I landed at Dubai’s airport in the worst mood possible: one part crossed and two parts pissed in the hangover sense of the term. I was crossed because this was a no-notice job and, for once, I had plans that didn’t involved rushing home from work, picking up two shirts and the passport, and then join another particularly unlucky sod – my colleague – for a day-trip to Dubai.
The company, in its lavishness, gave us two Club tickets – we weren’t even going to stay at a hotel after all – and that explained the hungover: we used the lounge access and plush seats with access to a well-stocked bar to get in the most undecent alcoholic state. God knows when we’d be granted a flat bed on a plane again, better seize the chance.
The job was forgettable: a minor accident happened, luckily with no casualties, but a detailed inquiry was needed and, as your HSE Bible will say, such an inquiry must be led by a team of two carefully selected inspectors: one with the knowledge of the job and another without any clue of what is role was besides fulfilling a legal requirement, a poor sod whose fault was not to have ducked out of sight too quickly when the boss asked for volunteers. Me.
I had never been to Dubai before and, in the lounge, I had asked my colleague what his opinion of the place was. Mal, about 25 years of experience in the Levant and Africa under is belt, drank another gulp of Stella, looked at me and said “It’s like that fucking ‘Time Machine’ book they did a podcast on Radio 3 some time ago, the one with the humans divided in two halves, one working and the other being served, up ’til the workers had gone enough and eat the others, you know?”
I was mildly surprised that he knew about that H.G. Wells book but, shortly after arrival, after being let in by the least interested customs officer, I understood how right Mal was.
To get where we needed to get down to business we had to have pass issued by a local authority, and that meant going to an aptly named “pass-issuing office”. Inside were the usual paraphernalia associated with offices, a couple of portraits of the local sheikhs and a mildly bored Arab dressed in a djellaba and matching keffiyeh. Lined against the walls were a various number of people, evidently waiting for the man at the desk to do something.
We lined up in silence and, for some time, we waited while the clerk gave quite some bollocking to a particularly intrepid guy who decided to step out of the queue. Then the clerk looked up from his phone, saw us down the line and waved us in. We looked around ourselves and yes, he was really waving at us. It also dawned on us that we were the only two whites in the whole line.
Mal and myself waved silently something that read like And how about all the other sods here? pointing at the humanity that, obviously, had been waiting a lot longer than us. The clerk replied with a shrug that meant Don’t care. Do you want the pass or not?
We should’ve stood our ground. We should’ve painted half of our face blue, wear kilts and start shouting ‘Freedom’ with our best Scottish accents, but we didn’t. Cowardly we did a monster of a queue jump and just went in. The whole thing took less than 5 minutes and, red-faced, we went out. The waiting Indian, Nepalese and Somali workers just looked at us. Some smiled. Some even waved.
Work done, we decided to leave the industrial wasteland to check things out downtown; Mal knew about a restaurant he used to visit in his Middle Eastern days and was keen to show the place to his young padawan. The place wasn’t far off Sheikh Al Zayed Road, that stretch of motorway that doubles as Dubai’s Main Street, but it didn’t take much to realise that the Dubai Mal knew was long gone, replaced by what could only be described as a real-life Sim City. There was a (brilliant) driverless metro system running on elevated tracks, comprehensive of sci-fi stations and a Gold class for the posh commuters; skyscrapers by the truckload, including that big needle called Burj Khalifa after the Abu Dhabi Emir who bailed out Dubai and, obviously, enormous shopping malls selling exactly the same stuff one could find in London or Hong Kong.
Nursing two severe headaches we found nothing better to do than to sit on the steps outside the Dubai Mall, having ventured in to buy some drinks. There, under the beady eye of a Robert Pattinson poster advertising a parfum, I took a couple of pictures of the big lagoon that lies in front of the Khalifa tower. I didn’t spot them at first, but then I noticed two workmen, clearly of Indian origin, immersed in the piss-warm liquid up their necks, scrubbing the bottom of the pool and the nozzles of the fountains. I then looked around: Indians were the waitresses, Filipinos the cleaners, Somali and Ethiopians the builders, Nepalese the security guards, Sri Lankan the nannies.
And around them, working and sweating under the 30C despite it being February, all we could see were white tourists, Arabs driving Ferraris with a hand on the steering wheel and another on the window frame, expat mums sipping the third latte of the day and, obviously, us. All implicitly accomplices, all partners in crime, complacent Elois living off a majority of Morlocks who hadn’t developed a taste for our meat yet.
We stood up and decided to move out a little bit, hoping to glance a little bit of the desert, away from the buildings, but we failed. The train took through the urban canyon of sand-streaked skyscrapers, half of which covered in “For rent” signs, and ended in some sort of no-man’s-land made of small buildings and dusty streets. We walked a little bit and then admitted defeat. Returning to the metro we saw the gleaming skyscrapers of Dubai marina, air-conditioned and well kept, and the hints of light of the small buildings, derelict tenements where those who built and maintained them dwelled. We imagined the people we saw downtown returning there, sun-burnt and defeated by yet another day in the furnace. We imagined this, then we looked each other in the eyes and decided to get the fuck out of that place.