Most Indians love Dubai. It is near enough – just over three hours from Delhi and even less from Bombay – and flights are plentiful. Once you are there, you can mix the familiar with the unfamiliar. It is recognisably a foreign city with tall buildings, broad highways and no visible poverty at all. And yet, no Indian need ever feel out of place. It is packed with people from the subcontinent. You can get by with speaking Hindustani to your taxi driver and if you really want to fit in, it helps to know a little Malayalam. (The underbelly of Dubai is the secret capital of Kerala.)
For some reason, I’ve never been a great Dubai fan. I first went there in the early Nineties – before today’s super-sleek Dubai was created – and thought it was dull. I’ve been back twice over the last six years, once for the opening of the Atlantis resort with its collection of restaurants by chefs who have earned Michelin stars in their own countries and then again, to shoot for my Asian Diary show on TLC.
On both occasions I thought Dubai was fine – there was nothing to complain about or take exception to – but it was not a city that struck me as having much charm or even, soul. Perhaps it was just that my trips were so hit and run; that I went for work and didn’t have enough time to settle down and discover the real Dubai.
Or perhaps the world is divided into those of us who like the gloss of Western sophistication (which Dubai aspires to) and those (like me) who prefer the ethnic charms of East Asia (Hong Kong, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, the Philippines and even Singapore). Either way, I’ve always taken the line that if I want a four-day break in some nearby country, I’d rather go East than West.
When I did go back to Dubai last week, it was again for one of those work-related, hit-and-run trips. I was shooting with Sania Mirza (who now lives in Dubai with her husband, the Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik) for my forthcoming Star World show and most of my time was spent on location in front of the cameras.
Still, nothing I saw on this quick trip caused me to dramatically alter my perception of Dubai. Yes, the city is overwhelmingly international. You go into a mall and the salespeople seem drawn from a UN peacekeeping force of shop assistants. Malaysians, Filipinas, Pakistanis, Indians, North Africans and the odd white person. Even the customers seem to be of no fixed nationality. There are European tourists (the Brits love Dubai for reasons I have never understood – perhaps they just like countries where it doesn’t rain all the time), Indians and the odd Arab. If you closed your eyes, forgot you were in Dubai and opened them again, you would be hardpressed to identify which country you were in. You could be anywhere in the world.
In that sense, Dubai is like some giant international airport lounge. You are surrounded by people of all nationalities but none of them seem entirely at home. You have the sense that they are all waiting for their flights to be called – or, in the case of Dubai, waiting to go home once they’ve made enough money.
On the plus side, Dubai is like a lounge at a good international airport. Everything seems to work. Life is easy. There are few urban problems (compared to the subcontinent or even to South East Asia). You feel safe. There is no sense of danger or criminality. And the people are helpful and friendly – you can hail a cab without worrying about whether the driver is going to cheat you.
I asked Sania Mirza about living in Dubai and she said she really enjoyed the quality of life. Pakistan plays its home games in the UAE rather than in Pakistan (don’t ask…) so her husband needs to be in Dubai. And given her hectic schedule, flying all over the world to play in tennis tournaments, Dubai makes a perfect base, with flight connections to nearly every major city in the world.
We shot at the Ibn Battuta Gate Hotel where the Pakistan team was staying for its series against Sri Lanka. Security was tight because the Pakistanis had sealed off the floors on which their team was staying and nobody could get in without providing proof of identity.
For all that, Sania seemed cheerful and relaxed, working out for three to four hours a day to try and strengthen her knee which has been ravaged by an injury since the US Open. We filmed both husband and wife working out though, as Sania, pointed out, Shoaib’s exercise regimen is nowhere as rigorous as a tennis player’s because cricket does not require that level of athleticism. (In all fairness, I have to record that Shoaib did not seem convinced by this claim but was too polite to contradict his wife.)
Sania and I walked through a Dubai mall for the benefit of the Star World cameras and it was interesting to see how much star power she commands in Dubai. A posse of security men had to be summoned to keep the crowds at bay and our director of photography went mad trying to keep the fans (they were clicking photos on their mobiles) out of the frame. Sania seemed unfazed by the attention, posed obligingly for photos and said that the good thing about Dubai was that while she was usually recognised, people hardly ever bothered her if she asked to be left alone.
The Ibn Battuta Gate Hotel is one of those large, anonymous international hotels that could be in any city of the world with a Dubai-style international staff roster. The PR lady who arranged the shoot was from Iran; my order at the hotel’s Italian restaurant was taken by a West Indian and when the food arrived, it was served by an Indian. (Perhaps it was cooked by an Italian, though, judging by the quality of the food, it was hard to be sure.)
Dubai is justly famous for its international hotels which range from big to bigger to biggest but few make it into lists of the world’s great hotels. On the whole, the hotel scene is a triumph of size over substance. (Perhaps this will change when Biki Oberoi opens a property there next year.)
The Ibn Battuta Gate was as soulless as much of Dubai. The Park Hyatt, which I also went to, was spectacular-looking (like a resort hotel in the centre of town) but I thought that the food at its highly regarded French restaurant, Le Traiteur, was mediocre while service was inconsistent (though the restaurant was less than a third full). The best meal I had in Dubai was at the unlikeliest of venues: the Emporio Armani Café at the Mall of the Emirates. There were a terrific hamburger and an excellent truffle pizza at prices well below those at the Ibn Battuta Gate’s dire Italian restaurant.
But this was a work trip so I had hardly any time to visit Dubai’s famous restaurants. Though many of them seem to be East Asian (Zuma, Nobu etc.) and I’d rather eat East Asian food in East Asia than the Middle East. People were talking about the opening of the Dubai branch of London’s The Ivy (some months ago, Jeremy King who made The Ivy famous, before selling it, said – in this column – how he thought the idea of a Dubai Ivy was an abomination) but I chose to give the restaurant a miss.
I stayed at the Dubai Taj, a property that would probably be called a Vivanta if it was located in India. The Taj group manages the hotel for an owner who doesn’t let it serve alcohol in its restaurants (which was fine with me as I didn’t go to any of the hotel’s restaurants) but despite these limitations, I thought the hotel was fine. It had good concierge service and an excellent laundry. Only the F&B and room service were a bit of a disgrace. Still, the Taj does have the largest rooms in Dubai which alone counts for something.
In the old days, Dubai was regarded as a shopper’s paradise. But these days, with nearly all of the world’s major brands flogging their wares in our new malls, there’s no real reason for Indians to go to Dubai (or Singapore, for that matter) to shop. I did a quick price comparison at one or two of the malls I went to and Dubai did not seem to be significantly cheaper than Delhi or Bombay.
So, if you don’t go to Dubai to shop, then what do you do there? I guess you could go for the hotels – places like The Atlantis are destinations in themselves – but apart from that, I can’t think of a lot to do.
Perhaps, I just don’t know Dubai well enough. And I will try to set that right in the months ahead.
From HT Brunch, November 27
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch