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David Downs does Dubai

By any normal human reasoning, Dubai is crazy. A huge city, built in the desert with 40 degree heat in a place with no natural resources apart from sand, heat and Ferraris, which seem to be there in equal abundance. It’s a city with premium tastes which you can see up close in the outrageous Dubai Mall, the largest shopping mall in the world. You may have heard of its indoor ice skating rink and giant aquarium, but less known is the fact that kiwi company Burger Fuel has a premium location in the mall, doing really well with a franchise operation spanning the Middle East.

Even more amazingly, there is a rugby themed store called ‘Eden Park’, although its contents of mauve and powder blue ‘sport chic’ attire and its signature pink bowtie logo would cause any real rugby player to turn in their scrums. I suspect it’s fake.

Having said that, it’s hard to tell whether Dubai is fake, or just brash ‘new money’ desperate to show off and establish a new image for the Arab world. Certainly buildings like the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab, and even more spectacularly the Burj Khalifa – that of ‘Mission Impossible’ fame – show that they really know how to build tall buildings. Lots of them. I stayed on the 67th floor in my hotel, and that was still dwarfed by the Khalifa, with 163 floors and standing 829.8 meters above sand level. That’s 2.5 times higher than the Skytower (sorry, ‘Hypodermic needle’).

The region of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is growing fast. NZTE’s Dubai office is one of the busiest in the world, with kiwi exporters finding real demand for their products. Not just food and (tee total) beverages, but also technology, specialised manufacturers, medical tech and services companies.

The seven emirates which make up the UAE are united into one country, but are independent and diverse. In the emirate of Dubai, western tourists wander around in bikini tops and sarongs (well I would have if I’d remembered my sarong), however if you dressed like that 10 minutes’ drive to the north in Sharjah, you’d be arrested. Dubai’s streets and car parks are jammed with luxury vehicles, but further south on the road to Abu Dhabi you are more likely to see camel trains.

Camels are indeed very popular – I met with an Emirati who had recently retired from breeding racing camels – a big sport in the area. He’s moving into the even more lucrative area of raising camels for beauty contests. Yes, you read that right; they have camel beauty contests in Dubai – apparently judges look for firm ears, long eyelashes and big humps. Don’t we all.

For those of you now desperate to see the ‘Miss Universe’ of the desert, this camel (photo) is worth nearly NZD$4m, and has won 18 cars, solid gold coins and an undisclosed sum of cash. He’s shown here with one of our NZTE team from the region, Ahmed.

Camels are so well regarded, that under Shariah law, the ‘blood money’ you’d have to pay to the owner if you killed one by accident (say, hitting one in your Ferrari) would exceed that of a human life. That’s the sort of surreal place Dubai is.

Some people might wonder if Dubai is merely a mirage, not a real place at all, but a façade of a city built into the sand. The expat friends I have who live in the region say Dubai doesn’t get any less crazy once you’ve lived there for a while – it’s surprising, it’s frustrating, it’s breath-taking. It’s two million people living in an air-conditioned bubble in the middle of the desert. Can it last? Most probably. The economy, while initially centred around oil, has now diversified and Dubai is a global banking hub, a global tourism hub and a magnet for multinationals seeking to establish regional headquarters – all helped by its very favourable tax system. The foundations of the buildings may be built in sand, but the yellow bricks around here appear to be real gold. We’re not in Kansas anymore.

Review overview