1 April 2015

Dubai didn't have a big pineapple

Dubai has a lot of big and expensive things.  The world's tallest building, the world's biggest single aquarium, the world's biggest mall, the world's biggest airport, the biggest water slide, most expensive spa treatments, and so on. It is a city that appears to have everything you could possibly want in life, except sliding doors.

I'm not kidding - to get into the world's biggest mall, just by the world's tallest buildings, you have to pull open the door by yourself.

It might not seem like much but in a city that has been largely constructed in the last 10 - 15 years - it stands out as an anomaly.  Not the only one you'll encounter in Dubai, but certainly one that once you notice in one building you notice everywhere.

We're talking about a city that controls the waves on the beach to make sure they are just perfect for tourists who might want to stroll off the perfect white sand and have a dip.  The waterways and person accessible sea fronts all have water that is treated so that it's pollution free, stink free and the blue reflected from the sky frames the sandy coloured city so that it is perfect in every photo.

And it's the same all about the UAE when it comes to opulence and ease.  Abu Dhabi has the Sheik Zayed Mosque which is an breathtakingly beautiful building decorated with chandeliers made of Swarovski crystals, and the world's largest single piece carpet.  The walls are decorated with marble flowers and the dazzling white of the exterior requires sunglasses to be viewed directly.  Not far from there is the Formula 1 race track built to accommodate a 7 star hotel and yachts as well as the actual race.

But there is not one big pineapple. No big banana. No big prawn.  Big in the UAE is taken very very seriously.

But the anomalies are far greater than the lack of sliding doors.  The UAE is a country perched uncomfortably on the trinity made up of modernity, dogmatism and history.  While female tourists frolicked on the beach, swimsuits and voluminous flesh dotting the sand, the local women wear the niqab when out and about. The beach is not for them.

While everybody is welcome, there is a strict hierarchy of race starting with the UAE nationals, followed by white looking westerners, other westerners, Indians, Pakistanis, Philippinos and Africans.  Like the sliding doors, once you notice it in one place, you notice it everywhere.

Unemployment doest not exist because if you don't have a job you have to leave the country. Crime is incredibly low because, well, Sharia law. Women have no rights whether they are locals or expats. You can own a building but never own the land you build it on. And so on.

It is amazing to visit places like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, spectacular cities that have literally risen from the sands in less than 15 years.  They are amazing testaments to what is achievable with money and serious intent.  They exist in a country that has an interesting and varied history and whose leaders could teach a number of people about how working together works out a lot better than arguing all the time.

But it is discomfiting also because below the shiny glass buildings there is still a dubious human rights records, behind the incredibly polite service at the mall there are a myriad of laws that could leave you undone and most unsettling of all, behind the tolerance there is judgement.

Sliding doors would actually make it much easier to slip from one reality to another. Those heavy doors you have to push might actually be in place for a reason.

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