An Ant In Dubai

dubai, metro, city, buildingsA greenie examines her soul at the foot of hundreds of Dubai towers.

Dubai is nothing at all like Las Vegas. Though both are unlikely cities in waterless environs and full of people eager to divest visitors of both their souls and their money, that is where their likeness ends. As a tour leader for Trek America, I survived many weekends scratching the tacky surface of LV’s wholesale debauchery, but those dark nights of the soul don’t compare at all to how another desert city half way across the world makes a nature-lover feel.

What strikes me most is the city’s sheer scale. Last night a friend and I traveled by metro from Karama station south to Dubai marina, a 40 minute trip. We passed the world’s tallest tower. Passed the Burj Al Arab, a giant hotel shaped like a sail. Passed the indoor ski arena. We kept passing more and more towers.

Eventually we arrived at our stop. After getting off the metro and looking around at yet more towers, more restaurants, boats, and all kinds of glass and cranes and metal, I looked to my friend and asked:

“Where are we?”

“Oh. This is a whole new city,” he said.

Before the economic crash that effectively drew construction to a screeching halt, developers in Dubai were falling over one another to build the most striking buildings – each outdoing the other to attract would-be customers. And many really are quite striking.

dubai, construction, buildings

But there are literally hundreds upon hundreds of them. Walking at their feet, I feel like an ant. The awesome mass of buildings is overwhelming – especially in a city that has no water except that which is sucked out of the Gulf every year, and which at the first hint of summer is already so hot that my calves retain water like giant fire hydrants. (Very attractive.)

In order to pay back these incredible extravagances, an army of Bill Gates would have to converge on Dubai for a decade of conferences. (That’s a metaphor. I have no idea how many Bill Gates this city needs.) Instead, the inevitable financial crash caused an exodus of expatriates who left in their wake miles of mostly uninhabited, often incomplete towers.

Just how scarce money has become at the poorer end of society became especially clear at the end of the evening, when we climbed into a taxi to ride back to the Karama area.

Before the taxi driver could pull out of the hotel lot, another, older man ran  towards us, waving his fists in the air.

“You took my fare,” he yelled. “I was waiting and you drove in and took them.”

While they argued, we moved into the elder man’s taxi and gave him our address. But as he began to drive off the younger fellow blocked us with his vehicle and a big shouting match ensued between them. After a minute or two of this, we climbed out yet again and neither driver earned our fare. All this unhappiness for less than $20.

For someone who prefers tents to marble, grass to concrete, and fresh air to smog, Dubai feels like a near-apocalypse, a no-place of confused identity that has reduced some of its poorest to fighting like feral cats for scraps.

More on Green Prophet in the UAE:

Green Prophet Wants to Meet All the UAE Eco-Peeps

Live Blog: School Children Pledge to Save UAE Fish

EXCLUSIVE: Masdar City Open House Photos

images via Tafline Laylin



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14 thoughts on “An Ant In Dubai”

  1. Maurice says:

    Well, nothing green about all of this. I guess the lesson to be learned should apply to all the other “skyscraper cities” in the region; including those in Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.

    And as for “sucking sea water out of the Gulf”, that’s why this body of water is in its present sad state as all the saline residue from those desalination plants goes right back into the sea.

  2. Aviva Weisgal says:

    Will be sending this on to a friend who spent some time there. Thanks for the poetry, and journalism!

  3. @hush I think Tafline is talking about potable, fresh water. As far as I know, it’s her first trip there with no prior experience; how can you say her personal experience is dated. She isn’t a time traveler, or is she?

  4. Hush says:

    Taxi drivers fighting for a fare? I think this would happen in NY, London or any other city. Money is always scarce at the poorer end of society, in any society. Much of the construction that stalled years ago, has restarted after aranging finance since the credit crisis. And Dubai waterless? It has over 50 km off beach front.

    I feel this piece may have been relevant 3 years ago, but is somewhat dated in 2011.

  5. Yosef Gotlieb says:


    I found this piece very insightful and well-written.



  6. Rola Tassabehji says:

    Having lived in Dubai, I whole heartedly agree with your impressions… Beyond the tall towers and fancy restaurants, something is missing. Perhaps slower growth will recapture the lost authenticity I felt when I first visited 15 years ago.

    1. I went to a place yesterday that was supposedly the oldest British club in Dubai. It was only 40 years old! That speaks to how quickly the buildings sprung up here. There are spaces that could be reclaimed and there are more humble residential areas, but the towers are forever. Probably the best thing they could do here is stop building.

      1. What was there before 40 years? Maybe you could a post on then, and now.

  7. Arwa says:

    Great article Taf- really gave me a sense of the city and the problems it faces. Keep up the good work!

  8. Tafline – what do you think could be done to breathe life into this skeleton of skyscrapers? Plant trees? Create parks? Is there hope?

  9. Ronley says:

    Wow,that is very depressing.

  10. Wow. An amazing look at a city most people in the world have heard about and which they may never visit.

  11. Murtaza says:

    🙂 A thoughtful article about an intriguing world I don’t think I could live in.

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