Dubai: A Desert Being Devoured By The City
I stand here staring through the large window wall in the corner of my room. It’s as thick as the walls, and probably bullet proof, not that any bullet could come through as I stand on the 31st floor of the Fairmont Dubai Hotel.
My forehead is stuck with sweat to the glass, my mouth is a bit dry and my eyes swollen. Jet lag and a seven hour night flag from Heathrow interrupted by eerie scenes akin to The Hunger Games make the picture even more surreal. The horizon is blurry and yellow, the desert, here for thousands of years is gently being devoured by the city, all made of imposing skyscrapers and large beige buildings, hiding the few minarets chanting their call to prayer in the sky.
Closer, is the World Trade Centre station: a golden building like a spaceship ready to take off. Between the hotel and the station, is the local tar river, the highway, as noisy as a waterfall after a storm.
Leaving the spacious, elegant wooden bedroom with its large bed able to fit four drunkards, I head, half awake, to one of the pools, using one of the three lifts available. The 5-star palace has two pools: one for sunrise and one for sunset.
Sitting here a few hours later after a long nap, a pack of Marlboro Lights and a glass of clear and cold rosé on the table, I stare at the horizon. Located on the 40th floor, the pool is high enough to make the traveler believe he’s looking at nothing but an endless ocean. Coming closer to the edge, his eyes are drawn to a huge parking lot, and to a blurry sea of sand and concrete. Behind him stands an imposing wall of glass. Now he gets it: the hotel needs two pools because the building is so high it hides the sun half of the day more than anywhere else on the ground.
Day 1: Welcome to the Arabic Las Vegas
After a long and relaxing swim, I start getting ready for the first step of my first press trip. The PR insisted on the dress code a couple of times, probably worrying that a bunch of journalists wouldn’t pay enough attention.
Tonight, the party taking place at The ACT requires a “smart” outfit. Tomorrow’s clothes are requested to be “fashion casual”, and in two days, lunch time is “casual” while the evening is “smart / dressy casual.” All the terminology sounds a bit scary, so I go for smart shoes, black jeans, a collar free white shirt underneath a way too warm dark grey blazer with a discreet cigarette hole on the side. To avoid getting it wrong, I even got my late grandfather’s leather belt, the only black one I own.
Slipping down the marble floor of the lobby, I understand that I’ve been the only one putting thoughts into my outfit. One of the other journalists, who vaguely looks like one of the guys from Django Django, wears a t-shirt and excuses himself for being “shamefully underdressed.” The little band features four women, three British and one Russian and two guys, one from the UK and one Canadian, who’s also a real estate agent and an amateur boxer in addition to his writing career.
Tonight the ACT is supposed to be an homage party to US iconic hip hop group NWA. Greeted by Laurie Armand, a French girl who moved to Dubai in 2010, the group is sat around two black tables with mellow seats.
Laurie explains that most people dancing around the table aren’t from the country. She actually doesn’t know many UAE folks, and there’s not many left. In Dubai, there’s very few older people and we're not given the chance to go to the local areas that still sort of looks like what the city used to be before his redevelopment as a Arabic Las Vegas.
Admirably well constructed, the evening is split between delicious sushi and three different shows, cabaret, fire displays and a contortionist.
After the desert is served, the real party can begin. While drugs may be a no-go in the muslim state, instead gigantic flasks of vodka and gargantuan bottles of ancient champagne with a fluorescent logo glowing in the dark are passed around. At 3, the club closes. Like all the clubs and venues of the city and everyone takes a taxi back to one of the skyscrapers of the hood.
Day 2: Tea Traditions & The Blue Marlin
I can barely stand my hangover is that ferocious. Free alcohol is never a good idea when you’re only used to the odd bottle of white on a Friday evening. The bed is so big, so comfortable, so wonderfully clean that you feel like swimming in it.
In the lobby, the other guys seem unbearably fresh-faced. Most of them went swimming and sunbathing, the Canadian fella even went “sweating all this out” at the impressive spa on the 40th floor.
It takes a while for everyone to arrive and it’s already nearly 2pm. In the meantime, I spend time with a waiter pouring cold tea in traditional metallic glasses. Hungover or not, you learn that you need to take the glass with the right hand. Never the left one. You’ll learn later that the tradition comes from the fact that the locals use the left hand to wipe their delicate bottom. After three shots, the white van parks in front of the hotel.
Destination, Blue Marlin, the branch of a renowned Ibiza club built on a plastic beach near Abhu Dhabi. Passing Dubai, it’s just a long and tedious road in the middle of the desert, littered with a huge billboard of the Prince.
Trying not to faint, I get out of the car in front of what looks like the entrance of a Andalusian hacienda.The distant beat massages my heart and my brain gently. The surroundings look so luxurious I instantly regret to be wearing my faded green swim shorts. Welcomed with big smiles, everyone is given a wooden fan that we keep close until night falls.
Placed at a large table on the first floor, under big white umbrellas and in front of the fake beach, the waiter diligently keeps our glasses filled with rosé for hours, before the manager offers a traditional shisha. .
I think the taste was mint and mango. We stayed for hours under the sun having wine poured and discussing a varied range of topics after which we were taken to a VIP area above the dance-floor and the beach. Then, well, everything got a bit blurry.
Eventually, someone told us that we needed to go. I think it was something like midnight. It closes early. It’s also closed during the Ramadan, like most clubs in Dubai.
Fantastically drunk, we all arrived back at the hotel and had one the most mundane, and perhaps the nicest moment of our stay, chatting at a basic sports bar playing Oasis, watching an old Man United game and drinking Brooklyn lagers.
Day 3: Seafood and Eat It
The third day, I didn’t go to the pool either. And even less to the spa. I also sort of decided that I didn’t care about being late. The first hangover of a three day drinking festival, you’re just very drunk and keeps on drinking, laughing and partying. The second one, you just feel a bit empty, far from home and sorry for yourself. What should you do to feel like a King again? Eat the biggest lobster you can find, in a not too fancy an atmosphere.
Driving again through the forest of high rises, thinking about JG Ballard again, mock the “tallest building in the world” because it’s only high for the sake of it, and finally reach the haven that is the air conditioning of the building hiding Burger & Lobster.
Before tucking into my fishy feast, I named my lobster Melvin. I honoured his contribution to healing my hangover by eating literally everything you’re supposed to eat inside him. It’s Dubai, it’s warm, but it’s inside it’s pleasantly cool.
After indulging in too many post-lobster cocktails I returned to the hotel to have a nap. No one is walking in Dubai, there’s no attraction but pools, bars and hotels.
Defeated, I wear the same clothes as the first night, just changing my shirt for a sky blue one. Everyone seems to be friendly, just like during the last months of a year on Erasmus, but you might not meet any of this people ever again. Who cares, vodka martinis are being poured as well as in any dedicated East London bar and another improbable playlist, going from Sam Cooke to Snoop Dogg within a few seconds is being played.
Another orgy of seafood is elegantly presented to our already jaded eyes. It features a ridiculously spectacular seabass, that I offer to cut myself, like my grandma taught me to. The food is particularly delicious and the music, still weirdly mixed, sounds a bit more geared toward the European visitors. Sebastian, the manager of the whole circus advocates every larger sized dishes as exceptional, but he only gets a bite of each one.
After a few bottles of wine, Sebastian shows us the big private room. With a safe big enough to contain enough wallets of cash and diamonds to buy the restaurant. Like a kid in a very expensive cabin he just built, he presses a button behind a big wooden bookcase. A door opens.
Again, the whole thing is inspired by a whole history of western literature. Taking us to Bagatelle, a nearby restaurant with more of a party atmosphere, Sebastian brags about the “pop art” paintings hanging on the white walls. The concept of Bagatelle is an alliance of late 20th American culture mixed with Louis XIV’s century chairs, tables and massive chandeliers. All painted in white.
As if we didn’t have enough food, Sebastian orders massive bowls of ice cream. Enough to make all our doctors cry until all their cholesterol leave them. Then a few rounds of shots come. Sebastian raises a glass to us, and to life in Dubai. But doesn’t drink a single drop.
Ten minutes later, I’m lying in bed. Six hours later the reception will call. Ten hours later, my plane will take off back to London City Airport.