I first visited Dubai over ten years ago en route to Spain. Not because it was particularly high on my bucket list of places to see, but out of mild curiosity. And to check in on my army of relatives and friends who had ensconced themselves comfortably in the little desert kingdom gradually acquiring yachts, private jets and vast properties back home along the way. But Dubai ten years ago for a non job-seeker like me was merely a pleasant stopover on the way to a more interesting destination. Even then the malls were impressive, the restaurants had enough eclectic options but the city was imminently forgettable. Jordan, with its incredible desert landscapes and the glories of Petra or Lebanon with its heady fashion, was more appealing.
The city I visited last week had changed. The local Emiratis who make up just 12 per cent of the population are still lost in the shuffle of 200 plus nationalities who seem to be profiting nicely from the modern-day gold rush that Dubai is all about. The rumours about billion dollar bailouts, empty stores and abandoned construction sites had died down. The former little fishing-village has clearly cobbled together enough chutzpah to lure the more jaded western traveller to one of the most troubled regions in the world for some sun, sand, sea and hedonistic R & R. Spearheading this change is Mohamed Alabbar, chairman of the Emaar group and former director general of Economic Development whose plan for a new and highly improved Dubai has unfolded over the last ten years with robotic precision. Alabbar had launched the Dubai Shopping Festival and has now tied up with Vogue Italia to kick start Vogue Dubai Fashion Week (VDFE) in order to put the city on the world fashion map, not just as consumers but as creators. “But also to showcase what young fashion designers in West Asia are truly capable of,” he enthused.
All the action is centered around the gleaming Burj Khalifa - the tallest tower in the world rising in phallic insouciance, the light glinting off its telescopic spire which is made of over 4,000 tons of structural steel. A trip to the observatory called At The Top on the 124th floor is on our agenda and we are escorted through the lobby of its Armani Hotel - another first, designed and developed by Giorgio Armani. Done up with rich Eramosa stone and zebrawood panels it leads into futuristic double deck elevators transporting us at a dizzying 10 metres per second to the 124th floor. The pressure on our ears eases as we enter the glass dome with its panoramic view of the soaring Dubai skyline, admire the desert merging into the horizon and while The Palm, another man-made wonder, catches the corner of your eye. If you time it right you can catch an unforgettable sunrise or sunset to fully justify the Dirham 100-400 fee for the trip.We made a mental note to return to At.mosphere, Armani’s fine dining restaurant on the 124th floor - the highest in the world - just to boast later about the experience (and to tuck into the foie gras that the chef here is known for).
Since Dubai is synonymous with shopping we headed to the ultimate tribute to retail therapy - the Dubai Mall and its adjoining Souk Al Bahar flanked by the majestic dancing Dubai Fountain - easily surpassing the one at the Bellagio in Vegas Souk Al Bahar. It has over 100 shops where you can get local crafts, souvenirs, even a disdasha (the long robe worn by men inthe region) or two. We stopped at one of their 22 restaurants lining the fountain area for a spot of crowd watching although the feel of the local culture is carefully crafted here - far removed from the jostling smelliness of the souks of Morocco or Egypt. The mammoth Dubai Mall across the bridge is the size of 50 international-sized soccer fields. We were quite blown away by the 70 signature stores in its luxe Fashion Avenue, rubbing shoulders with Galeries Lafayette and Bloomingdales and couldn’t resist a quick peek into the well-stocked Waitrose supermarket .
To give ourselves a break from this relentless shopping excursion we ducked into the underwater tunnel that led through the beautifully designed aquarium to eyeball the sharks and stingrays as they went about their business of ignoring the gawkers clustered around. Even if you are not a zoo person, the sheer variety of marine life - from crocodiles and penguins to tiger fish and octopus - will implore you. The gaming enthusiasts in the group chose to head off to SEGA Republic. We formed another battle plan to hit the stores systematically. One that clearly didn’t work as there were just too many to negotiate - from high street brands to the elusive and exclusive Gucci, Hermes or Chanel. It was also difficult to keep your sense of perspective in a space called Level Shoe District dedicated to the world of beautiful footwear.
But since the mall was gearing up for the launch of VDFE that evening, the buzz was palpable as staff scurried around laying red capets, ramps and gigantic potted plants. Curious tourists shared space with fashionistas in their flamboyant best flaunting everything from silk Versace pajamas with formal blazers to tattooed street chic. It was a perfect prequel to the global fashion heavyweights who arrived later to attend the glittering fashion show from Naomi Campbell, Donatella Versace to Roberto and Eva Cavalli who arrived later that evening to attend the glittering launch of Vogue Dubai Fashion Experience itself. And indeed later that night we watched bemused as the mall morphed into a hedonistic melee of champagne soirees, live mannequins in store windows, unexpected ballets performances and a deejay in the form of Solange Knowles to complete the experience.
The tiny fishing village in the Gulf had indeed landed on the fashion map.