Dubai: Conspicuous construction

By Ewan McDonald

To many Kiwis, Dubai is a bleary-eyed stopover for duty-free bargain shopping. Ewan McDonald went there to live the high life.
The Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Photo / iStock
The Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Photo / iStock

As we stumble along the crazy paving called life, we realise that some people like doing stuff that others look at and decide Nah, I'd rather stick a sharp fork into my eye.

Me, I've never understood that thing about putting up high buildings. Much less, that thing about going up them.

The SkyTower: 360-degree views from the middle of Auckland to Great Barrier and Muriwai or Matamata, when cloud permits.

Read more:
Dubai: A taste of the desert
Dubai: Stop at the top of the world
Dubai: The view from Concourse A
Dubai: A date with a mouthy mount

Another way to get 360-degree views from Muriwai to Matamata is to drive to them, preferably with a good friend or dog, and share a parcel of fish'n chips and a half-decent champagne.

So when the opportunity arose to go up the world's tallest building

"I don't think so," I told my mate Bob. "Don't worry," he said. "I've taken plenty of people up there. Quite a few of them were nervous about it. Honestly, once you get up there, you'll be amazed."

Which is how I found myself, with Bob and our friend Michael, joining the queue for the lifts at the foot of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, about to be whisked 828m or 125 floors in somewhat less than two minutes.

"The ride is amazingly smooth," said Bob, in those reassuring tones my dentist uses to tell me I need a root canal.

Bob, Michael and I stood against a wall and had our photo taken. Then we got into the lift.

The Burj Khalifa is a tall building. There are less lofty places on this planet that have "Mt" in front of their names. But it is much more than that. For the precocious teen that is Dubai, it is a symbol that the emirate is a player on the world stage.

When they arrive at the world's busiest airport (there will be a lot of superlatives in this feature), most Kiwis only see the duty-free bling or jump bleary-eyed from terminal to driverless train to the next departure gate.

Dubai's unabashed ambition is to change that perception, to entice visitors to stay longer than the next flight. It sees its Gulf State-self as a destination in its own right. A. Global. City.

It is hard to argue with the stats. The most populous city in the United Arab Emirates. Business hub of the Middle East. Major transport hub. For almost every taste, fantabulous entertainment, shopping and sport: Celine and Elton, Formula 1, Nadal and Spieth, Prada and Gucci. You label it. All achieved in less than 50 years. The only way to describe Dubai is: say your family camped at Raglan in the 60s. Say you went back to Raglan this summer and found, not a campground by the black-sand beach but Vegas on steroids. And Raglan's ATMs giving out, not banknotes, but gold ingots.

To try to find the roots of the modern city, you need to take an air-conditioned cab from whichever air-conditioned hotel you are staying in, along the freeways and past the higher-rises, to what is modestly known as "the Creek". It is possibly the only modest reference in Dubai.

The creek is a saltwater inlet in the Arabian Gulf. Back in 1095 when Spain was an Islamic state, its great geographer Abu Abdullah al-Bakri marked the spot. In 1580, the Venetian pearl merchant Gaspero Balbi dropped in and twisted the local divers' arms to get a better price for their beauties. In 1853 the local rulers - the Al Maktoum family - signed the treaty of Perpetual Maritime Truce and Britain took responsibility for the security of the two fishing villages on either side of the Creek.

When the 20th century rose over the horizon, Dubai was a port of call for foreign traders; its pearls were prized from Monte Carlo to New York until the 1930s' Depression and the innovation of cultured pearls. Dubai fell into a deep depression and many residents starved or migrated.

At Al Fahidi Fort, built in 1787 to defend the creek, village and ruling family, above- and underground displays tell the remarkably brief history of the state, its culture, its heritage: the desert and marine wildlife, artefacts from African and Asian trading partners, life and wildlife in the desert for almost 5000 years before the discovery of oil.

Across the taxi-crazy, car-insane, pedestrian-underpass road dividing market from docks are moored paint-peeling and rusted dhows, waiting to load the cargo they will pick up after dropping off the spices and textiles. Fridges, microwaves, HD-TVs for the run into Iran or the eight-hour voyage to North Africa. The US has decreed this is not supposed to happen. There is an embargo. Perhaps the US does not understand that families in Ethiopia and Iran want to watch the same HD-TVs as families in Peoria or Biloxi.

Trade built Dubai. In 1822 the population was estimated to be 1200. By 1900, 10,000. After the airport was built and the port expanded in 1975, 183,000. It reached 1.2 million at the turn of the millennium and is now roughly 2.25 million - the same as the North Island.

Driving through the city is a stop-motion movie of an architect's fantasy: a supposedly normal tower-block that twists back on itself like a licorice sweet; a Dada-esque take on NY's Metropolis towers; hallucinate a skyscraper design and you can build it here.

Dubai is home to 10 of the world's 50 tallest buildings and the Burj Khalifa, which sprouts from the Dubai Mall, is the mother and father and grandparents of them all.

At the mall, the three of us check out the bookstore. Perhaps it goes without saying that it is the largest bookstore on Earth, and a reminder of what we don't have in any of our main streets any more. And we stop at the cafe for a local treat.

While this city hustles into the 21st century, often obliterating that tiny but ancient heritage, one Arabian delight lingers: coffee with rich, sweet, smooth camel's milk. I could go back to Dubai for another cup of camelccino.

As Bob promised, the lift was amazingly smooth. And fast. I know this because I gripped the handrail before the doors closed and shut my eyes and did not open them until the doors opened.

My rational being knew I had climbed higher than this - 1470m up Mt Holdsworth to win my Boys' Brigade Expedition badge at age 12.

Unfortunately my irrational being was in charge. I looked out of the lift and up the corridor towards the sky-to-Ground Zero windows. I could see clouds. I could see, further and lower, hotels and islands and sea and they all seemed too far below.

"Can't do it," I told Bob. "I'll have to take the next lift down."

I met my mates on the ground, having checked out the displays that show that one of the genii behind this tower was Greg Sang, Kiwi and nephew of architect and my onetime landlord, Ron Sang.

We walked out of the tower, across the bridges, and around the artificial lake to an Italian restaurant. Dubai's top-end bars and eateries are segregated: an area for locals and a clearly defined zone for visitors who desire alcohol with their meal. From our table, the three of us marvelled at and Instagrammed the dancing fountains on the artificial lake in front of the Burj Khalifa.

"Sorry guys," I said. "Heights are not my thing."

Bob handed me an envelope. "You went to the top of the world's tallest building," he said. "Here's the photo to prove it."

Emirates new direct service flies from Auckland to Dubai with Economy Class return fares starting at $2917.

- NZ Herald

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