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Dubai: The architectural embodiment of science fiction

published on 2015-02-03 by Sara
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Everyone has heard and seen Dubai- in countless documentaries about the future. Indeed, many people have already visited Dubai already, as the city is practically right in the center of the world, making it a travel hub from West to East and vice versa.

But not just geographically, as it is also where West meets East in a very symbolic way. A trip, even if just a stop-over, is highly recommended for anyone who wants to have a glimpse into the future.

Dubai, the wonderland of the Middle East

The landscape of Dubai consists almost purely of superlatives.

It’s as if someone huddled a group of crazy Sci-Fi authors together and told them: look, you have this much money and you have this particular place in the world. GO CRAZY!

Until today, people are fantasizing about making the rest of the universe habitable for humans. But we never stop to consider what’s happening right here, on earth, only a six hour flight away from Berlin: this was once a desert, now transformed into an architectural centerpiece of the world.

The highest towers, the craziest buildings, the most absurd structures are all here.

But it’s not just the actual, tangible stuff which is intriguing. Someone had to have the vision and the courage to realize these exorbitant projects. First, we build facilities to filter the salt out of the ocean; then we lay pipes everywhere to get the fresh water flowing; we grow plants; we build streets; we construct a new, urban reality from scratch and get it to working in about 40 years.

We build new islands in the shapes of palms, we build underways, more high rises, hotels, marinas, fun parks, anything we can think of: we build it.

All of that is hard to ignore when you cruise through the city and over the broad highways. Dubai is not as romantically charming as other, historically laden cities. And it doesn’t need to be.

Dubai is a project of collective work and stamina. I can’t even get 5 people in a group project at school to finish a lousy Power Point presentation in time; how do you come to build ALL OF THIS?

If you’ve ever asked yourself: what’s the future like? Then a visit will definitely give you some answers.

A Short History of Dubai

The UAE was founded in the early 50s; they’d found oil, and the Sheiks of the bedouin tribes came together to form the United Arabic Emirates (but only reached independence from the British in the 70s – okay, just read about it on Wiki). They knew that the oil wasn’t going to last forever, especially not in Dubai. From the beginning on, they were planning on substituting their income by something else when that point inevitably came.

After the oil, Dubai would be a tourism hub to offset the fading income (that, til today, supports healthcare, infrastructure and proper education systems where there once weren’t any).

That plan was a full success, not just because of the cities artificial new landscape, but also because the geography is perfect: it’s hot most of the time, it’s in the center of the world and thereby close to almost everyone but Americans, and oh, did I forget to mention that glorious beaches? Do people know that there’s an amazing coast around Dubai? And just a couple of meters further off, you’ll get to the desert.

Unfortunately – and let me say that this was especially bad luck – we didn’t make as far as the sand dunes this time, as it was raining.  IT NEVER RAINS IN DUBAI.

The Waldorf Astoria on Palm Jumeirah

Everything is huge, and so are the hotels: in size and in service. If there was ever a time when you should live it up and go for a lavish lifestyle, that’s Dubai. We stayed at the five star Waldorf-Astoria on Palm Jumeirah. I have since uttered “God Bless Rich People” at every possible opportunity.

I’m not sure if I would recommend a backpacking tour around Dubai, not because it’s not possible, but simply for the fact that nowhere in the world will you get to splurge as much as here (and regret it if you don’t).

It doesn’t really matter what you’re looking for: art, fine dining, shopping, sports or beach life. Spas are littered around the city. Dubai has insane malls that will invite you to days and days of consumer experiences. It’s not that you necessarily have to buy stuff, but let’s just say that if you wanted to, you could make a sport of it.

The Waldorf-Astoria is the perfect place to be. If you want to visit Dubai, visit on a splurging budget. The service is impeccable almost everywhere. Since hospitality is pretty much the biggest feature of the city, you will get a lot of bang for your buck.

The Waldorf-Astoria on Palm Jumeirah certainly made us feel more than welcome. Pools, lavish breakfast buffets, an extraordinary spa and a prime spot at the beach? Count me in!

Authentic Experience in Dubai

Most people think authenticity equals something like cultural history. I understand this notion, but Dubai isn’t inauthentic, it’s merely very young. The individual, specific urban culture of Dubai is still growing up.

Ask any Emirati (a rare breed in Dubai): they will tell you that everything is exactly the way it should be. There are no Bedouins anymore in the UAE. Anybody who still dresses like that is doing it as part of a play.

Going on a Desert Safari therefore equals going to Disneyland.

But that’s not authentic; it’s actually something Emiratis would consider fake. Just because it’s exotic doesn’t make it real. On a vacation, many people walk these narrow margins to explore our world, but there are many biases to dodge on this journey. If you want deserts and oasis, go to Oman, where bedouins still roam the sand.

Emiratis don’t really hang out in the desert to breed falcons and ride their camels (although some do). In fact, they love going to their indoor Ski-Hall because they want to ski without traveling too far.

I’m not going to dispute the fact that Dubai is strange. When it was raining, it was gloomy and dark and looked like Gotham City: construction sites everywhere, intimidating high rises and perverse highways. I personally find that to be extraordinarily attractive.

And sometimes Dubai makes you feel like you’re being trapped in a JG Ballard novel.

The extraordinary Emirati culture

Speaking of authenticity: If you get the chance, attach yourself to a local. Locals are not expats or workers residing in Dubai. Only ethnic Emiratis are considered “locals”. As I mentioned before, they are indeed a rare breed. They only make up 12% of the population, but to this day I’ve never met more entertaining, hospitable and open-minded people.

Most of the younger generation, like Instagrammer (and luckily our host) Saleh, love the UAE and Dubai.

They love their traditions, but they also embrace modernity. They love to own 2 phones, some of them like to bait falcons with high-tech drones, and they are crazy about non-alcoholic fruit cocktails.

They like to drive around in their cars while wearing their traditional clothing and move from café to café, honk the horn, order more juices, listen to loud music and move on. They like to go to hang out in the desert for sundown or slide down the artificial slopes of the Ski mall.

And you can ask them anything. At the Cultural Exchange Lunch in the “Old City”, for example, you can ask all the dumb questions about Islam, about Emiratis in general and about things you might find interesting about their lifestyles.


Actually: anyone who thinks Arabs are different from Westerners should be forced to take a trip to Dubai. Mainly to understand that we don’t have cultural differences. The issues between East and West are conflicts of wealth and education, class-systems and the distribution of opportunities.

Emiratis are smart, witty, extraordinarily beautiful and very well educated. I wish I could say the same about other Arabic states (like my parents home, Syria).

In the United Emirates, you can actually see for yourself what it means to build a country on wealth. Other Arab countries weren’t that lucky, and global radicalism and extremism could probably be traced back to the lack of opportunity.

Getting to Dubai will take about six hours on an Emirates flight, and a short stay can be very well advised while you’re on a stopover to the Far East.

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