the blog

Back From Dubai

I returned recently from a business trip to Dubai where I worked on a communications project with a private equity company. This is a fascinating country – city-state, really – with many contradictions. Since it is so widely featured in the news, I thought I’d give you my take on it.

First and foremost, the people are wonderful. Dubai has promoted itself as a tourist mecca (pun intended) as well as international business center. Therefore, service is the name of the game. With the exception of some long queues for taxis in certain places (far worse, I’m afraid, than the lines at Grand Central Station in New York), service was excellent.

On the business end, the people were highly educated, worldly, courtly and polite as well as open to new ideas. No expense was spared to make the project a success. This is the type of environment consultants like me dream of and unfortunately rarely encounter. It’s the way I remember things being in the U.S. in the early to mid-90s. There is an advantage to not skimping on the details. Work can be delivered in a relaxed, professional way and everyone can focus on the outcome rather than nitpicking the cost of this or that. Of course, with oil well over $100 a barrel, Dubaians may be feeling just a little more relaxed about spending than we in the West.

The country itself is undergoing an unbelievable transformation from desert to metropolis and travel destination and as such, there is building and construction everywhere. I was amazed at the number of cranes. At night, they are lit up along with their buildings as if to take their rightful place in the Dubai skyline. There are downsides to all the construction: I could not go for a walk outside my hotel because there are no sidewalks as of yet amidst the construction. There is also dust in the air. One thing I missed was greenery. Not forgetting that this is a desert, there were no parks or trees. I assume this will be remedied once construction is complete. Of course, the big resorts had plenty of palms and other landscaping.

Dubai is home to some of the most interesting and beautiful architecture including the Burj Dubai, intended to be the tallest building in the world and nearly twice as high as the Empire State Building. But the piece de resistance is the Burj al Arab, the hotel on the Arabian Gulf that is always featured in press stories about Dubai. Built to look like a giant mainsail blowing in the warm Gulf wind, this is truly a breathtaking vision. On my last afternoon, I decided to visit this masterpiece, only to be turned away at the gate. Turns out they do not want sightseers and you must have a restaurant reservation to be allowed in. Oh well, next time.

No trip to Dubai would be complete without some shopping and it is a shopper’s paradise. The Mall of the Emirates hosts Ski Dubai – yup, that’s right – a ski slope including chair lift and all the accoutrements so desert denizens can suit up. I didn’t go inside, having just returned from Maine and outside skiing. I must say, though, that if you’ve seen one mall, you’ve seen them all and there is something vaguely depressing about seeing so many familiar stores in a land so foreign.

Then again, a trip to the souqs was just the antidote. There are three in Dubai that are must-sees – the gold souq, textile souq and spice souq. These bustling markets are where the local goods and handicrafts are sold. With the price of gold at around $1,000 an ounce, gold is expensive no matter what. But there were still some bargains and bargaining is de rigueur and it was fun.

Finally, the food was fabulous. Middle Eastern food is a favorite of mine and I ate a lot of small mezzeh, small plates of foods like hummous, tabouleh, yoghurt, all drizzled with olive oil and garnished with olives or pomegranate seeds. In the local supermarkets, there are endless crates of dried fruits and nuts. To me, this is snacking heaven.

At that market, I enjoyed an exchange I had with one of the sales people, the man measuring and bagging the fruits and pistachios. In limited English, he asked me where I was from and I told him I was American. “I like Americans,” he said enthusiastically. I then asked him where he was from and he said Iran. “Do you like Iranians?” “Of course,” I replied. “I like you and I love Iranian dates and pistachios.”

And at that moment, I felt hopeful about the world.

Copyright 2008 Ruth Sherman. All Rights Reserved.

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