Last weekend Katie and I joined my IMD classmates for a reunion in Dubai. It was our first time to the UAE and it left quite an impression!
We departed Wednesday night and, after the longest flight I’ve been on in some time – possibly ever – we arrived Thursday evening. We checked in with our hosts and then met a few of the other early arrivals for a drink at a hotel bar.
In Dubai, hotels are the only establishments that can sell alcohol. These aren’t your typical hotel bars, though; they are full-on bars/clubs/lounges/discotheques that just happen to be affiliated with hotels. They seem to be pretty loose with this requirement, too. In the airport, for example, there are numerous “hotel” bars, but I didn’t see anywhere to rent a room . . . At any rate, Thursday night we had drinks served up by an award-winning bartender right on the beach with a fantastic night view of the Burj Al Arab.
Friday morning we had a chance to see the city in the daylight, and it is hard to describe it in any way other than “impressive.” It’s a veritable forest of skyskrapers but with a very different feel than, say, New York City. Whereas NYC is populated by buildings with an older, “brick and mortar” aesthetic, these all look like buildings of the future – all chrome and glass. Considering that just a couple of decades ago this was all desert, you can see why the architecture might be more modern.
Still, first impressions were a bit dissonant with expectations. There didn’t seem to be any local architectural styles; rather these buildings could have been anywhere in the world. Another difference from a place like NYC is that there is no grid pattern among the blocks. As such, there are no lines of sight along long avenues in any direction; no matter where you go (downtown at least), you are just surrounded by tall buildings.
Another first impression was, “Where are the locals?” Everywhere we went there were expats and all of the service staff seemed to be “imports” as well. Perhaps we weren’t going to the right places, but I’m not sure we met a single person who was born in Dubai on our trip.
Our first meetup Friday was at The Dubai Mall, the world’s largest mall. Walking into the mall was, again, impressive. However, as we looked around, we found that most of the stores were brands that we already knew from the US or Europe. There was a bit of a feeling of, “Did we really fly 13 hours just to find ourselves right back in the US?”
Once we explored a bit, however, we did discover some pretty unique things about the mall, including the Burj Khalifa (the world’s tallest building) and the aquarium. Several of us took a tour of the aquarium, which was really impressive and immersive.
In the afternoon we went on a desert safari, taking Land Cruisers offroading and racing up and down the sand dunes. That was a lot of fun, and we ended up at a campsite where we rode camels, ate middle eastern food, and were entertained by a belly dancer. Finally we felt like we were getting some local flavor – even if it was clearly just for tourists!
We capped the evening with drinks at 40 Kong, a rooftop bar with views in every direction of downtown Dubai. They tried to sell us an expensive bottle of wine that, when it arrived at our table, was clearly a fake. After that we stuck with more accessible drinks and had a great time.
Saturday we did our own things during the day. For Katie and me that included a stop by the Mall of the Emirates to gape at the indoor ski resort. We all met for dinner along the waterfront of the marina and drinks at another rooftop bar called Pure Sky.
The view from this bar was interesting because we could see the entire Palm Jumeirah. We could also see all the construction cranes working at full speed even into the wee hours of the morning. Clearly one of the keys to building a megacity in just a few decades is 24/7 construction!
Sunday Katie and I met some classmates out on the Palm for some sun, sand, and beach volleyball! It was nice not only to add another country to my beach volleyball list, but also to play with some people with whom I haven’t played since we were in Switzerland together.
After a lazy afternoon lunch and a nice evening dinner with our hosts, Katie and I departed around midnight for the return flight home. It was a very short trip, but it was interesting exposure into a very different place.
As I wrote earlier, Dubai is very impressive. However it is so overtly trying to impress that some of the luster is lost. From villas designed to showcase the owner’s Bugatti to a self-proclaimed seven-star resort, everything in Dubai is just so over the top.
From having to have the biggest/tallest/most luxurious everything to trying to sell fake high-end wines to being populated [seemingly] entirely by ex-pats, one starts to wonder where is the real, authentic Dubai, rather than the Dubai that is trying to convince you that it is something spectacular. Does a real, authentic Dubai even exist?
Finally one has to wonder how sustainable Dubai is. From the incredible pace of construction – and not just paint-by-numbers construction but engineering marvels such as world’s tallest buildings and man-made islands – to the obscene energy and water (a ski resort . . . in the desert!) it must take to run the place, I found myself considering whether Dubai was here to stay or whether it was a house of cards. After all it seems that Dubai doesn’t produce anything per se; it imports everything from natural resources to human capital and it is hard for me to see how that works in the long run.
It was a very nice place to stay for a few days, though, and we were treated like kings – er, Shuyukh. Katie has never been called “Madam” so often in her life! Perhaps the best part was staying with an IMD classmate and his family rather than at a hotel. During our down times we were able to relax and catch up with friends whom we hadn’t seen in years.
This may be the true value of the IMD network: it’s not having contacts all over the world; rather it is having an open door, a warm meal, and a gracious host all over the world. That’s a very important difference and one that truly makes the entire world our home.
Many thanks not only to our hosts, but to the reunion organizers and to everyone who came as well. It was a very special experience and we are so glad that the global IMD journey continues on and on so many years after we thought we finished the program.