'DUBAILAND™ will cover an area of three billion square feet. It will feature several attractions catering to the entire family. These include the 'The Restless Planet', a dinosaur theme park being developed in cooperation with the Natural History Museum in the UK; a Sports City, featuring large state-of-the-art stadiums; the Great Dubai Wheel; the Islamic Culture and Science World; the Mall of Arabia, set to become one of the largest shopping centers in the world and the Tiger Woods Dubai.' i
The idea of a place called 'Dubailand' seems like unnecessary reiteration – there is already a place called 'Dubai' that is enough like a theme park: 'Dubailand' offers unreality on top of unreality. At the moment, Dubailand performs its name very accurately – it is just demarcated land, waiting to be developed, with no discernable sign of building except huge fences and billboards forming the perimeter.
'I can almost guarantee you one thing - Dubailand will at some point feature the tallest, fastest, most-looping, smashing every record imaginable coaster. The mentality of Sheik Mohammed is to make Dubai the center of everything that is the biggest and best.' ii
After the financial maelstrom of the past year, uncertainty hangs over plans for Dubailand; perhaps it will remain simply a territory. The dusty drive back towards the original Dubai passes through scrubby desert, fields of pylons and a brief strip of half-built suburbs. The city appears, rising suddenly from the flat land around it – a thick forest of towers, to which jumbled architectural styles and burnished metal carapaces give a science fiction incongruity in its surroundings of wide desert, sea and sky.
'A vacuous agglomeration of meaningless shapemaking. Alien to its environment without root or raison, worse; damaging. Un-knowing and unaware. Dangerous, like a child at play. This is no city but a poisonous bubble.' iii
Looking in, the city is a wall of glass and metal; from within the city occludes ground level views outwards, every gap between buildings being occupied by huge adverts, or sheets of plywood yet to be adorned with such. The control exercised on the eyes of the traveler through Dubai is reminiscent of traveling down the tracks of a rollercoaster; perhaps the emphasis on these rides in the plans for 'Dubailand' is logical.
Dubai museum already presents future projects as part of the city's legacy. One video exhibit elides historical achievements with dreams for the future – the wanderings of the Bedouin and the frantic construction work of the last twenty years all part of one implacable ascent into cultural and economic brilliance.
The newness of the city (in anything like the form it exists now) coupled with its abrupt border to the desert gives a feeling of impermanence, as if the city has a somewhat tenuous grasp on the land, vulnerable to being engulfed by either the sea on one side, or the sand on the other.
'Something has flickered on Sheikh Mohamed's smile. The ubiquitous cranes have paused on the skyline, as if stuck in time…This Neverland was built on the Never-Never – and now the cracks are beginning to show. Suddenly it looks less like Manhattan in the sun than Iceland in the desert' iv
Elemental incongruities abound in Dubai, as well as stylistic ones. The famous artificial ski slope in the 'Mall of the Emirates' (the largest shopping mall in the world) typifies a kind of audacious contempt for the local climate. In 'Dubai Mall' there is an enormous aquarium, reportedly the biggest in the world. In the aquarium floats a team of scuba divers, silently buffeted by hundreds of fish clamoring for the food being distributed. The view from inside the tank must be quiet remarkable – brash shop signs silhouetting the hundreds of spectators stood on the edges of multiple floors, disappearing up into the mock night-sky roof of the mall.
Away from the touristic main attractions, the more ordinary stretches of mall are sparsely populated by shoppers – the once popular 'Ibn Battuta' mall, with its geographically themed zones, now feels desolate. Luxury goods salesmen idle away their days, the only busy store is the huge 'Géant' hypermarket (appropriately located in the Tunisian zone). The speed of development in Dubai means that supply clearly outstripped demand long ago and what was modish a year ago is now hopelessly out of fashion.
The strongest feeling about Dubai I had whilst there was that there was something missing – some large, vital component of a true city that had been omitted – but bits of this indefinable stuff creep in places. The stacks of cardboard boxes being loaded onto blue and white dows (local seagoing boats, often very rickety in appearance) bound for India, in front of the huge HSBC headquarters, tiny shops on back alleys selling plastic tat, crammed in between temples and yet more shops – these are the things that made me feel that the city was alive, and not just a construct based on market research performed on a demographic a little too close to my own for comfort.
There is a guilt connected to being there, different to the usual one when taking advantage of a country poorer than your own. Here the guilt is more to do with seeing parts of European and American culture imported and then exaggerated out of all proportion. Dubai is easily cast as a kind of nadir, a logical step for rampant, expansionist capitalism, and although this is a very obvious interpretation of the place, it is one that I found hard to avoid.