United Arab Emirates
For some, Dubai is a promising place of desire. A glittering desert metropolis with magnificent buildings of superlatives. A place of the rich and beautiful. Lax tax laws have created a unique environment for adventurous self-made entrepreneurs and bloggers. The desert sand is the gold that makes dreams come true.
But there is a second side, another interpretation. Dubai as a retreat for tax cheats and would-be millionaires who make their money with dubious business ideas. A destructive hunger for resources. The exploitation of guest workers who keep the country running. The uninspired rip-off of a dying world.
Already in spring the sun burns down on the desert city of Dubai. The beach here is an artificially created place that urges one to have fun and to consume. Restaurants and bars, air-conditioned and with the sterile look of the 21st century, line the beach promenade. A tower that can only be visited for a high entrance fee, because super-rich people spend time there. But those who seek individuality in luxury here will find that capitalism is an equalizer.
An average annual temperature of 27°C. But the Dubai Mall is a world apart, hermetically sealed off from the arid outside conditions. Masses of water rush down 22 meters. In the midst of the waterfall, silver human sculptures. Do they symbolize the conquest of the force of nature? Or their victim, swept along and defencelessly caught in the whirlpool?
Not far away: an ice skating rink and a gigantic aquarium in which exotic fishes circle around in ever-changing circles. It quickly becomes clear: this world doesn’t belong here. And yet somehow it does.
Just a few hundred meters away, the tallest tower on earth rises above this panopticon and casts its shadow over the city.
Manhattan, Shanghai, Tokyo. One mega-city like the other. Cars as a status symbol. Skyscrapers as a sign of victory over physics. Anonymous franchise stores and little green. Why should Dubai be any different?
In the evening sun, when the temperature becomes more bearable and people step out of their offices and apartments, the glass and steel of the tower facades are reflected. The city resembles a box of gold. Lights illuminate the evening sky and the show begins.
Along the Gulf coast, the four emirates of Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Qaiwain and Ra’s al-Khaimah, the latter known for its pearls, can be easily covered in two days. Once we leave the emirate of Dubai, we hardly encounter any tourists. Small mosques line up with visitorless regional museums and old defense fortifications. Remote country houses stand not far from dilapidated settlements. There is less pomp and splendor here, but all the more real life.
Camels stand at the edge of the road and eat the hard leaves of the barren bushes. The beach promenades are almost deserted. Here and there, the attempt to carry tourism out of Dubai and into the far corners of the country is visible.
In the west on the Gulf of Oman lies the emirate of Fujairah. High-rise buildings have grown up along the main street, and shopping malls line the outskirts of the city. The cityscape is dominated by the 16th century fort and the country’s second largest mosque.
The Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Fujairah has six minarets, as only the largest and most magnificent mosques have. The carpet in the prayer room is woven in Belgium. A golden chandelier weighing tons hangs above it. The mosque has room for about 14,000 people. There is little room for humility here. This place is meant to impress.
In Khorfakkan, to the north, an amphitheater was opened in 2020, a replica of the ancient world. The true history of the country, however, lies hidden in sand and rock. Numerous forts and residences, built by sheikhs and emirs in the last century, lie hidden in the mountains. They bear witness to a time when this was still a poor country through which nomads and desert tribes roamed.
For example, the Al Hayl Fort. It seems that rarely a vacationer strays here. A young man from Bangladesh lives a little apart in a barrack. He wears the uniform of a security guard and proudly guides visitors through the mud buildings. Rugged mountains fringe the horizon. A small oasis with date palms lies at their feet.
The last evening takes us into the desert. We steer our rental car over a dusty dirt road until we don’t want to subject it to the road conditions anymore. The last light of the day bathes the desert in warm tones. An off-road vehicle roars past us and disappears behind a dune.
After a week on the road through the Emirates, we are still unsure what to think of this country.
The gigantic, artificially-created Dubai is impressive. But it remains a Potemkin village. The stories that are beyond this megacity are interesting. Of the Syrian barber who fled the war and now cuts hair in Ra’s al Chaima. Of the Bangladeshi who dreamed of a glittering metropolis but now guards a decaying fort in the mountains. The Iraqi who made it to a museum guide but longs to return to his homeland.
These people give the United Arab Emirates a face.