The Ballards - Dubai


In Star Trek NG Captain Jean-Luc Picard is prone to intone in his best stage baritone: "Make it so.....".
At his command the Starship Enterprise hurls itself in to the void at continuum-wrenching velocities towards the next adventure.
The rulers of Dubai have obviously watched too much Star Trek.

Go to them with a crazy idea on the back of an envelope, and they will tell you to "Make it so......"
They'll then back it with enough petroleum-derived folding stuff to ensure that no matter how crazy the idea, it simply will happen....
Welcome to Dubai.

On the beach....

Built on a sandy creek overlooking the Arabian Gulf near the Straits of Hormuz, until 1971 Dubai and the other 5 Emirates were small trading posts full of itinerant Arab peasants and Indian traders, overseen by a benign British Protectorate mainly for historical reasons: we had conquered them hundreds of years previously to ensure our cargo ships were not plundered on their journeys back and forth to India.
The Second World War enfeebled Britain and during the 1950s and 1960s it made moves towards allowing the protectorates to become self-governing, in order mainly to save money. This would turn out to be the most expensive decision in Britain's history.

In 1971 the United Arab Emirates was born, poor but proud, and the Treasury breathed a huge sigh of relief. Little did they know that the UAE were sitting on truly vast quantities of oil which over the next 25 years they would exploit and export, ending up wealthier than Britain and one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.

This fabulous oil wealth and a lack of the need or desire to defend itself has created a country with enormous self-confidence. Basically, they've got so much money they can distort the normal rules of politics because anybody who threatens them they simply buy off.

The Sheraton has been there for 10 years and is a little overshadowed, you might say.....

They like the English because we were basically fair to them before Independence (unlike we were to Israel), and we're a good oil market. But they don't need us like we need their oil reserves.

Late-November 2006 England: floods, rain, wind, more rain, gales, short days, dark nights (and did I mention the rain?).
Virgin Atlantic finally and very reluctantly coughed up the airmiles they owed us and late Wednesday night we queued (and queued and queued.....) at Heathrow for the overnight flight to Dubai for a long weekend. Having been to Oman we were keen to experience the other side of the Arabian coin, but first we had to negotiate Heathrow Terminal 3......

There you stand with your L.A. tan, And your New York walk and your New York talk, Your mother left you when you were small, But you're gonna wish you weren't born at all..

Heathrow gets worse every time I travel, every advance in technology designed to expedite the process of boarding an aircraft, such as web check-in and those cool Smiths Heimann x-ray machines (well done Sir Roger for buying Heimann at the right time), has been nullified by pointless triplicated "Security" checks designed to reassure the travelling public that "something" is being done, and manned by insufficient slow, surly personnel.
Once I've checked in by web, bag drop should take no more than 15 seconds. So what's going on? I counted 6 times my passport was checked, 4 times my boarding card and my hand luggage was x-rayed twice, the entire process taking 2½ hours. Huh?

Well your mouthpiece squawks as he spreads your lies, But you can't pull strings if your hands are tied, Well your teeth are clean but your mind is capped, You leave your smell like an alley cat..

Passenger security is simple: equip each flight with 4 air marshalls.
If anybody threatens anything, they shoot. Yes, stray bullets will puncture the fuselage and yes, the aircraft may depressurise but it won't lose control, they are all equipped with oxygen masks so no one should die (except the terrorists).
Then do away with all but one of the security checks and massively replicate its workings so that no one has to queue.
If any queue gets beyond 5 minutes, BAA gets fined £50,000 a minute for however long the queue continues (given to the passengers).

We made the gate (...doing 98. I said let them truckers roll, 10-4.....) in the nick of time and had front of block seats which, for Economy class I have to say were very roomy.
Trying to sleep on aircraft is impossible so I shut my eyes for half an hour to provide a mental "this memory is yesterdays, this memory is todays" watershed and watched another film on the (excellent) video-on-demand system.
The sun rose as we made a straight-in approach to Dubai's main airport (what, no Overhead Join?).
This turned out to be clean, orderly and efficient, with Indian workers cleaning every inch of it constantly to ensure it remained spotless, and courtesy phones labelled "For passenger use - free calls anywhere in Dubai" everywhere. We are so mean-spirited in England by comparison.

The Jebel Ali

All the passport staff were female, veiled (apart from the face) and apparently about 12 from what I could see.
You can tell an awful lot about a country from the people they put on passport duty.
Through a cavernous baggage hall to our already deplaned baggage and out into the sunshine and smells: diesel and kerosene and sweaty bodies and the faint smell of hair oil.

These guys come in blister packs, apparently.....

I've noticed that everybody in the Arab world keeps themselves immaculate - they have their hair cut every couple of weeks and keep it beautifully coiffured. They are all either clean-shaven or have long beards but their clothes are always immaculate.

I savoured the delicious irony of being in a taxi where the heavily-bearded salwar kameez-wearing Moslem driver's mobile phone ring tone was a Christmas carol.

Out hotel was in the marina: a long way from the airport through atrocious traffic, and everywhere was construction.

The building boom is unbelievable

Being a trading deport, the inhabitants of Dubai have traditionally been very cosmopolitan and their interest is not in you but in what you have to trade, or your money.

The traffic in Dubai is awful: they have built (and are still building) huge 12-lane highways everywhere, but they don't drive very well or use the roads efficiently, so there are constant hold-ups and accidents. many of the drivers have minimal experience.

No speed cameras here.........

I have never seen so many Lamborghinis, Range Rover Sports and Bentleys in such a short space of time. Like Oman, all the cars have a "binger" that "bings" constantly if you drive over 120Km/h (75mph) - apparently all the locals disconnect them.
Outside the city you can put your foot down and it is quite normal to see lines of immaculate tinted-windowed 4x4s in the outside lane doing 100mph or so. They have fixed speed cameras but apparently they let the fines build up through the year - their car tax cannot be renewed until they are all paid - and you can then negotiate your speeding fines! Only in Dubai.....

Dubai has gone from a flat piece of unappetising desert to a huge metropolis in 30 years and there are only so many identical tower blocks you can build, so they have started to get a bit silly.
Each tower block has it's own motif to differentiate it, and some of the roofs are just bloody stupid. Everyone has tried to come up with something new and failed (it looks like any American city) but in doing so they have tried every outlandish idea: there is an indoor ski-slope, several marinas (with no boats), palm-shaped islands (that you can only appreciate the shapes of from the air), maps of the world islands (ditto), the Burj al Arab hotel that is nowhere near as big or as remote as they'd have you believe and was apparently a bastard to make stay up as the foundations are in sand. We had to get out.....

A tyre's eye view

Ten miles out in the middle of the desert has been built a brand-new, no expense spared, state of the art motor racing circuit.
I'm not a huge motor-racing fan, but it's an absolutely fantastic place if you are: most circuits are developed from airport perimeter tracks eg Silverstone so are boringly flat, but this is bult on the side of a completely virgin hill and has been really thought about.
My friend Clive designed it, so he gave us the guided tour and being sad I asked him to include all the plant and server rooms.
No stone has been left unturned for this to be the best-designed circuit in the world, bar none.
I didn't get a chance to drive the circuit, although I did go around it as a passenger (in a Range Rover in the rain, which rather defeated the object), and it was amazing.
Next time I wanna drive it...... in a Porsche.

Average city runabout.....

Mission Control

The building at Dubai Marina is incredible: I'm used to seeing one or two tower blocks go up, then one or two more. Here, 500 or so are going up all at once. The scale of the expenditure is thought-provoking: most of these blocks are not hotels but holiday apartments for sale (and 95% are sold off-plan).
But there is very little infrastructure beyond chic restaurants and nail-bars; in 10 years' time it will be interesting to see who is actually here and what they are doing.....

Omani fort

We made a conscious decision to see what the UAE is like outside Dubai, so took a long day-trip up to the Musandan Peninsula in Oman.
Once outside Dubai (and maxed-out in a hire-car on the highway) the real UAE begins to appear.
The other Emirates (Ajmān, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, and Umm al-Quwain) are scruffier, poorer and more ethnic than Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah, and thus of course a great deal more interesting.

Threateniung weather, in Oman?

Heading North towards the Omani border, the road deteriorates, with serious speed humps that slow even us down to a walking pace, then a series of scruffier and scruffier towns and finally a cement city with cement truck-carrying overpasses and the smelliest garage squat loo in the Emirates.
This was the end of the line before they blasted the the new coast road out of the rocks all along the west side of the peninsula so you can get in to Musandam.

Scalextric anybody?

Beyond the brand-new border stations the Musandam road (and the approximately 25 cars per day that use it) is wide, smooth, picturesque and well-graded.
Do I smell hot hire-car brakes and rubber? Hmmmm....
The road connects many previously-remote communities along the shoreline. I imagine some must have been hours apart by 4x4 and now are 30 seconds or so apart.
Quite a difference.


Eventually the road abandons the water's edge and snakes up in to the hills before cutting off the very tip of the peninsula and curving down to Khasab (not that there's much to see in Khasab, just an oversized port that trades, illegally I suspect, with Iran).


Dubai has a reputation for being expensive and glitzy and yes, parts of it are, but once away frm the main drag, we ate well and cheaply in street cafés, little restaurants and even the big hotels. The service and food was unfailingly good.
One night we ate at a Moroccan restaurant in the basement of one of the top hotels and had the most fantastic meal accompanied by a couple of talented ethnic musicians: one of those restaurants you swear you'll go back to one day before you die.
Moroccan wine can be fantastic, but a little stronger than we thought, and we weaved our way out of the hotel with beatific smiles on our faces.
Not bad for an Islamic country.

Jumeirah mosque

Just as we started to relax we had to come home again, which was a pain. An early morning whizz back across the city to the airport and in to the immaculate and efficient (Heathrow, take note) terminal.
20 minutes from kerbside to heading for the aircraft, all checked in and ready to go. Beat that, BAA.


The Departure lounge is something else.
Duty Free is a country all of it's own, and the range of goods is staggering. Actually, nothing was very cheap (remember the old adage "it's only a bargain if you were going to buy it anyway.....") but it looked good, the Costa coffee did us a couple of really nice capuccinos and I bought a book on 4x4ing to remind me to come back and do some.

Into the back of the Virgin Airbus again, more films and finally Holds over Canvey Island for an hour while Heathrow caught up with itself.
We knew we were home.... grey skies, rain, short days and huge long passport queues. How on earth can we justify 8 Immigration personnel serving 4 non-UK passport holders whilst one harassed Indian woman is asked to deal with 450 UK passport holders queuing half way back to the aircraft?

I was left with the honest desire that someone somewhere take a long hard look (via Dubai) at the way we in the UK handle customer service in general, and dealing with the flying public in particular.

Next time I think I might fly myself there...