IT MAY surprise those who dismiss it as a one-dimensional totem of unreconstructed capitalism, but Dubai is so much more than a contingent of glittering malls and gold-plated hotels.
Having risen imperiously out of the desert — its momentum fuelled by oil money and the towering ambition of its rulers, the Al-Maktoum family — it has established itself as the Middle East’s premier tourist city and is home to a sizeable contingent of expatriates from around the globe.
To those who like a hefty sprinkling of glam with their sun, Dubai’s reputation as a place where the ‘good life’ can be taken to its most fantastical apogee is a large part of its appeal. By day, the endless beaches, azure waters of the Persian Gulf and mind-boggling shopping provide diversion while big-name restaurants and glitzy bars become the focal point when the sun slips below the horizon.
Yet there’s so much more to Dubai than the stereotypical image of flashy super-malls, phallic skyscrapers and palatial beachfront hotels. A geopolitical, financial and cultural bridge between west and east, and a land of opportunity for many within the Arab world, Dubai rewards surface-scratchers with a multicultural tableau a hundred times more interesting than its naysayers would have you believe. Areas such as Deira, Satwa, Bur Dubai and Karama heave with migrant workers from Africa, the Indian subcontinent and the Far East; their restaurants, shops and nightclubs imparting flavours and sights that wouldn’t be out of place in the great Indian cities, Luzon in the Philippines and East African countries of Djibouti, Somalia and Ethiopia.
On any given Friday, a stroll around the mouth of Dubai Creek, on the Deira side, will take you first to the city’s heaving fish market and then to an open tract of land where Pakistani immigrants often crowd around to watch men in shiny underpants taking part in traditional wrestling bouts. It’s a side of the city far removed from the tourist brochures — and all the more fascinating for it.
Yet while there’s plenty in the way of unconventional sights, Dubai isn’t short on sophistication, either. Far from being a cultural wasteland, it has a number of cutting-edge galleries showcasing regional and world artists, while the annual international film festival, which serves as a key platform for Arab filmmakers, is forging an enviable reputation. It all adds up to a city that lives up to expectations while delivering a whole lot more besides.
Dubai may not be a crackling hub of electric 24-hour energy, but it’s still pretty lively for a city located in one of the world’s most socially conservative regions.
The glam hotels conceal bars, nightclubs and plush lounges that rank among the finest in the region and are a magnet for big-name visiting DJs, while those in search of a less high-falutin’ night on the tiles are also well-catered for with plenty of insalubrious (but nonetheless fun) venues.
One of the main misconceptions about Dubai is that its Islamic laws make it a tough place to find a drink. In reality, alcohol is readily available, but only in designated venues (usually attached to hotels). This means there’s a clear distinction between cafe and bar culture.
In many ways this distinction is very pleasant. One of the best ways to appreciate Dubai is taking in the view over the Creek from a waterfront cafe in Bur Dubai while supping a fresh lemon and mint juice, or relaxing with a pot of Arabic tea in the peaceful Basta Art Café in the historic quarter of Al Bastakiya. Later on at night, the coffee shops fill with men in their spotless white dishdash who gather to smoke shisha pipes and watch football. Foreigners are usually welcome, although these places aren’t always very female-friendly.
For the vast majority of westerners, however, the call of temptation is irresistible. Dubai doesn’t really have a nightlife scene, as such, but most areas have a number of decent selections. On the north side of the creek, the Irish Village is a perennial for Guinness-hungry expats and hosts gigs by visiting international artists.
The party hots up as you head over the creek towards the Marina and ‘new’ Dubai. Here you’ll find Barasti, a beach bar that heaves with revellers, and the 360o Bar, an outdoor club specialising in Ibiza-style Balearic beats.
Other more chilled options include 101 at the One & Only The Palm Hotel, perfect for al fresco sundowners by the sea, and The Roof Top Bar at the One & Only Royal Mirage Hotel, with great views across the Arabian Gulf.
Basta Art Café: Bur Dubai. T: 00 971 4 353 5071.
The Irish Village: Garhoud. T: 00 971 4 282 4750. www.theirishvillage.ae
Barasti: Le Meridien Mina Seyahi Beach Resort and Marina, Jumeirah. T: 00 971 4 399 3333. www.lemeridien-minaseyahi.com
360: Jumeirah Beach Hotel. T: 00 971 4 406 8744. www.jumeirah.com
101: One & Only The Palm, Palm Jumeirah. T: 00 971 4 440 1010. www.oneandonlyresorts.com
The Roof Top: One & Only Royal Mirage, Jumeirah. T: 00 971 4 399 9999. www.oneandonlyresorts.com
Pile of Style
You might have heard: retail therapy is a rather big thing in Dubai. For their big screen visit, the Sex and the City girls probably packed New York-bought Jimmy Choo heels and Louis Vuitton bags, but you’ll always find thousands of aspiring Carrie Bradshaws scouring Dubai’s opulent super malls. Indeed, horse racing may be the favoured leisure activity of the ruling Al-Maktoum family, but shopping is undoubtedly the national sport for elsewhere in this part of the world.
Unsurprisingly, those who favour the finer things in life are amply catered for. Pretty much all of the city’s malls contain glitzy outlets of every stripe. The logical place to start any Dubai shopping extravaganza is at the Dubai Mall — the world’s largest mall in terms of area. More than 1,200 retail outlets line the marble corridors of this gargantuan facility, making it the pinnacle of one-stop shopping. Big-brand options include Gucci, Manolo Blahnik and Chloé, although top high-street stores — where you don’t have to come armed with a platinum credit card to get served — are also plentiful.
Another haven for high-end indulgence is the BurJuman in Bur Dubai, which hosts Dior, Louis Vuitton and luxury US store Saks Fifth Avenue. Meanwhile, the Boulevard at Jumeirah Emirates Towers is home to Jimmy Choo, Armani, Tiffany & Co and Boutique 1, Ground Zero for prêt-à-porter straight from the runways of Paris and Milan.
Yet while the air-conditioned malls offer convenience and choice, Dubai’s retail scene is far from the homogenous beast it might seem. For centuries, boats from the Far East and the subcontinent would unload their wares at Dubai Creek, and the souks in the older parts of town remain prime spots for trawling.
Deira’s Gold Souk is famed as one of the best places on earth to pick up some precious yellow metal, while the textile shops and tailors in Bur Dubai, Karama and, especially, Satwa, make it easy to construct your own creation at a fraction of the price you’d pay in one of the bigger-name stores.
Top 10 Local Tips
01 Dubai’s beach parks are one of its best assets. Jumeirah is the most convenient for the big hotels, but Al Mamzar, on the Deira side of the Creek, is more secluded.
02 If you’re partial to a tipple, then stock up on alcohol at the duty-free shops at Dubai Airport.
03 The most atmospheric (and cheapest) way to cross Dubai Creek between Bur Dubai and Deira is to take an abra water taxi.
04 Another atmospheric area to explore is Al-Bastikiya in Bur Dubai — one of the oldest areas in town.
05 For a weekend trip, rent a car and head to Hatta in the Hajar Mountains.
06 Early evening is the best time to explore the souqs of Deira. Head to the Spice Souq, then follow winding lanes to the arcades of the Gold Souq.
07 Friday brunching is an expatriate tradition. Reliable venues include Spectrum on One at the Fairmont Hotel and Yalumba at Le Meridien.
08 Take an SUV tour into the dunes outside the city. Touristy but great fun.
09 Get a view from the observation deck on the 134th floor of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s highest building.
10 The new Dubai Metro is the best way to get around the city. Ticket prices are cheap and the network stops in most of the city’s main areas of interest.
Explorer Publications’ Dubai Red-Tape. RRP: £14.99.
Explorer Publications’ Complete Residents Guide. RRP: 14.99.
Hello Dubai by Joe Bennett. RRP: £7.99.