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Dubai — where history goes to die

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- There is something surreal about Dubai right from the moment you land and find yourself in a long line at passport control, one of many such lines each leading to a counter with an official in a flowing white robe and keffiyeh, looking as if he just strode in from the desert or from another era entirely.

Viewing the graceful, timeless, Arabic dress of the locals, however, might prove to be your only encounter with history. Almost everything else in Dubai is new -- even the population.

At last count, Emiratis composed 17 per cent of Dubai's two million plus population. The rest are ex-pats, mainly from India, who've come on work visas. Add an estimated one million "daily visitors" or tourists, and you have this city-state that stretches some 70 kilometres along the Persian Gulf.

Forty years ago Dubai was a minor trading port, one of seven states in the newly-formed United Arab Emirates. Then came oil. Then came the Sheikh of Dubai's decision to develop his emirate as a hub of aviation, tourism, and finance.

Dubai now has more buildings greater than 300 metres tall than any other city in the world, the vast majority of them built since 1999, and many more are under construction. Architects have had a heyday here. Whether it's clusters of condos and office towers or the signature Burj Khalifa (the world's tallest building at 163 stories), all the new buildings are stunning.

My husband's son has worked in the financial sector in Dubai for the last five years. He and his wife live on the 21st floor of a posh tower. From their living-room, dining-room and balcony, you can see the top of the needle-like Burj Khalifa without straining your neck.

They love living in Dubai. Life is easy compared to life in India. Traffic is orderly and all sorts of goods and services are available without much hassle. Granted, everything is imported and nothing is cheap (rents are comparable to London), but with a good salary and no income or sales taxes, they live very well.

If you talk to lower-end foreigner workers, you get a different story. On the flight from Mumbai, I sat beside a man who works in middle-management and sees his family once a year. At the apartment pool, the Filipino lifeguard works 12 hours a day, seven days a week. He has worked in Dubai off and on since 2005, but hopes not to stay much longer. By April, with temperatures over 30C, outdoor work is exhausting. He visits his wife and children every second year.

For tourists, the main attractions, apart from celebrity tournaments (both Tiger Woods and Roger Federer popped in this February) are the beaches and the shopping malls.

With winter temperature in the low 20s, we skipped the beaches, enjoyed a few boozy lunches by the sea, explored the Dubai Mall (the world's largest), rode the new metro system from end to end, and explored the Creek, a broad inlet that served as Dubai's original port.

In one mall we watched children skating, and in another, skiing and tobogganing down a long snowy hill.

But in all our meanderings, the most memorable sight (apart from the flowing robes and towering buildings) were the old wooden dows tied up along Dubai Creek, ships that had plied the waters of the Persian Gulf year after year, and are still making the trip to Iran and back. Finally, some history.

A few days later we took a three-hour flight back to Mumbai, and after spending an hour in a taxi caught in heavy traffic, we reached Dadar railway station for our train to Pune. It was rush hour.

Day trains arrived every three minutes, but still they were packed to bursting, people hanging out the doors.

A man standing beside me commented, "Too many people in India." We began to talk, first about the new Mumbai metro (which will have doors that close), and then about his daughter who lives in Boston. And somehow, despite the rush, it felt good to be back in India. I had spent a whole day riding the metro in Dubai and no one had said boo.


Winnipeg writer Faith Johnston lives in Pune, India, during winter months with her India-born husband.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 22, 2014 A17

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