I love travelling the world and seeing and experiencing new places, new cultures. It is my passion, my reason for living. I seem to fall in love with every new place I visit; the sights, sounds and smells, the food, the people, the culture, I love it all and relish every single second of it.
Yet despite all this, despite an almost rose tinted view of the world through a backpackers eyes, and despite a willingness to be open and find the best in each place I visit, there are some places I simply can’t gel with at all, some places which just leave me feeling cold and empty, and despite having been numerous times, this popular travel hub is one of them.
I’m going to say it. I hate Dubai.
There, I said it. I’m hardly the first to do so and I seriously doubt I will be the last either. It isn’t Dubai’s fault of course, it hasn’t done anything in particular to offend or irritate me, it just is what it is, and that is something that I just can’t seem to gel with. I even get that a lot of people will disagree with me on this and say they absolutely love Dubai, and that is absolutely fine too. To each their own. Dubai is just a place that I cannot personally stand.
Unlike many people who criticise Dubai, it isn’t that I disagree on an ideological level with many of Dubai’s cultural, political and legal paradigms, some of which I do, by the way, but I have travelled through many countries where I hated or disagreed with the political or legal regimes but still absolutely loved the country and its people and other aspects of its culture. I fervently believe that exposing yourself to new belief systems, new cultures, new paradigms and ways of thinking, even ones that inherently challenge your own beliefs, is one of the best gifts of travelling. I just can’t say that about Dubai.
The reasons I hate Dubai isn’t the frankly insane legal system where to any outside observer it seems like they make laws up as they go on a mad mans whim, or the mountains of bureaucracy and mindless form filling they hide those laws behind. I don’t agree with a lot of the laws on a personal level, but it isn’t for me as a traveller to judge a countries legal system. Hell, there are aspects of the UK’s legal system that I think have been written by a drunken sociopath as a practical joke, it doesn’t mean I don’t love my own country!
It isn’t even really the vast wealth of the country that makes me unable to gel with Dubai as a destination, although to be honest it is one of the major factors. Dubai is the Mecca of all things extravagant and wealthy. The home of those who have hit it rich with fossil fuels and oil, investment bankers and hedge fund investors dancing in the free trade zone playground, people with made up job titles who play with pretend money on the stock market, who use vast wealth to create even more vast wealth for the sheer sake of it and then watch it all burn for shits and giggles. I have to admit I find that a bit of a turn off.
But isn’t just the sheer unadulterated brashness of Dubai, the sheer unrivalled financial and physical growth, the unbridled and pointless lavishness and displays of obscene wealth wasted on trivialities like the tallest buildings, the biggest fireworks displays, the biggest and best of everything, not out of a display of national pride or to push the boundaries of engineering or architecture, but simply to show off their wealth. The gaudiness of that is just distasteful to me. The glittering Dubai skyline doesn’t look beautiful, it looks grotesque. Like Eric’s mask in the Phantom of the Opera, Dubai’s wealth is a thinly veiled and delicate masquerade that must eventually shatter to show the hideous, twisted carcass underneath.
So if it isn’t all of that, what is it?
The real reason that I hate Dubai is that it has no soul. Or more fairly, it has sold its soul in one of the glitzy malls.
The entire cultural paradigm is seemingly money, money, money, with nothing underneath to give that wealth substance or meaning. The whole country is seemingly a panegyric ode to consumerist greed. Instead of celebrating and growing their own culture the entire focus is seemingly bent on just being bigger, better and wealthier than everyone else and making sure that everyone knows it. The biggest malls, the glitziest events, the loudest and most expensive firework, the most amount of gold or precious jewels used in a single toilet seat. Okay, that one may have been made up, but you get the point.
I’ve tried my best, I really have. I’ve spent hours in the Dubai museum trying to soak up the history, I’ve wandered around the labyrinthine streets of Bastakiya, one of the very few heritage areas in the country, but it still felt as if Dubai was trying to force the ‘tourist experience’ on me instead of letting me get a peek at her real face. It felt like it preferred me to walk around the false pretentiousness of the Madinat Jumeria, an actual mock Arabian city set up for tourists, instead of seeing anything real.
Having the tallest buildings or the biggest and best of whatever it may be isn’t in and of itself a bad thing, almost every other major country and city in the world has – or at least wants to – do the same, and the glitz and glamour isn’t always bad. But with Dubai it is all style over substance. A gaudy peacock display with nothing to back it up. Instead of celebrating what is good about Dubai’s culture (and despite my negativity in this post there is some good hidden there somewhere) Dubai is all about being the world’s favourite destination, to be the go to destination that pleases everyone and offends noone and for travellers it is almost impossible to get past that peacock display to anything meaningful.
Forget the fact that Dubai is a model of stability for the Middle East, forget that there really is a culture hidden under the glitz somewhere, and forget any of the other actual good points about Dubai’s culture, because all you get with Dubai is glamour and extravagance shoved into your face the second you land. With the Sheikh’s ambition to make Dubai a global destination loved by all, it really feels like you cannot get past all that to get a taste of who or what Dubai really is.
It is the equivalent of comparing Dubai to those vacuous airhead reality TV shows, where the plastic women are made up of 90% silicone and care about nothing but the latest fashion and who said what to who! The national personification of turning Dubai into Jordan, (the Z list ‘celeb’, not the country)! Even the thought leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
And that is a huge shame.
Don’t get me wrong, I do understand that some people really do just want a little bit of self indulgent consumerist luxury, a holiday where they can just shop in glitzy malls and pamper themselves with spa treatments or have the occasional adventure (for adventure, read highly organised package tour excursion with camels or dune buggies into the desert). If that is what they want then hey, who am I to judge? Whatever makes you happy. Dubai will more than meet your needs. But personally I want much, much more than that from a destination, none of which as of yet I have been able to get from Dubai, and that is why Dubai – for the moment – will remain a simple, convenient transport hub for me, and nothing more.