Never Say Never to a Destination

Going beyond the malls in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.  
Dubai Fountain
The Dubai Fountain. Photo: Sorbis/Shutterstock

For several years, while my sister lived and worked in Dubai, she tried to convince me to visit. “Never,” I said refusing to entertain the thought. I had decided that Dubai was no more than a series of expensive malls that held no interest for me. I felt I had no reason to ever go there.

Cut to five years later. Quite suddenly last month, with a week off from work, a series of conversations with a friend who’s been living in Dubai for four years had me booking the family for a week-long visit. I was just as sceptical as before, but this time around, with no real agenda for the holiday, I was willing to at least look around.

The UAE surprised me. I liked it. In a strange way Dubai reminded me of that other great desert city—over-the-top and built to entertain its visitors—Las Vegas. Yes, it is a city of malls, but I had to admit that a few of them are quite something. You can learn to ski or ice skate, visit an aquarium or a theme park, and my favourite, watch a fascinating musical fountain after 7 p.m.

It’s while driving between Dubai and Abu Dhabi that I saw the real, stark, barrenness of this land. Only then did it hit home how amazing it is that out of absolutely nothing, this emirate has created a place that will continue to attract many million tourists every year. And that Dubai is already the fifth most visited city in the world.

I could see why this city is attractive not just to the tourist. Within a few minutes of walking a street in the neighbourhood of Deira it was easy to understand why it is beloved to Indians. From the Iranian owner of a shop selling nuts, to the Arabic server at a local shawarma restaurant, people everywhere, who had never been to India, were speaking Hindi. With western conveniences, a fantastic, ever-improving infrastructure, and familiar culture, the Indian expat feels very much at home. And judging from the number of people on the beach and at the Global Village (a culture and entertainment centre) even on a hot, sunny weekday, other expat communities are very happy here too.

Of course the UAE has its many problems; its underbelly of labour camps and seedy underground institutions. Yet, for the visitor, urgent and dramatic change is visibly underway everywhere. It’s an emirate on the move, with development projects omnipresent. In Abu Dhabi, I was surprised to learn that branches of the Guggenheim and Louvre museums are due to open soon. And some may scoff at the thought of the soon to be completed Taj Arabia—a reproduction of the Taj Mahal that is reported to be four times larger than our 17th-century original—but the truth is that it will bring in ever more visitors to Dubai.

So I’d say that I came back chastised, having learnt the lesson: never say never to a destination. You really never know whether you will like it, until you’ve actually visited. By any yardstick Dubai is impressive. It’s expensive, it’s full of malls, but it’s doing something right. It’s certainly doing a much better job of keeping the tourists pouring in than we do in this several millennia-old civilisation of ours.

Appeared in the May 2015 issue as “Never Say Never”.

  • Niloufer Venkatraman ’s idea of unwinding is to put on boots and meander through the wilderness or the by-lanes of a city. She is obsessive about family holidays and has already instilled in her young daughter wanderlust and a love for the outdoors. She is the former Editor-In-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India.

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