Enter the Sandman The plane entered a blinding yellow sky. I strained against the window to catch something of the approach, but the desert was hazy and featureless. The lady on the seat next to me clutched her stomach and closed her eyes, as if on the verge of a gastric implosion. Then the plane lurched and lowered itself into the burning still life, the city of sand. She turned to me, smiled feebly, and said, “In the desert, you can never tell when you hit ground.”
For several centuries, Dubai was little more than a struggling coastal outpost, a minor collective of fishing communities that survived at the edge of a real desert, full of cacti, rocky outcrops, shifting sands and daily storms that make every desert setting a yellow daytime nightmare. But now, in barely a generation, the natural ecology of the desert landscape—rough, parched, pitiless—has been given the opposite lease. Man-made and unnatural to the order of Disneyworld. Desalinated and air-conditioned like Las Vegas. Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s superhuman effort stretched architectural ideas beyond all limits of logic, defying all possible conventions. The tallest man-made structure, the Burj Khalifa; the biggest single mall, the Dubai Mall; the largest man-made island, the Palm Jumeirah.
Walk along the golf greens for the Dubai Desert Classic, the soft earth and grassy mounds have the tropical feel of an Indonesia or Thailand. During the short Dubai winter, television cameras follow Tiger Woods and Colin Montgomerie, leaning on their clubs on thick grass against a backdrop of formidable skyscrapers and sunny blue sky. A mix of tropical lushness and western urbanism. Is it Hong Kong? Or New York’s Central Park against the apartments of the East Side?
The Reclaimed Fruit Our tour guide was a Christian from Kerala, the driver a Punjabi Pakistani from Lahore. Except for a Nigerian family, everyone was Indian or Pakistani. The 12-seater Mercedes van sped across the treeless coastal road to the Palm Jumeriah, a seafront carved in the shape of a palm tree. Million-dollar houses stretched out in curving rows, facing the shallow waters of an artificial inland sea. White sand in truckloads has been spread above the artificial concrete breakwaters to give the illusion of a natural beach. But—like the white expats and the brown workers—you are never sure if it belongs there; or if it was trucked in from Australia. Along the way, the homes, part-Mediterranean, part-Florida, are topped by artificial wind towers to lend an air of Arab authenticity. “Shahrukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan both have houses here,” said the guide for the benefit of the Indians.
An open bus, a windowless heap of clanking steel, passed us on the highway. I could see the dark faces, much like our own, chattering under yellow hard hats, heading out of their work shift. India in captivity, a miniature moment of displacement. A small part of the millions of Indian and Bangladeshi labourers trucked daily to building sites, the blood ’n guts builders of Dubai. The tourist route is carefully chosen to avoid any visual contact with such members of the Third World. Still, however hard they try to blend this mass of brown population into the dusty background, their blue overalls mark them out as foreign workers. Their shabby makeshift domiciles are in striking contrast to the glass and glitter of Dubai.
Acrophony Our van stopped for a glimpse of Atlantis, the splayed arms of 1,500 rooms looking out to sea, Dubai’s famous expat hangout. Its architectural inspiration is hard to pin down: Arabian night windows, a high entrance archway, a Las Vegas frontage—the assembly owed more to casino design than to its desert setting. An Eastern fable on a giant western scale. Its displacement was palpable; we drove away with the nagging feeling that Atlantis was only a temporary encampment for a luxurious occasion. What’s immediately obvious is the sheer weightlessness of the constructions, a city from instant mix, a Lego set assembled on a metropolis’s monumental scale.
I rode up the elevator’s electronic hiss in the Burj Khalifa. From ground zero to the 132nd, the black soundless lift gave no indication—visual, tactile or acoustic—of this enormous height. I was deposited soundlessly on the observation deck. Looking down, the other glass towers below appeared diminutive and frail—dwarfed and grounded in yellow dust. Dust remained suspended around the glare of mirrored glass, the brownness extending to the horizon. Like a miniature city swirling in a muddy water tank. From that great height, Dubai looked like a grave mistake. An unfortunate marker to one man’s folly. The city was a model that the Sheikh ought to have tested first in miniature.
Other than the Sea, Dubai has no source of water. If, for whatever reason, the resource to desalinate ran out, Dubai will go the way of Fatehpur Sikri. A 21st century glass citadel, abandoned like Akbar’s capital.
Delhi-based architect Gautam Bhatia is the author, most recently, of Comic Century; E-mail your diarist: gbhatia100 AT gmail.com
A write-up reeking of envy. That's what Gautam Bhatia’s Dubai Diary (Feb 18) was. This guy deserves to live in India and drink all the water he wants from the clean Ganga...
About the water, Dubai may be built by Indians, but it certainly isn’t administered by the Indian government. The Sheikhs will never allow their paradise to run dry.
Ganesh Natrajan, on e-mail
A true desert mirage! Dubai is doing all it can to stay afloat after the oil’s run out.
Navin Malhotra, Delhi
As long as Dubai has Abu Dhabi to underwrite its debts, it will keep prospering.
K. Dasmunshi, Calcutta
What went wrong, Mr Bhatia? Did you find your sponsors lacking in dispensing favours?
Sarvesh Srivastava, Gurgaon
Ganesh Natrajan >> You are missing the point entirely. Who cares if the Sheiks are supported by the Great Satan or anyone else? The thing is that they have managed to transform a piece of desert into a glitzy glamour world which is comfortable, liveable and marketable. Just ask the million Indians living there and the teeming millions who want to go and work there.
It is not about transformation which is being talked about here. It is about whether this glass and diamond shining paradise will be another Fatepur sikri. And yes, sadly it will be. Because,the Dubai Miracle is built on Black Gold and secured fully by the "Great Satan". Once both are out of the scene, this paradise will crumble.
This is not to compare with India's ills, which are plentiful. But to compare that the dubai miracle is not the one we should ponder and try to emulate. India's inspiration should come from other miracles in the east - like seoul, shanghai, and Singapore (all of which are durable success stories).
Yasser >> this guy deserves to live in India and drink all the water he wants from the clean ganga...
Yes, the waters of Ganga are made unclean by 4000 years of civilization and on top of it a few centuries of misrule and poor civic administration but
the cleanliness of the Paradise aka Dubai comes at the cost of polluting the planet with greenhouse cases which will take millenia to be cleaned up...
So, the Grass is NOT GREENER ON OTHER SIDE. And I do not envy the same.
As long as Dubai has Abu Dhabi to underwrite its debts, it can keep on borrowing and may be prospering. Dubai may not have oil, being part of UAE gets support of Abu Dhabi, hence credit from western banks. Also, Its a hub of investments for other gulf citizens.
All this does not mean that all south asian expatriates are treated fairly in dubai. Also, South Asians who has it good because of snobbery would not listen to any criticism in this regard.
pathetic write-up...reeks of envy...this guy deserves to live in India and drink all the water he wants from the clean ganga...
Whle it may take Dubai a few decades to run out of water, Indian megacities Mubai, Chennai,Delhi will have water wars if & when a monsoon fails. It has not failed for long time and may be due very shortly.
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