Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Learjets and the shark-sellers: the two sides of Dubai

England's cricket tour of the UAE has limped on to Abu Dhabi after the stuffing they received from Pakistan in the first Test. Before we moved along the coast I got a chance to see a bit of the unknown side of Dubai.

I've been to the Dubai half a dozen times for work but it is not the sort of place I would ever choose to visit on holiday. Andrew Flintoff loves it, which tells you all you need to know. I've found it crass, boring and rather depressing, a stream of hotels, malls and nightclubs, none of which really appeal to me (why do people always talk about Dubai as a great shopping destination when the products are generally more pricey than back home?)

However, there are people I respect who like Dubai, not least my friends Toby and Lindsey who live out here, so with their guidance I ventured away from the strips of concrete and the hotel bars (£6 for a pint of Hoegaarden, by the way - God knows what Flintoff spends out here).

Down by the creek, where passengers are carried from bank to bank on precarious-looking wooden abras for the cost of a dirham (about 20p), we found a rickety platform on the water's edge where we ate meze and drank a delicious lemon juice and mint concoction.

As the wind picked up, shaking our platform, and a Hitchcockian swarm of birds came diving for scraps of bread, it felt a world away from the bland sterility of the rest of Dubai. Tourists were few and far between.

On we went, deep into "Little Pakistan", to Dubai's Billingsgate, the fish market where under a vast corrugated roof, dozens of fishermen sold their catch. Barkers tried to tempt you to their stall as squid jostled with crab and swordfish with shrimps for space in the wheelbarrows that porters wheeled round the narrow gulleys.

A whole tuna and a kilo of shrimps bought for the barbeque, we then took them to a separate shack where they were cleaned and gutted for a handful of dirhams. Outside, a few small sharks were laid out on the concrete walkway and a gaggle of locals gathered for what seemed to be a bidding war.

It was a fascinating display of noise and passion, the exact opposite of our trip the next night, when we were taken to Meydan, the great Dubai racing centre, for an evening with the horses.

Meydan is a majestic stadium, the stand of corporate boxes and seats looking like a grander version of Stansted airport. In front, the horses paraded before the race, patted as they passed by their wealthy sheikh owners. The place smelled of money and luxury.

And yet the racing was disappointingly sterile. No roar from the crowds as the horses thundered past, no gasps as the favourite slipped back or cheers for the 20-1 outsider who took the post. Barely any noise at all.

This is what happens to racing when you remove the alcohol and the gambling. I'm sure some betting must have gone on, punters using their mobile phones to access websites based overseas, but the lack of evident passion or concern for the result led to an immensely sterile atmosphere.

This is the anomaly of Dubai. The wealthier you are, the more soulless life seems. The immigrant population who built these edifices may live in penury, but they have passion and enthusiasm. I found myself envying the fishmongers and pitying the sheikhs. All the money in the world, but no real reason for being alive. In the battle between the Learjets and the shark-sellers, I'm on the side of the men who fish.


Pam Nash said...

Fascinating - although with regard to 'The wealthier you are, the more soulless life seems', I think that probably applies all over the world. The building excitement & anticipation of saving to get something you really, really want is often better than the actual getting of it....

Charis Croft said...

Thanks again for a really interesting piece. And I loved the gently scathing commentary on Flintoff too.

With regards to the racing - I think the same would be true at any racing course where you remove betting and alcohol. This is why I don't like racing. Any sport/pastime where it is essential to the enjoyment that you drink and risk (well, lose mostly) money seems pretty pointless in itself.