DUBAI Travelog (March 2010)
My cousin took a freelance gig with a Dubai public relations company called Falcon and was entrusted by Sheikh Mohammad, the ruler of Dubai, to invite professionals from around the world who are "at the top of their game” and “leaders in their field" to attend the annual World Cup horse race and “experience” Dubai for five days. No strings attached, all expenses paid! I was invited … so was my college friend, Louis, of Minneapolis.
As the captain announced our final descent into Dubai, we caught sight of the awl-shaped Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, piercing through the white clouds below us.
Representatives from Falcon met us at the airport and ferried us by car to the hotel Al Qasr. Smiling Chinese and Kenyan staff members offered us dates (the edible kind) as we checked in. An Indian butler showed me to my private villa via golfcart (also accessible by scow on a man-made waterway). The sun beat down on me while waves from the Persian Gulf lapped along a white sandy beach nearby.
Later Jennifer met Louis and me under an umbrella by the swimming pool. She explained that our wishes were the Sheikh’s desire. And tips were included.
Our welcome packet included a list of international guests in attendance for the weekend. The numbers broke down like this: UK (46), China (43), Australia (31), Japan (29), India (28), Russia (17), Brazil (16), and US (15).
Meanwhile, I wanted a larger sketchbook for my arsenal of art supplies so I inquired with the people of Falcon. They found the name of an “art store” at a mall to which I could be driven immediately. Jetlagged, I rode in the front seat of an SUV courtesy of the Sheikh. My driver, a 30-year old Pakastani man, talked with me about the U.S. “Is Obama president of the U.S. only?” he asked me “…or of the U.S. and U.K.?”
Back at Al Qasr - one of four hotels located within the Jumeirah resort - I took a shower in a bathroom that was larger than many studio apartments in Manhattan. According to the brochure, which featured photos of smiling caucasians, I was experiencing “High Octane Luxury.” The darker-skinned hotel staff were forever smiling and greeting me, some of them even refering to me as “Mr. Hall.” “Are you enjoying your stay, Mr. Hall?” they would ask. “Where do you come from?” “Can I do anything for you?” etc. The first sheet of toilet paper was folded into a triangle. This was the beginning of my week of “Shimmering Opulence.”
Also at the resort was a “souk” (Arabic for market) which was really a mall made to look like an ancient bazaar. Twenty-nine “magical dining experiences” (ie. restaurants) also were part of the resort and, as guests of the Sheikh, we had access to them all.
At every turn, smiling hotel staffmembers thrust at me silver platters of cold handtowels with which I could wash my face and hands. “Effortless Exhiliration” said the brochure. So convincing was their ecstacy over serving me that I began to imagine their despondence should I refuse. It got so I was accepting the towels out of politeness. I stashed a few among the potted palms that lined the marble hallways.
At night we attended an “Arabian Nights” event in the desert. This was an Arabic cultural celebration. Picture an American wild west show, but Arab style. We milled around a colosseum lit by spotlights and torches where real Arabs in traditional bed linen (a “dishdash”) held camels and falcons on leashes for us to pet. A centerfield stage featured Arab musicians and dancers. Music pounded from giant speakers and we dined buffet-style on cushioned picnic tables.
Suddenly in right field there was a commotion and we craned our necks to see a flock of photographers clamoring for shots of his royal highness, Sheikh Mohammad, striding across the grounds with an entourage of similarly white-robed “royals” and one of his nine concurrent wives (whose name I can’t remember right now). The Sheikh’s security team whisked him to an unseen destination and we were left to fend for ourselves, Sheikhless.
So, the Sheikh was a polygamist! Who knew? Despite claims of progressiveness, the laws in Dubai allow a Sheikh to possess four wives simultaneously. Perhaps time and a relaxation of attitudes will allow for more wives per Sheikh in the future.
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The next day we were given a tour of his royal highness’s royal yacht (the second largest royal yacht in the world). Imagine a small cruise ship. Again, gleeful foreign workers from Myanmar, India, China, Indonesia, and Pakistan proffered hors d’oeurves and champagne. There was talk of the Sheikh himself showing, but he didn’t.
I shook my head in disbelief at the shimmering opulence. My fellow guests echoed the sentiment repeatedly with looks of amazement and the refrain “Isn’t this amazing?”
Yet something was missing and I couldn’t put my finger on it. A dissatisfied feeling gnawed at me. I realized that what I yearned for was the un-selfconscious ebb and flow of daily life that one finds on the streets of New York and other cities. Surely this must exist somewhere in Dubai I thought.
The sun bore down on my pale skin with no conscience. I applied PF40 sunscreen to fight back. Nevertheless, by day’s end my face had became a little pink which happened to go well with the blue shirt I laid out for the evening.
A formal reception was held that night on the beach with the sail-shaped Burj al Arab hotel as a backdrop. Everyone dressed up. Again there was whispering about whether the Sheikh would show. Torches lined the beach and camels laden with squealing guests were led back and forth on leashes.
A wealthy Australian couple, enamored with business and horse racing, gushed to me about his highness’s beneficence and munificence. “Sure,” the woman said, “there are people who object; the foreign press, for example, like to point out the low wages paid to foreign workers here, but when you look at how much they would make in their own countries …” “Yes,” I said, “It’s like the Mexicans in my country who are lucky to be there!” “Exactly!” she said and continued in her praise of the Sheikh.
Then, out of the blue and without warning, the Sheikh’s “wife number 2” took the stage. A murmur ran through the crowd as we moved closer. Her Highness extolled the virtues of her husband with eloquence and candor. “He is a proud man,” she said. “He is a proud bedouin who loves his culture and loves horses. And we all love him.”
Then a gasp was heard throughout as Sheikh Mohammad himself took the stage. Dubai’s ruler stood before us and in slow, careful English welcomed us to his city. He went on to describe his “vision for the region” and his optimism for the future. When it seemed that perhaps he had spoken enough, the Sheikh’s cell phone suddenly rang which made for a moment of levity and a chance for all of us to see that he was, in fact, a regular guy. He turned off his phone and betrayed a hint of a smile. A man in the audience near Louis, recognizing the ring tone on the Sheikh’s phone, quipped to those around him “Beautiful product placement!”
The Sheikh concluded his speech with a nugget of wisdom: “If I have any advice,” he said, “it is just believe in yourself and keep it up.” “He’s a pretty amazing man!” a British woman breathlessly said to me.
Afterward we met several participants from the Sheikh’s horse racing internship program. At a nightclub our senses were pummeled by “dance music” while locals mingled with guests to drink, smoke, and simulate sex on the dance floor. Shouting over the din, a buxom Chinese woman proposed that I take her back to my hotel room. Not wanting to offend her or presume anything about her line of work, I delicately queried as to how much a venture such as that which she proposed would set me back. “Free hundred dollahs U.S.!” she shot back. I declined her offer, claiming that I was not a “rich man,” but that if I were a rich man and lonely she would be whom I would call. I also told her that I loved her which, I imagine, she appreciated.
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Day three brought us to a helicopter pad atop the Burj al Arab hotel. While others were thrilled to view Dubai from the air, I was subjected to motion sickness and spent the ride clutching my armrest and staring at the floor.
At 5pm we gathered in our hotel lobby for transport to the World Cup race track. Busloads of dirty laborers on the freeway stared as we passed in our finery aboard a much larger, air-conditioned bus with a police escort.
Non-Americans often complain about the pace of American football. Well, they should try sitting through a day of horse racing. The downtime between races outmeasures the actual racing times by about a thousand to one. Still, I enjoyed people watching.
What, you may ask, is horse racing doing in a country where gambling is forbidden? Well, the Sheikh, as you know, loves horses (Arabian horses were invented here, after all). Also, this race offers the highest purse in the world. I think a Brazilian horse won the final race. You can youtube it. Later, Elton John and Santana (two bands from the seventies) performed.
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The next day I summoned a car and visited the markets. At last I was experiencing real Dubai street life. I haggled over pennies with shop owners and shook my head when shady characters offered me Rolex watches. I also found time to make a sketch or two.
That night we went on a desert safari. In groups of fours and fives we climbed into 4-wheel drive vehicles that took us to the desert. Louis and I rode with Andrew and Hiroko of Australia. The driver had us buckle our seatbelts and, one car after another, the caravan plunged into the desert. Up and down we went over endless dunes. I was suddenly reminded of the helicopter ride from the previous day.
Finally, and mercifully, we arrived at a random spot among the dunes, in the middle of nowhere, which had been laid out in advance with carpets, torches, pillows, and a generator. Camel rides were available again and there might have been a falcon to pet, but I can’t remember. Smiling men in robes served us champagne and snacks on silver platters. Beer too.
The soft notes of an Arabian guitar - also known as an oud (which rhymes with “dude”) - gave way to a conviviality among the guests. For many this was their last night in Dubai so introductions were made that might not otherwise have been made. I met Mr. and Mrs. Mikimoto of the Mikimoto jewelry empire. Also Mr. Kinishiki, an American-born former sumo wrestling champion, and Ms. Hiroko Mima, former Miss Japan Universe. I met an American art dealer from Christie’s and an Australian business man. Also several other business men.
When the sun went down a belly dancer appeared and a recording of sexy Arabic drumming was played. The men in our group clapped and grinned while the women set their jaws tightly and stared straight ahead. The dancer invited at random various men to dance with her. Hilarity ensued.
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On my last day I visited the largest mall in the world (imagine a really big mall) and the Dubai museum for a lesson on the region’s history. I read on a plaque at the museum that the Bedouins (nomadic tribal Arabs) “love good deeds and hate evil.” Louis joined me for a trip through the street markets that evening and then we hit the bars. Our first stop was Rock Bottom which had pool tables emblazoned with the the Jack Daniels logo and live music by a Canadian band called Sold Out. You can look for them on youtube I imagine, but I don’t recommend it.
Then we rode across town to Barasti, a popular bar at the Le Meridian hotel. Our driver, a young Pakistani, was ever-obliging and I think Louis tipped him at night’s end. Barasti is outdoors and overlooks the Dubai marina. As we entered the bar, two women smiled at me. I struck up a conversation with a couple Emirates Airlines flight attendants meanwhile who were speaking Chinese. I said “are you Chinese?” and one of them said “Hell, no! we’re Malaysian.”
Later the two women who had smiled at me earlier appeared again. I discovered they were from Kazakhstan and Ethiopia. One of them hinted strongly at a possible liason of some sort involving me. I could tell by the way she clutched my arm when she spoke. But necessity called and my heart was torn in half as I bid her adieu.
The next morning we glimpsed from the airplane again the gleaming Burj Khalifa as we departed for home.