Dubai and New York-Both Are Vertiginous Cities. So Why Is Only One of Them Full of Surprises?

By Smith, Ed | New Statesman (1996), October 30, 2015 | Go to article overview

Dubai and New York-Both Are Vertiginous Cities. So Why Is Only One of Them Full of Surprises?


Smith, Ed, New Statesman (1996)


I am in the United Arab Emirates, commentating on England's Test series against Pakistan. Not long after the first day's play in Dubai, I witnessed a revealing scene. A few dozen England fans--a good portion of the crowd--had to wait 90 minutes outside the ground for a taxi. Some people were at street level and the system short-circuited.

Cities are usually set up to supply the needs of crowds. Dubai is predicated on the absence of pedestrians. No wonder it's a celebrity hot spot. Amenities and services exist in a vacuum. If you find other people irritating, Dubai is very attractive.

Why didn't the cricket fans walk? The hotel was 20 miles away and the temperature was 36[degrees]C. People do not walk anywhere here. They leave their air-conditioned homes, enter air-conditioned cars and arrive at air-conditioned malls or restaurants then reverse the process. Desire is stripped back. What do I want and where can I get it? It is said that you can buy anything in Dubai, but only if you know exactly what you want.

Literalism reigns. Dubai is broken up into purpose-built ghettos. There is an Academic City, a Golf City, an Internet City, a Motor City, a Studio City, a "celebrity city" (the Palm), a Design District. Interaction between these "cities" is limited by swaths of desert. Geographically, they are miles apart. In feel, they are even more remote.

On the way to the cricket ground in Sports City, we drove through Media City. One building was branded: "Dubai Creative Clusters Authority". Even creativity must be consciously and deliberately "clustered". In most cities, the recipe for creative clustering is buying coffee and flirtatiousness. In Dubai, in place of the humble queue, there is an authority and a car park.

Literalism is overlaid with gigantism. Everything must be the world's biggest. Dubai has the world's highest building (the Burj Khalifa), the biggest mall (the Dubai Mall), the biggest Ferris wheel, the unlikeliest ski resort (22,500 metres of snow slopes in the desert), the biggest floating water park. And what are they like? Dubai Mall is like a large mall, only larger. The Burj Khalifa is like a very tall building but taller. If you have an imagination, there is little to see.

If you are lucky--and not one of the working poor who sustain the rich's standard of living--there is huge material comfort. Hotel rooms are enormous, more spacious than apartments in normal cities. I have zoomed along seven-lane motorways in cars designed to seat seven ample bottoms. Restaurant chairs resemble cinema seats.

You can look after your body easily. Manmade beaches are sprinkled liberally around Dubai (one of the triad of ever-present fake "B"s in the region--Breitlings, beaches and breasts) and gym culture is well developed. Yet I felt oddly claustrophobic and caged, despite swimming and trips to the gym. Eventually I realised what was missing: I had scarcely walked anywhere, at least not outside. …

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