We were in a powerful 4– wheel drive. Set for an evening of fun, we sped along merrily. There were five of us including the driver. A well informed chatty fellow, he appeared to know what he was doing. Though warned, nobody had actually prepared us for what was to come. Our first surprise was when we suddenly veered off the beautifully metalled tarmac. The second was when he deflated our tyres and drove onto the sands. And the third was when, a few minutes into the horizon, on deflated tyres, we began to swoop up and down what appeared to be huge sweeps of sand and nothing but sand. Dunes.
Racing up slopes, flying over curves; breasting peaks and plunging down slants. Powering up wobbly gradients and cutting a swathe, our 4WD even slid down on its side a few times. As we swooshed from one pristine sand top to another – with no time to catch our breaths – we didn’t quite know whether we were having fun or inviting a heart attack. It is without doubt only the sheer dexterity of the driver that prevented us from breaching the thin line between life and death.
So welcome to Dune or Wadi Bashing as it is known in Dubai. Wadis are dried up desert river beds among mountain high sand dunes in the middle of nowhere. And ‘Bashing’ refers to the art of tackling them. With camps replete with belly dancers, camels, falcons and dinners served under moonlit skies, it serves as a backdrop to the glittering shopper’s paradise that Dubai is these days.
From a mere 18th century fishing village engaged in pearl fishing to one of the world’s most enviable commercial hubs, Dubai’s story is the stuff of what fairy tales are made of. Dazzling, beautiful and amazing would probably describe it all as you drive around its hotspots. Glittering skyscrapers, modern gold souks and an incredible infrastructure! You name it. Dubai has it. In Dubai to check out the Dubai Shopping Festival where nations compete to showcase their wares at the Global Village we also indulged in, what else, but mall hopping. There are about seventy multi brand super speciality glitzy Malls with no less than a mind- boggling 600 hundred state- of- the- art hotels in Dubai.
The extraordinary Ibn Batuta mall is built around the famous Arabian explorer’s travels. And the Wafi designed as a pyramid is where the sound and light show takes you back to Pharaoh land. It is also where Wedgewood and Waterford crystals jostle for shelf space along with Rolex’ and Hussains. Picking up ideas for your home is easy at the enormous Swedish store IKEA or even the Dubai Festival City that is ripe for a surreal experience.
Imagine ice in a desert? Yes, there are ski slopes in the amazingly large indoor snow park in the Mall of the Emirates while at one of the world’s largest-Dubai Mall is an Olympic size ice rink.With about 1200 shops, the Dubai Mall is also part of the tallest tower in the world – the Burj Khalifa. Almost a kilometre and 163 habitable floors high we need to stand in line with an expensive 100 Dhs a ticket to get a swift ride to the viewing gallery on the 124th floor. And the ‘View from the Top’ is no less exciting.
Reclaimed from the sea and clearly etched in the foreground is the outline of one of the most beautiful, artificially created archipelago the world has ever seen. In the shape of a palm tree and a lovely crescent topping, it is the Palm Jumeirah. It forms with the yet to be completed Palm Jebel Ali and the Palm Deira – The Palms – a three palm tree shaped rock and sand affair in the sea. They house plush residential complexes and innovative leisure centres. With the stunning underwater themed 7 star hotel- ‘The Atlantis’ nestling among its islands, it is what its rulers call the eighth wonder of the world. It already outshines another striking sail shaped tower hotel -the Burj Al Arab that had stunned the world earlier.
As a high flying couple making out on the beach found to their cost, Dubai, though partial to westerners is nevertheless very strict as far as adultery and public behaviour are concerned. They were after a stint in jail, summarily given their marching orders. The only Islamic country that allows us to wear what we please and drink what we like, it keeps its own women under strict wraps. And so brief glimpses of exquisitely made up faces from under black veils were all we got of the famous Emirati beauties.
In lovely trendy outfits that would put any fashionista in New York or Paris to shame is Sandhya. She drives the latest Audi and is a legal assistant who works and parties hard. On a scale of 1-10 she rates tax-free Dubai an easy eight. She says, “It is one of the best places for a girl to live and work in. People follow rules. It is safe”. Though locals are often given the benefit of the doubt, enforcement of the law is swift and strict. So crime rates are low and liberation with safeguards seems to be the norm.
From hosting nomadic cattle herders in the 3th century (Sassanid Empire) and the 7th century (Umayyad Caliphate) when Islam was introduced for the first time, Dubai with its natural harbour developed into an important pearl and gold trading port under the Al Makhtoum rulers who broke away from Abu Dhabi in the 19th century. Then since it was among a group of strategically placed maritime Emirati states on the British India sea route that were attacking their ships, the British around 1820 began controlling it through anti piracy treaties. In 1892 Dubai was made a British protectorate.
Seventy years later and 75 miles off its coast, it struck oil. And soon-after when the price of oil soared the seven states of the United Arab Emirates (formed after they became independent of Britain in 1971) also struck gold. Literally. Since then sitting pretty on one tenth of the world’s total oil reserves, the sagacity and far reaching policies of its rulers have managed to completely change the profile of the region. Now almost all the nations of the world, their top banks, brands and corporates vie with each other for a piece of its prosperous pie.
Walking us through its history is the innovative Dubai Museum. You even get to see the original prototype of the dhows that used to ply the Dubai creek. The plush ones today take you on ‘Dhow Cruises’ with dinner at 100-200 Dhs a head and a show thrown in. But topping it all are the sparkling fireworks that light up the Dubai skies at dusk and the amazing Musical Fountains at the Burj Khalifa.
From herding cattle to driving Lamborghinis the dynamics of change in Dubai has been astoundingly swift. Says, Surendranath Nambiar, who works for one of the oldest companies in Dubai-a company responsible for its makeover-‘When I came here in 1973 it was an absolute desert…There was nothing here except sand. And life was difficult. Now forty years later- is there anything we don’t get here? The transformation is magical’.
With the world queuing up at its doors, Dubai is probably where one needs to be this century into the next. So even if one may not see, as William Blake hoped ‘Heaven in a wild flower’ one might ‘See a World in a grain of sand’ here in remarkable Dubai.