Why Dubai is worth a visit

When A.A. Gill is unimpressed, he tends to let you know. This is a guy who labelled the entire population of Wales “pugnacious little trolls”, and called the English a “beady-eyed, beefy-bummed herd”.

About a year ago, the British restaurant critic, author and travel writer also used his column in British GQ to declare Las Vegas the “worst place in the world”. Harsh, but clearly he had  yet to visit Dubai.

As reported on Monday, Gill has upset the Arab emirate after writing a scathing “travel” piece on it for Vanity Fair. And while a few of his more choice epithets about Dubai’s inhabitants (“fat, spoiled … titanically rude”, “obsessively tapered humourless faces”) sound more like attention seeking than a critique, anyone who has visited Dubai will probably see elements of truth in his article.

Dubai really is “what money would look like if it were left to its own devices”. It’s a strange place, imposing and yet hollow, a giant example of what money can buy – but not of what it should buy.

It’s the international equivalent of the new-money bogans in their sprawling Gold Coast McMansions. Forty years ago Dubai was nothing, just a small desert outpost. It has shot up at an incredible rate, with seemingly little regard for style or substance.

None of this, however, answers the million-dollar question for travellers: Should I bother visiting? And the answer, strangely, is yes.

Not despite all of the reasons Gill lists, but because of them. Dubai is a fascinating place in its own bizarre way. There’s no other city like it, and nor is there much chance that there ever will be.

It’s not a “destination” destination, but it’s certainly worth a stop and a look around on your way to wherever it is you’re really going.

You want history in Dubai? There isn’t any. You want culture? Not much of that, either. About the closest you’ll get is the gold and spice souk in Old Dubai, although even that is losing its local flavour.

What you really want to experience on a visit to Dubai is the pure ridiculousness of the place. This is a city obsessed with having the biggest and most expensive of everything, and that alone is worth checking out.

The Burj Khalifa is, naturally, the tallest building in the world, and, as Gill points out, it’s a phallic monument to Dubai’s colossal case of small-man syndrome. Head up to the 124th floor for a look around, it’s amazing.

The emirate’s shopping malls are like miniature cities in themselves, and while you won’t find many bargains, the experience of wandering these consumerist palaces is worth the taxi fare alone. At the Mall of the Emirates you can go skiing, if that’s the sort of thing you feel like doing when it’s 45 degrees outside.

None of the usual travel rules apply in Dubai. There are no great museums to lose yourself in, no local foods to sample, no trendy bars to drink in, no nice parks to relax in… and about the only time you’d want to go to the beach is in winter, when it gets cool enough to consider leaving the safety of air-conditioning.

Instead, what you’ll be marvelling at on your stay is the blacked out cars racing past on the freeways, filled, no doubt, with dishdasha-wearing Arabs going to meetings – or the race course.  

You’ll find decent food, but it will be Iranian, or Indian, or Filipino. You’ll find mega hotels that gleefully award themselves more stars than the mere five most luxury places put up with. You'll find the famed Palm Islands, which manage to be expensive, pointless, ludicrous and impressive all at the same time.

Hoping for some natural beauty? There’s none in city. Outside, however, if you make it past the ridiculously out-of-place golf resorts and that huge race course, you might find what you’re looking for.

There the desert soars out to the horizon, giant sand dunes rolled out like a yellow blanket with toys swept underneath it. It’s stark, lonely, and far more beautiful than any sports car or shopping mall or high-rise hotel.

The way Dubai’s going, though, you better get there while you still can.

More on Dubai here.

Have you been to Dubai? What did you think of it as a tourist destination? Was A.A. Gill being a bit harsh, or was he on the money?

Hope you're enjoying the Backpacker blog – there will be a new one published every Tuesday and Wednesday on the Fairfax Media websites. To contact me with any topic suggestions or personal abuse, visit my website, follow me on Twitter, or email me on bengroundwater@gmail.com.

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