Coming up for air meant a three-hour drive from Ibri down, up, over, to Dubai; three hours because in Al Ain the first latte of the week would be supped either at ‘Starbucks’ or ‘Gloria Jeans’, wi-fi too, but no pork sausages. Moreover, there were the abayas and the hijabs tailored more for Mecca or Riyadh than for cutting a dash in Dubai, Manama or even Jeddah. No, it was on and on to Dubai, that Arabian El Dolarado and approaching from Al Ain one is suddenly confronted with a skyline that is closer to New York or Shanghai than it is to Muscat or, both literally and figuratively, Medina or Mecca.
The closer one gets to Dubai, however, the more it became apparent that this really is a “city” that’s built on sand and through the high-rise, half completed, office blocks one can glimpse the desert. Nevertheless, this is, or was, Arabia’s “higher, faster, bigger, better” and although the less short-sighted could always see that this accumulation of superlatives was being used to describe a house of cards, there were many for whom the emirate epitomised the quick profits that fictitious capital promised. The news today is that Dubai is bankrupt, with one business analaysist saying: “Unpaid bills, abandoned cars and empty buildings are all too obvious. Some analysts put the real (debt) figure at close to $160bn.” Moreover, with it now looking as if Abu Dhabi won’t bail its sister emirate out after all, it might just be that Dubai is not too big to fall after all.
For me, however, this always was a place that was built on sand and while the Westerns will move on and even the exploited workers who built the “dream” will return to the Indian sub-continent and elsewhere, I always had the impression that the emirates themselves had never left the desert, that they had never left the sand and many of them might even simply sigh, mumble “inshallah” and swap their Mercedes for something smaller….. a camel maybe!