Blissfully Oblivious in the Middle East

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The sumptuous Mall of Dubai

Picture streets crowded with Ferraris, Jaguars, Mercedes and Lexus SUVs. Men in expensively casual shirts and slacks or designer jeans, and women in spangly cocktail dresses, at brunch around rooftop pools. Impeccably clean metro stations, lush public gardens, and new buildings going up on every block. This is Dubai. Economic crisis? What economic crisis? Governments toppling all around the Middle East? Where?

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Dubai's skyline as viewed from its brand new subway

There is evidence of stopped construction around Dubai, cranes standing still over unfinished buildings. But plenty, plenty are still working away, building more and more glass towers. The skyline here is a veritable forest of skyscrapers. This feels like it's a million miles away from the incredible, historical uprisings currently happening in Tunisia, Egypt, and now Jordan. We heard not a whisper of that here. As a casual visitor to Dubai, what I saw was money flowing like Dom Perignon. Like a slot machine that just rang up three red cherries.

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Be courteous! No smooching!

But no! There are no casinos in Dubai and no sexy stage shows. There is also no pork sausage or bacon on that sumptuous breakfast buffet (though there is plenty of champagne.) This may be "Middle East Lite" but it's still the Middle East.

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Baramasai, about to break the tape and be first across the finish line.

Michael and I traveled with friends to Dubai so that he could run the Dubai Marathon. This marathon has the distinction of having the world's largest winners' purse: one million dollars! The first place winner, Kenyan David Baramasai, walked away with a $250,000 check. Not bad! Michael and our friends back in the pack of mere mortals had a slightly different marathon experience: the police opened the race route up to vehicular traffic a full two hours before they were supposed to! So the runners dodged traffic and then had to hit the sidewalk for the last grueling leg of the 26.2 mile run.

One of our friends had an old friend fly in from London to join her in running the race, and this woman is my new hero. She is a trial lawyer in her early 50s with two grown children, and she has run over 40 marathons and climbed five out of the seven tallest peaks in the world. (Antarctica: the marathon and the climb of Vinson Massif, is on her schedule for this November.) She uses marathons as her excuse to travel the world. She said that running a marathon through a city or a region is a great way to see it. St. Petersburg was one of the most telling examples, she said. Inside the city center, everything is gold-leafed and pristine. But run just a few miles outside of the downtown area, and the apartment blocks have no windows, and the streets are crumbling. As you might expect with such a massively energetic achiever, she was completely down-to-earth, calm, and quick to laugh. What an honor to meet this woman!

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Ski Dubai, inside the Mall of the Emirates

The silliest display that I saw of "more money than sense" was the indoor ski slope at the Mall of the Emirates. Here, you can rent all of the necessary gear, ride up a ski lift, and ski down a fake mountain. You can also frolic in the snow at the bottom of the mountain, and when you're done, enjoy lunch at the Cafe St. Moritz, a ski lodge-esque restaurant with views of the snowy scene. Seriously.

We had a great time on our holiday, and to be fair, we didn't even try to find the "real" Dubai (is there one, or did they just build all this up from nothing?) We came away, though, with a feeling like the one you get after a day at Disneyland: it was fun, but so fake, and Man! Was that expensive!