Has Dubai lost touch with reality?

Hfu Reisenhofer wonders whether this really is the city of dreams

Last word, The Knowledge

Could there be a positive side to Dubai’s flights of fancy, asks Hfu Reisenhofer?

Is Dubai losing touch with reality? That’s the question I keep asking myself each time I drive past the enormous billboard on the side of Sheikh Zayed Road displaying MasterCard’s latest advert.

You know the one; it’s in magazines as well. It depicts an imaginary land of gushing waterfalls, forests, mountains, lush greenery and abundant wildlife, where the Dubai Metro travels underwater, the Burj Khalifa is on an island and Atlantis doesn’t look quite as monstrous as it usually does. It’s as if the family on the beach at the bottom of the image has fallen down a rabbit hole and discovered the Lost World itself.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve no problem with a bit of harmless make-believe – after all, where would humanity be without creative imagination? It’s just there’s a growing trend that’s slowly turning Dubai into a city of fantasy (to an outsider, perhaps we’re already there). Like the ‘let’s pretend’ activities on offer at Kidzania, where children spend the day pretending they’re not actually kids, but pilots, doctors and dentists, living here seems to be increasingly preoccupied with pretending you’re not.

I look out the window of my apartment every morning and see trees, freshly mowed lawns, well-tended hedges and flower beds, a shimmering pool and a lake in the distance. It’s an inviting scene – from anywhere but a desert – and one of the main reasons why I chose this part of town. Look the other way, though, and I’d be met with a wildly different picture; endless sand and dirt and a few dried out shrubs. I’m reminded of the buildings in a Wild West movie, all painted and decorated at the front and rough and neglected round the back.

But there’s a positive side to all this pretence. Dubai is a city of possibility, a unique place where dreams are often realised. It got a wake-up call a few years back during the financial crisis, but there’s still a widespread sense and belief that anything can be done. Of course, you could say that that’s just what the advertisers, investors and developers want you to believe, that it’s all carefully marketed hype. Yet my own experience confirms it.

I came to Dubai for the opportunities, and I’ve not been disappointed. Most recently, I unexpectedly found myself on the radio, co-hosting Dubai Eye’s hour-long Travel Show on a Sunday (shameless self-promotion: I’m on air from 3pm). It’s also no surprise that you’ll frequently hear people say Dubai lets them reinvent themselves, almost as if coming to this part of the world wipes the slate clean and allows residents to start anew. And I gather many even ‘embellish’ a few past details along the way.

Indeed, the tagline of that fanciful MasterCard advert boldly states: ‘Tell tales few can tell’. It’s maybe not quite the meaning they were going for, but seems they’ve hit the nail on the head.

So, where will all this invention, opportunity and fantasy take us? Will we end up with forests, waterfalls and mountains? I doubt it, and the wider world’s perception of Dubai as an inflated, showy place will likely endure. But you know what? I’m not quite ready to return to reality.

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