Friday, March 10, 2006 | Like San Diego, Dubai is a glittering port city of uncommon charm. Rising above a bay in the Persian Gulf, Dubai is home to about a million people, and growing as rapidly as San Diego. But Dubai was rarely in the news until President Bush recently astonished the world by naming a government-owned Dubai firm to manage six United States ports.
Dubai residents flock in from everywhere on the globe for reasons including taxation concessions. They call their city the Switzerland of the Arab world. Like Americans, they tend to be prosperous and well-traveled. Yet Dubai is in sharp contrast: A sheikdom that is all ocean bays, palm trees and desert. It’s closer to say Dubai is the Fifth Avenue of Islam. Its museums and galleries and grandiose hotels with fanciful arcades draw jet-set customers on shopping excursions from thousands of miles away.
But we visitors from the Western world, already accustomed to luxury malls, are more intrigued by Dubai’s startling contrasts. Muslim muezzins make their amplified calls from the towers of mosques to summon the faithful to prayer. Unlike the demanding ringing of church bells, theirs is a cheery neighborhood blaring sound that doesn’t leave us Westerners feeling we must show up.
And if you fly into Dubai on certain Boeing 777s, you’ll already have an inside tip: You’ll know from the compass on the cabin wall which direction it is to Mecca, and how far.
You can buy or sell anything in Dubai. American tourists stroll into hushed gold shops, or fondle half a million dollars worth of tax-free diamonds and mink, vintage French wines or cashmere. Browsers pick up vials of frankincense and myrrh, or roam Dubai’s five-star Ritz-Carlton Hotel and paddle kayaks out into the deep blue Persian Gulf. The sheiks love horse racing. Totally committed golfers play Dubai’s championship golf courses – though the temperature at grass level may reach 135 degrees. It’s more comfortable even to rent a camel and go careening over the desert.
Dubai merchants trade frenetically with the world. And unlike San Diego, Dubai defines itself precisely: A sophisticated, Western-paced city that yet seems different in every respect because of its deep Muslim heritage. Dubai goes to imposing lengths to serve as the trade gateway between Western and Arab worlds. It is a snug resort city where Westerners and Arabs mix without needing to stare at each other.
The sudden curiosity over Dubai that President Bush unwittingly launched led me to notes from a visit that my wife Judith and I made there seven years ago. One doesn’t fly off to Dubai every day, of course; it was a wild whim, set off by late-night travel reading. Of course we needed visas. But the idea of a couple of Americans deciding they wanted to take off alone for Dubai seemed to startle Dubai’s diplomats in Washington.
Oil discoveries in the Persian Gulf had put Dubai on front pages in the 1960s. But nothing about going to Dubai was like anything we’d known before in travel. We stopped off in Washington at Dubai’s embassy, satisfying its puzzled staff that while, yes indeed, we would be writing about Dubai, we would not share our drafts with them before publication as it was not the custom of the American media to do so, but that we saw no reason to expect we would embarrass their proud city.
Ticketing was the next complexity. In the end we decided it would be no more trouble or expense to drop in on Dubai by way of round-the-world fares. So eventually we boarded an overnight flight from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. It continued to Baghdad, but we left the jet at Dubai. It was summer, and the nighttime temperature in Dubai was 106. But even the taxis were air-conditioned.
Dubai already was catering to the Western world. Its merchants had linked their air-conditioned hotels with worldwide chains and loaded their souks with 22-karat yellow gold and silks and cashmeres. We roamed around the United Arab Emirates for days, thinking how it might have felt when the United States was simply 13 scattered little colonies.
In Dubai, you rent a camel or watch belly dancers or go dune-bashing (deflate your tires by half; sand temperature may reach 130 degrees). You choose your kayak among the blue-and-gold striped umbrellas on the sands of the Persian Gulf outside the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, then gaze back at a city silhouette of mosques and minarets. While we were served adequately alcoholic cocktails in the hotel lounge, six robed men sat in a circle nearby, looking like an Old Testament drawing. In the souks, we sniffed saffron and cumin and coriander. We gawked and shopped. Dubai aims to be the world’s largest duty-free shopping center. You push your way through crowds at gold shops. You exhaust yourself in the marble-walled airport shops; they cover 30,000 square feet.
“We’re like one big happy factory where everyone has jobs,” said Hamed Bin Mohammed Al Rashdi at the office of the Minister of Information. “Yes, we want more tourists, but we are very restrained in our efforts to bring them. We want the right kind.” The world map on his wall showed finger smearing around big-spending centers like Beverly Hills, Tokyo, and the South of France.
I would have bet a thousand to one during our visit that the United States would never go into the Middle East to pick a fight with the Muslim world. Uncommon kindness greeted us everywhere, and curiosity lurked close behind.
Above all, we were allowed insights into the Muslim world that relieved us of some conventional biases. As always, we thought, wars are not between people, but governments and religions.
Amid the recent Senatorial spat over the Dubai ports contract, I wondered how much broader the scope of America’s influence might now be if President Bush had ever developed any interest in travel. His clumsy perceptions of the world, and of millions who live within the scope of American influence, could be more humane and more apt, and American diplomacy could be more respected.
In challenging lovely, crafty little Dubai, out of high-level ignorance in Washington, this nation put into question one of our tinier but more dependable allies, a sheikdom with a smart if nascent interest in the Western world. Dubai is neither fundamentalist nor warlike. It builds schools and hospitals at a rate unfamiliar in its part of the world. It is the kind of progressive harbor city that American port planners long to achieve. It offers us a lesson in peace. It offers a lesson in understanding before we talk.
For all such good reasons, here in America, we have every right to demand that President Bush put San Diego on the world map just as he did Dubai. Bush’s choice of a Dubai company still puzzles many. Americans voted for President Bush; the million residents of Dubai did not. If Bush had bothered to tell Congress first, the outcry would not have been so deafening, and San Diego might not have had this big chance to demand the publicity that is now due us.
Neil Morgan is senior editor for Voice of San Diego. Send a letter to the editor here or email him at