Steven Barnes travelled through Dubai and saw a city that walked a confused line between past and present.
My first steps into Dubai Airport were tight and measured, blanketed by the keen eye of security as the airport staff methodically checked passports. As I stood in the queue, I took note of my surroundings. Many of the women working wore dark hijabs, many of the men were in militaristic uniform or draped in the opposite spectrum, a cultural counterpoint that clashed with the women in strapless dresses, partners sporting shorts far too short by any conventional fashion standard.
Despite this, these two groups co-exist without a batted eyelid in either direction.
The first thing that hits you about Dubai is the excess. It’s not as obvious as Mike Tyson’s tiger in The Hangover, but it’s almost there. A practical excess. Buildings litter the skyscape, each trying to outdo the next. Dubai has the feel of many small cities patched into one, contained by huge, multi-lane highways.
This infrastructure is all new and constantly changing, with metallic sky blue and chrome the palette of choice.
The colours of the city change with the environment; as the ribbons of light between the great glass canyons grow larger, you are reminded that Dubai is a city surrounded by sand. As you travel further, the tones shift, now earthy and wholesome; yellows and browns both witnessed in nature and in the old architecture of buildings born before the oil boom.
In these streets, the cars become less branded, the fashion changes from stylish to practical and the people become more reserved and traditional.
Something as simple as a shopping mall, however, shows the clash of cultures better than any other arena: the old vs. the new, the traditional vs. the trendy, what Dubai is, and what it will become.
These centres of transactions are filled with Western tourists cuffed to Americanised chains. Starbucks sits comfortably in these surroundings. The English of those inside is perfect, a stark contrast to a very awkward situation with a taxi driver who misunderstood our instructions as we frantically tried to locate our hotel.
Herein lies the difference in perception.
Those who live on the outskirts of Dubai see the city as they always have and live in a more traditional way. Those living in Dubai’s heart, however, feed the wealth of Dubai and what comes with the burgeoning tourist machine. It is not a question of what Dubai means for others, it is what those native to the city believe.
As a city, Dubai is reaching puberty and is suffering from an identity crisis.
While it may not yet know who it will be, the landscape is littered with subtle hints. A conclusion struck by the billboard I spotted in the middle of the desert: an advertisement for Lego Land.