Monday, 30 November 2009

Dubai and the desert of lost dreams

I'm intrigued by what is happening in Dubai at the moment.

On one level, as a former stock market analyst and current property and business journalist,  I'm interested by the politics being played out between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Abu Dhabi is going to end up holding all the cards, and, I suspect, many of the assets.  (For what it's worth, yes, I did see it coming.)

But on another level Dubai fascinates me as a wasteland of broken dreams. Burj el Arab may end up empty (the costs of maintaining it must be considerable; I wonder if in 15 years' time we'll see it demolished, to save on the running cost?) but it's a hugely ambitious piece of architecture. One of the few buildings in Dubai that has real architectural quality, too.

That can't be said of the Palm development. Pictures of the island, with its simplified palm tree design, are everywhere. A palm tree is a wonderful work of texture, its branches elegantly curved, its leaves spiky, its trunk made up of the fractal impressions of fallen branches. The Palm development, on the other hand, has the aesthetic standards of a child's painting - as if it was designed using the round edge of a protractor and the bottom of a milk bottle.

And when I see pictures of the streets, long, and regular, with houses dotted in even succession, each with its own little lawn and its own little beach, I think of 1960s housing estates.  There's no ambition here, no taste, no beauty. And these are houses for millionaires?

Dubai is a mixture of the tasteless and the ambitious, the utterly safe and the highly daring. (The finances, of course, were presented as being safe, but were in fact on the daring edge of totally improvident.)

That has its own fascination, but what will be amazing is to see Dubai in six months' time; decaying already, bristling with unfinished projects, depopulated and sad. It will be the modern version of those ancient mud-brick villages in Oman or Morocco, those Roman ruins in the desert, the ruins of Rievaulx or Fountains.

I wouldn't have wanted to visit, normally. But if I'm travelling out east next year, I'm going to try hard to make the flights work to give me a few days in Dubai - the desert of lost dreams.

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