Design in Dubai: Authenticity Angst

It's true what you've read: Dubai is like no other place on earth. I had a wonderful time. But I won’t be one of those folks urging vacationers to check out the all-inclusive deals on Travelocity.

For one thing, for six months out of the year, the place pretty much uninhabitable. In late May, it ranged from 102 to 104 degrees during the day. From June through November, the heat is nuclear. Not just hot as hell, but humid as a jungle —- an interesting trick, considering it’s desert as far as the eye can see.

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How bad is it? The Indians and Philippinos were complaining. Folks who can afford it, skip town. The hotels’ occupancy drops precipitously. Busboys take holidays back to Romania and Goa.

And for another month, Ramadan pretty much shuts down the town. “My friends were horrified,” said one British publisher, whose guests forgot to check their holiday calendars before booking a flight. “They couldn’t even be seen drinking a bottle of water in their cars without getting into trouble.” Hard to have a vacation when all the fun stuff —- like eating and drinking – can only happen after sundown.

But, I hear, the place is quite lovely during the remaining months. The beaches are superb. The water is warm, and the hotels are first rate. I’ve never experienced such consistently warm and attentive customer service, from waiters to shuttle bus drivers to customs officers (who actually make jokes and welcome you to their country!) And they’re not just grubbing for tips, which seem to be in short supply.

They say the Emiratis are a naturally hospitable people. I have no reason to doubt that, although it was hard to judge by this trip because I could count how many natives I met on the fingers of one hand. Only 18% of the population in the city is native. “In 5 years, you’ll have to pay money to see a local,” says the head of the heritage foundation. All the work of the country is done by guest labor. The Sheik’s pronouncement that he has 180 nationalities living and working together in peace seems to be true. It’s a truly multi-culti society, revolving around a shared language – English.

Tolerance rules the day. Supermarkets are filled with delicacies from other countries, so the Indians can get their curry and the Thai their furry little fruits. What’s lost is a sense of what is truly Emirati. And that’s beginning to be the source of some angst.

For example, when you get to the lavishly-appointed duty free shop (replete with life-size gold palm trees), you realize that, apart from dates and stuffed camels (another continuing motif; the camel is to Dubai what the moose is to Minneapolis), there’s nothing much that says “authentic Dubai” to buy for the folks back home.

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When you're hauling home cheap booze from a Muslim country, you know it’s a problem. The sheik is worried.

Two months ago, the sheik announced a strategic plan to preserve Dubai’s culture and heritage, with a focus on language, arts, crafts, and camel racing. Ironically, one of the major forces in Dubai’s cultural preservation is Mona Hauser, an American, whose husband is the chief vet for the Sheik’s horses. She has restored a series of old houses and opened art galleries, and a hotel in the historic district (such as it is.)

The Westernization of the emirate's design became a source of some embarrassment and concern at the Design Conference. There had been much snickering on this topic among the Westerners (admittedly, a group of design snobs), who generally found the place souless and plasti — although most were too polite to express that opinion to our hosts.

But Olivieri Toscani, agent provocateur behind the controversial Benetton ads, was having none of this phoniness. It%20Girls%20of%20dubaiRSZ.jpg

In a panel on “The New Globally Designed World,” he laid it flat out: Your men are dressed in these elegant white dishdakis; your women in these beautiful abayas (and the young girls, dressed in flowing black abayas with embroidered and beaded trims did look sensational). "And yet," he said, "your buildings are tacky! You will never be a great design city if you keep this up!”

He must have been staying at the hotel with the horses. Or he might have stopped for a $1000 drink at the restaurant atop the city's preeminent landmark, Burj Al Arab. The hotel is breathtaking from the outside, but a cross between an Arabian brothel, the Monterrey aquarium, and some Japanese disco club inside. It's so over-the-top, it's actually a hoot. The restaurant upstairs is decorated with what appear to be sparkling circuit boards and sports a ceiling that looks like those fruity-filled white mints you get at restaurants after a meal.

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Dubai wants to be a great design center. The Arab world doesn’t have a great design museum. One of the main goals of this conference was to figure out what it would take for that to happen. For one thing, it may require a new way of thinking in the region. One young participant confessed to the group that it would cause turmoil at home if he said he wanted to be a designer which, he intimated, was like saying he wanted to be a rent-boy.

So, gathering some of the design world’s luminaries all in one place was a beginning. And the one thing that this trip made clear was that the emirate’s beloved sheik, Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, is a man of action.

Pentagram designer Paula Sher once told me that the ideal design client is a man (or woman) of vision who has the power to pull the trigger on a decision. Think: Steve Jobs. Sheik Mo is certainly that, and has the treasury, in this case, to do what he damn well pleases. So if the Sheik wants a design museum, you can bet your last dhirham that it will happen. And soon.

The whole world is watching.

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