same desert on which Dubai was built. It can be lonely at the top. He bought a metal tourist figurine of the Burj, descended to have dinner in the mall, and checked out the shopping festival, still open late at night.

Original Author: Amelia Brown