Autocracy has its advantages, and Dubai’s ruler, H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, doesn’t mess about. Once a project is green-lit, it’s on a fast track. The world’s best brains fly in to play mastermind. Then, quicker than you can say ‘no planning permission required’, the world’s biggest man-made ski slope pops up in the desert. Next to a billion-pound racecourse.
Another upcoming big idea in a land obsessed with world firsts is an eye-wateringly expensive canal project that positions the fledgling thalassocracy as the Middle East’s answer to Venice. There’s even a gondola in one of the 3D visuals. Other imminent arrivals include the Opera District, an eye-boggling Museum of the Future, Dubai’s answer to the London Eye (it’s bigger, obviously) and dozens more reclaimed islands inspired by the triumph that is Palm Jumeirah.
The ruling family is instrumental in this exponential expansion. When Dubai was awarded Expo 2020 — a huge, Olympics-calibre coup for the host city — the Crown Prince, H.H. Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, went viral on YouTube, waving the UAE flag, perched on top of the 830m Burj Khalifa, wearing shorts and trainers. Hamdan (nickname ‘Fazza’), the 32-year-old heir to all that’s bigger, better and shinier, is evolving into a Dubai icon in his own right. He’s famous for endurance horse-racing (winning a gold at the Asian Olympics), and for his pet project, Skydive Dubai — and for generally being a bit cool.
The wealth, shameless glamour and ‘can do’ attitude of the Al Maktoum dynasty is the secret of Dubai’s profile. Despite it being the poor oil relation to Saudi Arabia, the family seems to embody the Adidas mantra — ‘impossible is nothing’. This is how success has been bred into the DNA of the country.
For brands, corporates, entrepreneurs, sun worshippers, fitness freaks and extreme sports junkies, the relentless energy of the place is inspiring. And it’s safe: there is almost no petty crime, not because of the threat of punishment, but because most residents are doing OK. There’s no such thing as UAE citizenship for foreigners: we expats help grow the city but we build no equity. Overseas residents are sponsored for up to three years at a time as working guests. It’s no country for old men: visas stop at 60.
If this extreme capitalism sounds ghastly, you might wonder why anybody wants to live here. It’s not just about avoiding tax. A new VAT of 10 per cent is imminent and petrol prices rose by 25 per cent this summer, but nobody batted an eyelid. It’s still cheaper to fill your Range Rover with petrol than with Evian.
Dubai — thanks in large part to Emirates airline — has been voted the best place in the world for entrepreneurs to set up new businesses. Its cultural attractions, booming art market and big, showy events attract an increasingly sophisticated tourist fan base.
One of the things that makes Dubai attractive to Brits is the ubiquity of 13-amp plugs and branches of WH Smith and Boots, a legacy of the involvement of British consultants and architects in building the city. We often arrive here planning to return home after a couple of years and end up staying for good — which is why some of us call the place ‘Hotel California’ (you can never leave). Who wants to return to all that rain?
The price of the legendary expat lifestyle is usually that you work long hours, six days a week — or five if you’re at the top of the food chain. In Arab culture, Friday is a sacrosanct family day and for expats it’s the time to indulge in exercise… or Friday brunch. The traditional brunch in Dubai is a bit like a middle-class wedding in Manchester. Everybody is -immaculately made up, coiffed and dressed to kill, even if it’s 40 degrees outside. When William and Kate got married, British women wore hats to brunch and jabbered at each other over the wagyu and foie gras burger and lobster buffets.
The legendary brunch buffet at the palatial Al Qas’r at the Madinat Jumeirah resort is so plentiful that guests are handed a map on the way in. A whole room is dedicated to chocolate, another to cheese. Brunch is always a fixed price — eat and drink yourself silly for £50 to £100, depending on the venue, maybe a bit of dancing, then pass out. Despite what you might read in the Daily Mail, there is little debauchery. Brunch guests who want to keep partying are herded into an adjacent resort nightclub like N’Dulge at Atlantis, where they can get away with a discreet snog. It’s like being in Hong Kong, except with Saturday to sleep it off.
British expats in Dubai secretly feel guilty about having live-in housekeepers and driving Porsches. This makes them want to ‘give back’. Every day someone launches a new charity appeal, from trekking up Kilimanjaro with Gulf for Good to selling cute handmade bracelets by Palestinian refugees. Others help the brilliant Sameness Project, distributing water to thirsty labourers, or Adopt-a-Camp, which supplies care packages. (It’s all documented on social media. Where would philanthropy be without Instagram?)
Dubai’s a fun place to bring up young children, though less so teenagers, who tend to turn into expat brats and get packed off to boarding schools back home. Nannies are inexpensive and private education (the only type available to expats) is excellent, though very expensive — you can imagine the school trips. Outposts of British schools strive to be bigger and better: Repton’s Dubai branch looks like a supersized version of Hogwarts, relocated to the desert. Millfield and Harrow are said to be eyeing Dubai for their next ventures.
Children in Dubai have never heard of racism. They learn Arabic and Mandarin, sing the Emirati national anthem at assembly and share their cultures on fancy dress National Days. A typical kids’ party sees Brits, Australians, South Africans and Italians playing alongside children from Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, India and Pakistan. When school’s out at 2 p.m., they’re all swimming, sailing, surfing, skating and skiing. Dubai’s a great place for things beginning with S.
Including shopping, obviously — at malls that resemble miniature cities. They’re packed with indoor leisure attractions — KidZania, ice rinks, ski slopes, aquariums, underwater zoos, rollercoasters and football pitches, as well as restaurants and cinemas. This is because in summer the intolerable outside temperature takes your breath away, making gleaming, air-conditioned bubbles quite appealing. If you’re planning a visit, or just a stopover, try to avoid June to September.
Dubai is expensive, so make like an expat on ladies’ nights, when bars ply women with free alcohol and snacks. Most ladies’ nights are a bit raucous, but a few — Tribeca, Industrial Avenue at China Grill, Kanpai, Q43 — are fun. Find listings in Time Out Dubai.
If bling’s not your thing, discover the other side of Dubai at Mona Hauser’s XVA Gallery, an art-themed 19th-century house in historic Al Fahidi near the British embassy, or else pop to the waterfront café Creekside (created by young Emirati Oxford alumni) for lobster eggs Benedict, or take a foodie walking tour of old Dubai with Frying Pan Adventures. Watch the dhows sail by or hop on an abra (ferry) to shop for gold and diamonds at the old souk. Visit the Grand Mosque and quaint Dubai Museum.
In other words, catch it while you can: like most of Dubai, the Creek area will be unrecognisable in a few years from now.
Number of floors in the Burj Khalifa
Age at which residential visas will not be renewed
Number of months Dubai took to build an entire metro system, including 42 stations