Dubai has been called the “Las Vegas of the Middle East” and often conjures up images of opulence and glitz in the middle of the dessert. For that reason, we were suprised when the city left us with an entirely different impression.


Bigger is Better?

Dubai rises dramatically out of the flat Arabian dessert with tall shimmering skyscrapers and massive multi-lane highways. Everything here is the biggest, tallest, fastest, and largest. Dubai is home to the world’s tallest building (Burj Khalifa), the world’s largest mall (Dubai Mall), and the world’s largest artificial island (the Palm Jumeirah), to name only a few.

Everything feels massive in Dubai. The subway stations are huge. The pedways could house thousands. The roads are wide, with at least 3 lanes on each side. Massive golf courses somehow thrive in the dessert. Megamalls are aplenty, one of which boasts its own indoor ski hill.

The most striking of Dubai’s construction is the world’s tallest building: the Burj Khalifa, which is an iconic landmark in the Dubai skyline:

This building can be seen from anywhere, and is almost a kilometer in height (830 m). The massive skyscrapers beside it look minuscule, as the Burj Khalifa dwarfs everything in its vicinity. We stared at this building in awe, with it’s tip seemingly lost up in the clouds.

You can pay a hefty fee to go up to the observation deck which, at 550 m, is the world’s highest observation deck.

Dubai is also home to the world’s most luxurious hotel, often given the title of the “world’s only 7-star hotel”. The Burj al Arab stands on its own man-made island, and is formed in the shape of a billowing sail.

Every room in the hotel is a suite, the smallest of which is 1820 square feet up to the largest, over 8000 sq ft. Booking a night in the hotel (which can cost up to $25 000) will get you complimentary pick-up from the airport in a Rolls Royce. Though why do that when you could get picked up by a helicopter instead and dropped off on the hotel’s own helipad?

If that’s not enough, don’t fret. You will have 17 different types of pillows to choose from to ensure a comfortable sleep on your revolving bed, and a 24-karat gold iPad to use as your concierge or to ask your butler for things.


It Gets Even Bigger: Making Your Own Land

If that didn’t seem like enough, there is more. Dubai is also making its own land.

One of the most well known of these projects are the Palm Islands, archipelagos made in the shape of a palm tree. This self-proclaimed “eighth wonder of the world” adds kilometers to Dubai’s otherwise limited shoreline.

The fronds are full of 5-star only hotels, as well as apartments and celebrity villas. At the tip of the Palm Jumeirah is the Atlantis Hotel, another iconic luxury hotel of Dubai:

The Palm is connected to mainland Dubai by a 6-lane underwater tunnel, and has its own monorail for residents to get around.

Another man-made project is “The World”, a set of islands created to look like a mini version of the World Map. This multi-billion dollar project was initially intended for millionaires looking for privacy and exclusivity, and advertised for “estate homes and dream resorts”.

Unfortunately The World has seen nothing but trouble since its inception, with construction halted since 2008 during the financial downturn. Though over 70% of the islands are sold to private companies, nearly all remain untouched. To further the insult, the islands have been sinking and eroding, and now require some squinting to believe they make up the shape of the world.

Despite the struggles, the large scale construction aspirations in Dubai are innovative and creative, and interesting to learn about. There are many lavish ideas that haven’t made it past the drawing board either: like a rotating skyscraper or a set of black and white towers made to look like chess peices to make “International Chess City”.


Under Construction

All this large-scale construction made us feel like Dubai was a city in the making, incomplete, and under construction. Half the downtown seemed to be partially built, with a ubiquity of cranes filling the skyline [did you know that 25% of the world’s cranes are in Dubai?!]. I almost felt like we shouldn’t yet be here, like we should give the city time to complete.

It’s therefore not a suprise that Dubai is one of the world’s fastest growing cities. While initially a pearl-fishing village in the middle of an uninhabitable desert, Dubai has developed at an unbelievable pace since the discovery of oil in the 1960s. Oil brought an influx of revenue, as well as numerous international migrants looking for work.

Many of the skyscrapers in Dubai were built in the 2000s, a fact we were suprised to learn. We wondered how the city accomplished such rapid construction, and were quick to learn of the city’s reliance on low-paid foreign workers, often from India and the Phillipines. Which brings me to my next point…


Not All That Glitters is Gold

Dubai for its citizens, expats and visitors is like Disneyland. Posh restaurants, wicked parties, glitz and glamor are enticing, and many find Dubai a wonderful playground. The Emirati recieve a paid education, a mansion when they get married (which comes with a maid, nanny, chef, and personal driver). Holidays are paid for. Who wouldn’t love it here?

However, we were saddened to learn that behind this extravagance are the thousands of foreign workers who are lured to the city by the promise of well-paying jobs and a comfortable lifestyle. Unfortunately, they end up trapped with their passports taken away upon arrival. They work long hours in the unbearable heat, spending their nights cramped in labor camps with poor living conditions.

The other “dark side” of Dubai is the environmental impact of this construction. Building islands like the Palm and The World have changed the wave and temperature patterns of the Persian Gulf, and destroyed a significant amount of previously protected coral reef and marine life.

Not to mention trying to keep a city alive in an otherwise uninhabitable desert. Water is a scarcity in Dubai, and maintaining the lush golf courses, indoor ski resorts, and manicured lawns is a struggle. Dubai needs to desalinate the water from the nearby Gulf, making it the most expensive water on the planet. Overall, Dubai has been named one of the world’s most unsustainable cities.

In some ways Dubai is like a mirage in the desert, a fancy city boasting wealth and extravagance, but not quite that upon closer look.


The Hottest We’ve Ever Felt

Since we’ve mentioned the heat: one of the risks with visiting Dubai in August are the extreme temperatures. The temperature reaches up to 55 degrees Celsius, with the weather channel stating “it feels like 87” on the days we were there. We’ve never felt this kind of extreme heat before, one that sucked the breath from our lungs, made our eyeballs burn, and forced us into planning our day around visiting air conditioned stops.

In fact, when would you ever see a sign like this in Canada?!

We barely spent more than 10 minutes outdoors, at which point beads of sweat were already dropping off our chins.

Next time we’d like to visit Dubai outside of the summer season, which may provide us with a different view of the city. The streets were quiet and the city seemed at times almost uninhabited, which we weren’t sure if we could attribute purely to the heat.


Old Dubai

Not far from the skyscrapers of Downtown and the Marina is Old Dubai, a maze of narrow alleyways and souks that took us back to shopping the medinas of Morocco. Shopkeepers tried to lure us into their stores of handicrafts, perfumes, or gold. It was an interesting transition from the modern life of Dubai and a way to see the traditional roots of this country. In a country that is mostly full of foreigners, it was a nice way to feel as if we were seeing more of the “real” Dubai.

  • Country: Dubai is a city-state, and one of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The capital of UAE is Abu Dhabi, which neighbors Dubai.
  • Population: $2.7 million. However, only 15% of the population is made of locals (Emirati). The majority of the population consists of expats from India, Pakistan, and the Phillipines. The British make up the majority of the European/Western expats.
  • Language: Arabic, though English is widely spoken.
  • Religion: Islamic
  • Currency: Dirham (1 AED = 3.5 USD)
  • Dubai sticks by traditional Muslim standards. Alcohol can only be consumed by non-Muslims, and only in licensed clubs and restaurants. Public inebriation and displays of affection are offensive and illegal. Premarital sex is illegal.
  • Debt is frowned upon in Dubai with no such thing as claiming bankruptcy. Failure to pay credit card dues leads to jail or deportation.
  • Dubai is one of the safest cities in the world with an almost 0% crime rate.
  • With so many supercars on the road, the Police car fleet includes Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and Bentleys, as well as a McLaren and Bugatti. After all, you have to be able to keep up with the potential speeders around you.
  • Over 70% of the population is men. The average age of a Dubai citizen is only 27.