There’s nowhere left to go. I have spent the past 100 meters balancing on about a foot of pavement, trying to pretend it is a sidewalk. In reality, it is simply a bit of landscaping for the perfectly manicured bushes cutting over it. Taxis speed past me again and again, shooting out onto the freeway. I try to keep walking, but I am beginning to realize the futility. It is my first night in Dubai, but I have spent the last six in Abu Dhabi. I should know by now that this is not a country for pedestrians. Dejected, I hail a taxi.
I am staying with a wonderful Dutch couple – Marcel and Ilona – on the Palm Jumeriah, an artificial archipelago in the shape of a palm tree, known for its beautiful apartments and crowned by the massive Atlantis Hotel. Marcel and Ilona live halfway up the Palm. Marcel went out to meet friends, and Ilona is at yoga – they advised me to go check out the Atlantis in the meantime, just a mere 4 kilometers away.
The Atlantis is no ordinary hotel. Nothing here seems to be. Malls have ski slopes and ice rinks. Skyscrapers touch the heavens. Prayer calls are wirelessly transmitted. Atlantis, The Palm, is modeled after the Atlantis in the Bahamas and includes a water park, aquarium, shopping mall, dolphin swimming, conference center, and stretches of private beaches. The opening of the Atlantis in 2008 included the opening of the first monorail in the Middle East – the Palm Jumeriah Monorail – as stipulated in the original agreement to construct the new resort. Unfortunately, the monorail has not been deemed a success.
The line runs between the mainland and the hotel, without serving the apartments in between. Though future plans consider linking to the Dubai Metro, it currently only ends in a parking lot, meaning that you must drive your car to the monorail. Additionally, the cost of the tickets exceeds the cost of a taxi to anywhere on the Palm. Needless to say, ridership is incredibly low, not even close to reaching the 40,000 passengers per day capacity (600 passengers per day in 2009). Its purpose does not go much beyond a curiosity for tourists. I find it to be simply another flashy development showcasing the new wealth of the UAE.
Only 50 years ago, these two cities could hardly be classified as cities. The region was in trouble after the fall of the pearling industry – until it struck liquid gold in the 1960s. Finding independence from the British, Abu Dhabi and Dubai formed a union in 1971 and invited four other Emirates to join – thus creating the United Arab Emirates. As the petroleum flowed, the cities expanded and foreigners immigrated into this Muslim nation. Rapid urbanization, westernization, and a constant influx of capital have created a country that implores you to indulge, to consume, to spend. The Emirati people have cash in their pockets, and they are ready to use it. To celebrate Eid al-Adha – one of Islam’s revered observances commemorating when God appeared to Abraham and asked him to sacrifice his son – the malls stay open 24 hours. I am fairly certain America has lost its title of consumer capital of the world to this rising nation.
I find myself drawing parallels to the United States in the 1950s – and not only for this promoted consumerism. The Emirati cities could hardly be any more car-centric. Freeways dominate the city, sidewalks are a rarity, and pubic transit is inconvenient. If you don’t own a car, be prepared to become reliant on taxis.
When I told fellow travelers in Turkey that this would be my next stop, I received confused replies. It was assumed that as a woman, I would have almost no freedom in this Islamic nation. Instead, I find myself much more limited by transportation than any moral expectations. Even while staying on the beautiful Palm Jumeriah, I feel trapped. Taxis are my only option to get off this artificial paradise.
The UAE has not become my favorite travel destinations – I am uncomfortable with the booming mall culture, extravagant spending, and reliance on the automobile. Yet, I do not regret my time here. Over the past couple of months, I have had the wonderful opportunity to meet so many great people. But every few days, I start over – in a new place, with new people. It can become exhausting (as well as exhilarating).
In Abu Dhabi, I had the privilege of staying with fellow Vanderbilt alumnae, and my wonderful friend, Lonyae. I didn’t have to start over – merely pick up where we left off. No introductions necessary, no explanation of what I am doing. The chance to spend time with a friend, a friend who has also started over in a new city in a new part of the world, and to share our experiences. For this, I am most grateful.
And everything else… well, I have learned a lot.