Dubai in 48 Hours

The Atlantis hotel unites the West and East through mythical artifice, soothing the weary soul – until the money runs out

On The Town | Paul Gillingwater | May 2009

The plane came arching in over the desert sands, the far off towers gleaming in the evening light. It was my first trip to Dubai, and the aerial view of the vast arid flatness of this Gulf kingdom had already impressed me. I’d read about exploited foreign workers, wealthy expatriates and aloof Arabs, and wished to learn something of this strange land for myself.

Dubai lacks the urgency of Asian cities at night, its wide and well-lit streets uncluttered by sound or scent. Instead, the endless concrete conveys a bland modernity of industrial urban sprawl, coupled with a baroque taste in villas, each expressing some theatrical idea of wealth and taste. Signs of construction abound, from a futuristic monorail to dozens of unfinished high-rises.

It is a city built for speed and efficiency, and drivers are happy to oblige.

Soon after midnight, my destination rose into view as the shuttle emerged from a long underwater tunnel, taking us onto the Palm Jumeirah island. I arrived at the Atlantis Hotel, passing through its heavy brass doors adorned by seahorses, into a lobby of polished marble. It is an oasis of calm, filled with colorful murals and spectacular sculpture, cool air and a faint scent of flowers.

We awoke at dawn to a siren – the fire alarm! The recent opening of the hotel had been delayed by a major blaze, and we were worried about a repeat performance. Fortunately, a strong Australian accent came over the tannoy, telling us that "the situation is now under control. We apologize for the conven... uh, inconvenience." We went back to sleep, reassured by the voice of a Western expatriate, assuming international disaster training trumps local expertise.

I had followed the hotel’s construction, starting with the creation of a completely artificial island, the "Palm," one of three such man-made archipelagos off the coast. This massive undertaking, fueled by Gulf wealth and a desperate vision for diversification, is a bold attempt by Crown Prince Sheik Mohammed to bring tourism to the region. Already a booming center of development, the Palm attracted South African hotelier Sol Kerzner to Dubai to repeat the success of his Atlantis in the Bahamas.

Kerzner further developed the mythical lost kingdom, investing in displays of marine life, and re-imagining what the fabled lost city of Atlantis might have looked like. With an international team of artists, sculptors, architects, and marine biologists, Kerzner has produced a unique artistic statement, which repeats mythical and nautical themes throughout the décor of the hotel. You really feel at times like you’ve stumbled through a mystic gateway into the past, wandering corridors with murals of curious fish and undersea warriors, monsters of the deep, and precious pearls. He even kidnapped a dozen dolphins to amuse visitors in the water park, which goes almost too far, with its ziggurat water slide taking its riders down underneath a shark-filled lagoon – highly incongruous in dry and dusty Dubai.

The centerpiece is the Lost City itself, with its massive seawater tank with a huge variety of sea-life, swimming through the throne room of the sunken kingdom. Selected rooms abut directly onto one wall of the tank; so well-heeled guests may be observed at their slumbers by a plethora of marine life. Visitors stand for hours in front of the glass wall, watching giant graceful stingrays, sinuous eels, elegant sunfish and dozens of colorful reef fish, darting and following the scuba divers who feed them. A labyrinth with walls of mysterious artifacts and ancient scrolls in unknown scripts, crystal grottoes, and murals depicting long-lost gods and goddesses round out the illusion.

Our basic room was comfortable and well-appointed, with a sea-facing balcony. Navigating the warren of corridors was daunting, with its more than 2,000 rooms. Eventually we discovered landmarks – art and artifacts – that led us back to the lobby, its massive glass sculpture looking like a fountain of translucent serpents. A selection of restaurants awaited, from the traditional middle eastern (complete with a too-thin blonde belly dancer) to the upmarket Nobu and European mainstay of Ossiano. We were impressed by the hotel, and in some ways, didn’t want to leave it, preferring to explore the mysteries of ancient Atlantis than go shopping in the Souqs of the city.

Training binoculars on the cityscape from the hotel balcony, the Burj Dubai tower dominates the skyline, now the planet’s tallest building. Dubai is vibrant, with evidence of construction everywhere. Late model cars race around Playstation streets, with mile after mile of aseptic concrete, steel and glass. This is a city that never followed the slow evolution of European metropoles, but rather sprang as if fully formed like Athena from the brow of Zeus, its towers spearing into the air from the hot, dry sands, pushed up from underneath by subterranean oceans of oil.

We took a taxi to visit the largest shopping mall in the world, with over 600 retailers covering 12 million square feet. Size isn’t everything however; there were few bargains, and nothing original in the Dubai Mall.

One highlight was a perfumery nestled in the Gold Souq. Eschewing western brands, this small shop is a treasure house of garish bottles and jars, replete with mysterious tree barks, essences and attars that merge into a harmonious blend which soothed and uplifted. Women, head to toe in black burkas, were taking tea and sampling the wares, attended by sullen serving girls, bowing to a stern glance or sharp order.

A darker side of Dubai was featured recently in the media, with tales of money-laundering connections to Somali pirates, harsh treatment of guest workers, and allegations of forced trafficking, economic slavery and little patience for the indigent, according to Johann Hari in The Independent. Little of this is apparent to tourists, however, and I suspect the government is happy to keep it that way.

To the tourist, this is a shopping mecca, and a great children’s holiday destination, lacking the sleaze of Las Vegas or the sophistication of Paris. To the laborers and drudges subsisting on pittances under strict conditions, the city recites a litany of broken promises, especially since the global crisis has closed down all but the most well-funded construction projects. To the Emirate’s locals, it presents a Disneyfied face of Arab culture and opulence, untempered by economic modesty, yet still defined by Islamic mores, female dress codes and a strict ban on alcohol.

I sensed something of the darkness at the heart of Dubai, hidden behind a thin veneer of affluence, and characterized by stark inequalities of consumption and excess. The Atlantis stands out as a triumph of engineering and artistry, demonstrating a dominance over the natural world, rather than an efficient stewardship of resources. One cannot fail to be impressed by the grandeur of the surroundings, yet at the same time feel guilt over the exploited under-classes, who must have suffered in building this temple of excess and the city that surrounds it.

Would I go back? Probably, yes. As an experience, Dubai is remarkable for its unflinching focus on tomorrow, its apparent disregard of market forces and its steadfast determination to find a new economic reality based on tourism rather than diminishing oil reserves. The Palm symbolizes the triumphalism of man’s expropriation of Nature’s bounty, and yet it retains a unique beauty and artistry, which celebrates the pinnacle of a concentration of wealth. Marx would immediately recognize how Capital from around the world had been drawn to Dubai, a city built largely on the backs of its exploited workers.

Against this backdrop of glamour, conspicuous consumption and architectural excess, the Atlantis hotel is somehow an epitome of Dubai in miniature, bringing Western Platonic myth into harmony with 21st Century Arab sensibilities. It is a meeting place, of Western and Middle Eastern cultures, of economic power and mythical legend, which diverts the weary soul – until the money runs out.

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