Wahhabalinese Adventures 1: Dubai

The original plan had been just to do a simple transit in Dubai, but the flight I wanted on Tuesday was full — a good thing, in retrospect, as not only was Bush Jr and his security brouhaha in town, but unusually strong rains made sure that the city was completely and totally jammed. Wed was full too, so I booked Thursday — but on that day the connecting flight to Riyadh was full. Bizarrely, the earliest next flight out on SV or EK was at 4 PM the next day, 21 hours later (!), so there was no choice: I had to overnight. I shed a crocodile tear and rang up local resident F. who promised to take me out to his favorite shisha place.

The flight docked at the rather swanky-looking Terminal 1, but a lengthy sequence of escalators took me over to decrepit old T2 (opened — omg! — almost 10 years ago) for immigration. This time, the queues were mercifully brief, and after a solitary question (“Where are you staying?”) I was stamped in and invited to enjoy my stay. And here’s one thing where other countries should follow the UAE’s lead: absolutely no silly little immigration forms where you have to copy all the information that they can figure out anyway by scanning your passport.

Alas, the taxi scrum was rather longer and an hour from landing had passed by the time I got in the car. I’d opted for the brand new Four Points by Sheraton Downtown, a brand new hotel, and had misgivings about if the cabbie would know where it was… but he did, precisely, and earned a nice tip. The Four Points, incidentally, is the nicest hotel I’ve stayed at for a while: it’s brand new, squeaky clean, super modern, very comfortable, friendly and, by Dubai standards, affordable — my room cost 500 dirhams (~US$150), which, believe it or not, qualifies as a steal in Dubai these days. (I usually stay at Marriotts, but their cheapest property anywhere near the center, the Renaissance, wanted Dhs 1400.) But by the time I checked it, it was 11 PM local time and 4 AM my time, so F and I decided to put the shisha off until tomorrow and I hit the sack.

Morning dawned bright and sunny, and after a pleasant visit to the gym (equipped with a well-stacked Spanish fitness trainer) and a bracing dip in the icy pool (January in Dubai is pretty chilly) I hit the street and started walking towards Dubai Creek. The section of older Dubai along the way was distinctly unflashy, a warren of crumbling concrete, haphazard wiring, oversized signage and fragrant odours that bore more than a little resemblance to India, the home of most of the district’s inhabitants, with nary a thobe in sight. But by sheer coincidence (I had neither map, guidebook nor any idea of its existence), I ended up precisely in the quarter of Bastakia, the solitary chunk of old Dubai that has been expensively restored as a heritage project. It all looked a little too new and perfect to be true, a contrast highlighted by the solitary exhibit of something that was actually old: a remnant of Dubai’s city wall, now a low stretch of roped-off, nondescript rubble.

On the other side of Bastakia is the Creek. I’d had a mental image something along on lines of the Singapore River or Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour, with precipitous skyscrapers, expensive restaurants and harried businessmen lining the edges, but no, the buildings were low-rise and nondescript, with few higher than five floors. Abra boats shuttled busily around to the market buildings on the other side, but my side of the river (which did have a pleasant promenade) was largely given over to a neverending procession of increasingly over-the-top river cruise ships of the buffet-and-bellydance variety, with blinking lights, Romanesque pillars and statues in excerably bad taste (now whose bright idea was it to celebrate Arab culture with a life-size bronze of a conquistador?).

Before long I had to return to the hotel and was just checking out when F and his uncle showed up. Once an IT geek like us, Uncle had ditched that career for the evidently rather more lucrative business of designing air conditioning systems, obviously a booming market in the neverending construction site of Dubai. An excellent Lebanese lunch at al-Hallab later, we retired to a nearby shisha shop for a few early afternoon puffs. I was in no hurry to depart, but my flight to Riyadh was, so around 90 minutes before the flight I had to interrupt the stream of Arab hospitality and start making worried noises. We eventually managed to find a taxi company to call, but their driver was permanently 5 minutes away from arriving, and with only an hour to go until flight departure we had to resort to flagging down a cab on the main road (where there aren’t allowed to stop). One kind soul risked a thousand-dirham fine to pick us up and jetted us off to the airport, where I said my hasty goodbyes, brutally cut my way through the security line and arrive at the check-in counter precisely and literally one (1) minute before it closed. The check-in guy even had to check with his manager if the flight was still open, but it was — “You’re the last passenger! So rush!”. Through immigration, though another security point, the endless corridor to the other terminal again, up and up and up and across and, under 20 min before to the departure, to the gate. Phew.