Dubai Part 2- Bittersweet Views From the Top of the World

This recap is part photo-diary, part critique. For insight into the previous two days of travel and the race, click here.

By the time the awards were through it was already late afternoon. I was a mess: sweaty and covered with sand, mud, and blood, and beat from the previous two nights without sleep. In short, I was in desperate need of a shower and rest.

I bid farewell to my new friends, grabbed my bag and headed out, giant check acting like a sail in the rising winds. As I was leaving I was lucky enough to run into a very friendly Emirati named Shady (a rare sight, Emiratis make up less than 10% of the population of the melting pot that is the U.A.E.) who said he’d get in touch and show me around later that week.

Unfortunately, my card wasn’t working, and from what I gleaned from a Ferrari-driving ex-pat that I managed to stop for directions, there were no hotels in this section (the duty-free zone) of Dubai.

After leaving the festival grounds I began walking East in the direction that I thought the city was.

I guessed that the heart of the city was an hour or so away from the Royal Raceway. Before going very far I was fortunate enough to run into some migrant workers. In broken English they explained that I wasn’t all that far from the public tram. The city is set up along the tram, so almost all the hotels and landmarks are accessible from it. This saved me, as the sandstorm was picking up and visibility was decreasing by the minute.

Poor visibility didn’t stop cars from tail-gating and driving dangerously fast. Dubai itself is an extremely safe place- I never felt the least bit concerned with safety at any time of day or night, and this is true for most of the city. But the roads are death traps, with extremely high rates of fatalities per drivers. In fact, accidents are the leading cause of death in Dubai. Although after watching this video, it shouldn’t be all that surprising.

After finding the metro, the next hurdle was my card. Luckily, it was accepted this time. 5 minutes on the tram with only a slight hiccup (sitting in the female-only car briefly before being shooed out) and I was able to find a hotel.

I don’t know the name of the hotel, as there was no sign on the outside of it. At one point the hotel had been posh; the illusion was still being maintained, even if the once-rich mahogany and velvet decor had fallen victim to time. I was given a glass of orange juice and after a brief tussle with the bell boy released my grip on my bag, allowing him to carry it for me. He spent a good 5 minutes inspecting my room before I was able to assure him all was up to par and push him out the door. A less fatigued me would have realized he was waiting on a tip. Furthering the American stereotype, one encounter at a time…

Traditional post-race shower
Traditional post-race shower, sans hot water.
I was able to drink from the water fountain while sitting on the toilet. What a cool setup!
I was able to drink from the water fountain while sitting on the toilet. What a cool setup!

Within minutes of lying down I was fast asleep. I crashed hard and slept for 10 hrs, waking up in that overtired state where identity and location are utterly lost for a few moments. I turned on the tv and watched camel racing for a while, then stepped outside onto the balcony just in time to hear the early morning Adhan, or call to prayer, drifting through the warm early morning air.

This was one of my favorite parts of this trip. There was a strangely nostalgic, almost magical feel to sitting high above the quiet city, feet in the sand (despite my room being on the 10th floor, my balcony was full of sand carried onto it by the wind) watching the first light of day appear while the local mosque’s loudspeakers resonated the beautifully melodic statements of faith throughout the awakening city.

Breakfast of champions

Jet lag is an odd thing. Normally I do alright with it, but on this trip I struggled badly. After the first night of sleep I found myself unable to follow a normal sleep schedule. I’d walk around the city markets until I grew tired, then head back to the hotel and sleep hard for 4 hours, waking up feeling more or less rested. This pattern repeated itself 2 or 3 times per day.

It seemed like every time I awoke “Yoola” dancing or camel racing was on the tv.

What’s that, you’re dying to hear about camels?


Camels, with their awkward, elongated gaits, don’t seem like the ideal animal for racing. But once they get up to speed their splaying slows and their form actually becomes quite pretty.

They’re also shockingly fast. These ungulates run 5000 meters in under 8 minutes. They can also hold 25 mph speeds for up to an hour. Thanks to technology, these times have recently been improving. Camel racing once relied upon child jockeys. Dangerous conditions and allegations of child slavery forced changes to this system. Now camels are encouraged throughout a race by a tiny robot jockey strapped to their back. This lighter jockey has an automatic whipping mechanism. It’s also equipped with speakers through which the camel’s owners shout encouraging words during a race. Watch a race and you’ll see that the tracks are often built with a road directly to the side of them. Trucks carrying owners pace their camels and shout at them throughout races. It’s a strange sight to see. It’s also a huge deal in the U.A.E. Think $5-10 million camels and 6-7 figure purses.


The second floor of the hotel was home to a nightclub. Balcony views lent me a wonderful vantage point for people watching as the locals came and went all night, the street a constant procession of Mercedes and Ferraris.

Did I talk “Wasta” already in pt 1? “Wasta” refers to respect/power/clout, and is used mainly in reference to the native Emiratis (think of them as the football players on the college campus). The more wasta one has, the less integral it is that they follow rules. This can be tricky. Let’s say you get involved in an accident with another car. If they’re important, it won’t matter that they ran a light to hit you. When the police arrive you might be the one responsible for the accident.

U.A.E. is different compared to the west in that clothes don’t always give one’s social standing away- the color and styling of the dishdash (robe) and keffiyeh (headscarf) are all quite similar and lead to an odd sense of uniform adequation that we’re not used to in the West. For example, if you see someone in a nice suit in the states, you know that they probably have a decent job. Now we break down the suit into color, make, shoe brand, etc, to understand their income level.

However, there are some giveaways that allude to stature there. The easiest involves license plates. The fewer #’s on a plate, the more expensive. Same goes for window tinting- 30% is the maximum allowed, but you’ll see benzes basically blacked out.


After experiencing Dubai’s equivalent of Montezuma’s revenge, I switched to tried and true dishes. Food was quite inexpensive- this was $5 for the meal.
The workout room and restaurant shared a space. This led to some interesting encounters
The workout center and restaurant shared a room. This led to some interesting encounters.

Internet costs were killing me (I think I spent $70 on internet in the first 40 hours I was there) so after my second day of lying around jet-lagged I booked a hotel to the north of Dubai, in the Emirate of Sharjah.

The bus driver gave me a strange look when I told him where I was going. This sentiment was echoed by many over the coming days. It turns out Sharjah is a dry emirate, known mainly for business and shipping, and therefore foreigners traditionally avoid it. It also has the strictest decency laws out of all of the Emirates. These stress conservative clothing, prohibit alcohol, and forbid public mingling of unmarried men and women.

I loved the area. It also helped that everything was insanely cheap. My 4-star hotel was $34/night. Food was inexpensive, as was public transportation.

The Sharjah Rotana
The Sharjah Rotana


Sunset over the Persian Gulf
Sunsets over the Persian Gulf

Human settlement in the area has been estimated at 5,000 years, and the city center, or “Heart of Sharjah,” has adopted a style that pays tribute to it. There are dozens of museums, countless mosques, and wedged between skyscrapers sit the thousand-year-old city walls.

Morris Mini!


Despite its more traditional roots, Sharjah has a developed waterfront resting on the Arabian sea that feels strangely San Diegan.


During the day I walked the markets or hung out at the beaches. I’d heard rumors about the local sanitation and sewage systems, so I decided to stay out of the water.

My original plans included a dune safari and deep-sea fishing, but I wasn’t sure if I would fully enjoy the excursions on my own. Experiences are meant to be shared, and that rang true throughout this trip.

My favorite siesta spot
My favorite siesta spot

Come nighttime I’d walk the Al Majaz waterfront checking out beautifully lit mosques and shipping ports filled with the traditional wooden “Abra” boats, their owners sleeping upon the colorfully decorated decks.



Sharjah's version of South Beach?
Sharjah’s version of South Beach?


I tried to read the newspaper everyday. Articles were refreshingly absent of the Western skew we’re used to.

“Western nations are too afraid to reallocate funds from their welfare-addicted domestic populations…”

And then there were the reminders that this was indeed a very different world.


As my week came to a close I realized that I had yet to do any traditional touristy sight-seeing. So the afternoon before my flight was due to leave I grabbed my backpack and walked the 10km into Deira city center, giant check in tow.

I rode the metro to the Dubai Mall (The world’s largest mall) and then purchased a ticket to tour the tallest man-made structure in the world, the 210-story, 830-meter Burj Khalifa. This late afternoon visit guaranteed me views of the sunset from the top of the building.

Views of the subway, with the futuristic-looking Burj Khalifa rising in the background
The subway, with the Burj Khalifa rising in the background.
This area was designed with
This area was designed with “neo-futurism” in mind.
Getting closer
Getting closer
Staggering amounts of construction everywhere
Staggering amounts of construction everywhere

This mall dwarfed the Mall of America

1200 shops, including a Lamborghini store.
1200 shops, including a Lamborghini store. A worker told me that the mall has more visitors annually than New York City and LA. Not sure if this is true, but it sounded impressive.

I chose to go with the “At the Top” experience. For an extra 300 aed, this VIP tour gives visitors a variety of perks, including special access to the 148th floor in addition to the usual observation deck at the 130th floor.


At 5pm a group of us whom had chosen the VIP experience were given lanyards and ushered into a posh, club-like room. Here we were served dates and tea while they checked our credentials.


From there we were led through security and towards the base of the tower.

For such an important landmark, security was surprisingly lax. I was flagged by the metal detector but waved through by security guards.
What is this, a tower for ants?
What is this, a tower for ants?


First views of the Khalifa
First views of the Y-shaped tower
The “At the Top” experience means special elevators, those on the left

Views from the top of the world

First views

It’s hard to put into words the view from the Burj Khalifa. I’ve simply never experienced anything that I could draw context from or compare it to. From the top we dwarfed skyscrapers. Views stretched out for what seemed like an eternity in all directions.

The tower itself is almost double the height of the Empire State Building. As architecturally advanced as it may be, from this ridiculous height it’s almost inconceivable that vertical building limits have yet to be reached.

Gordon Gill Architecture, a Chicago based architecture company (and brains behind the Burj Khalifa) is in the process of constructing the Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The tower was initially blueprinted to a height of 1600 meters, or roughly a vertical mile. Problems with the loose soil surrounding the foundation have since compromised the height, and the end result will be closer to 1000 meters when it opens in 2019.

Even as our economic gaze shifts away from architectural braggadocio, towers continue to be built at incredible rates. In the second half of this decade upwards of 25 towers with heights surpassing that of the former world’s tallest building until 2010, our own Sears Tower, will be completed.

The cost of a tower like this? 1.25 billion for the Kingdom Tower, and 1.5 billion for the Burj Khalifa. That might seem staggering, but take into account the United State’s military spending in 2015 (534 billion!). This is just one more project, along with NASA funding, healthcare, student loans, high-speed travel, a safer Mexico, etc…. that could be accomplished by diverting money from just one or more of the mid-priced military projects. But dreams will remain dreams…

Back to the tower

For $800 this bolt could be yours


Milwaukee’s newest baseball stadium, Miller Park, took about 5 years to complete. Crazily enough, the Burj Khalifa took roughly the same amount of time to be finished. It opened in 2010 as the crowning jewel of a new Dubai, an emirate no longer dependant on oil. Service and tourism were instead the new focus. The tower was due to be part of a 30,000 acre park that would include the world’s largest mall, 30,000 homes, 20 towers, and 10 hotels. According to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, this would bring about a new age of foreign investment, and would serve as a light to “…national accomplishment, a historic milestone and a key economic turning point. It is a symbol of pride, not only to the Emirati people but to all Arabs.”

But bright lights cast long shadows. As the tower was nearing completion in 2010 an economic slide threatened to stall its progress. A burst housing bubble and subsequent debt defaults halted funding, and the tower originally intended to symbolize a new independent standard for Dubai had to be bailed out by an oil-rich neighbor in Abu Dhabi.

After Dubai received nearly 20 billion dollars in aid, the Burj Dubai was renamed the Burj Khalifa in honor of its benefactor, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. The new name serves as a sobering reminder of the dangers of the excess that currently defines the area.

In part 1 I mentioned economic growth at a previously unseen scale. More cranes are currently in Dubai than the rest of the world combined. Dozens of towers are going up seemingly overnight. These shiny pillars of progress now dotting the horizon of Dubai were not built by the ideals they seek to impart upon their viewers. They took manpower. But where did it come from?

Qatar has been making headlines with its human rights climate leading up to the 2022 World Cup. But its neighbor to the East often slides under the radar, even as its entire infrastructure is built upon the backs of migrant workers. In Dubai we have witnessed a stunning history of human rights violations unfolding in a short amount of time.

During construction up to 12,000 workers labored on the Burj Khalifa per day. How could the City afford to pay these workers? In short, it didn’t.

These were not local unionized workers reaping economic benefits, but rather migrant workers, many Indian. Upon arrival they found themselves indebted, passports confiscated, subsisting in poor conditions in shanty-towns outside of the city.

During the building of the tower it was estimated that two migrant workers committed suicide each week.

Apologists are quick to bring up England and the United State’s own shameful pasts in regards to human rights. It’s true that West-Indians may have suffered more at our hands than they have in Qatar or Dubai. (An estimated 5,000 of them died while building the US-contracted Panama Canal)

Dubai is young, the modern version springing from the desert within the past 40 years. Unfortunately for them, this media-friendly age sheds unwanted light on a painful growing process that would have slid under the radar just a few decades ago.

These apologists are not wrong, but this still isn’t acceptable rational.

So here we were on top of the tower, surrounded by fellow tourists gushing over the incredible view and achievements behind it. But where were the locals? And where were the people who built these towers? Our tour guides and hospitality service were from Egypt, India, and Mumbai. A half mile below us the mall was flooded by tourists buying designer goods, hearing sales pitches from workers from the Philippines, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Lebanon.

In fact, upon leaving Sharjah and entering the heart of Dubai’s business district, I had seen no locals.

I truly enjoyed most of the areas that I visited during the trip. I loved the architecture, the mosques, the sea, and the weather. In places like Costa Rica and Hawaii where service is the main industry, I’ve gotten the sense that the locals, despite generating their income from tourists, deeply despise them and look to take advantage of them whenever possible. I never felt that way in the U.A.E. The people were as kind and hospitable as any I’ve met on any of my travels.

But this particular area wasn’t the Middle East. This was a re-packaged West, and I didn’t enjoy it.

Despite the aforementioned critique, I was still blown away by the Khalifa tower.

So why don’t we turn back to enjoying these incredible views from the Shining Pillar of the Middle-East, a testament to the wonders of forward-thinking and technology…

views from above the clouds, courtesy of


Sunset. Off in the distance you can see the outline of the Palm Jumeirah, the world’s only 8-star hotel. Here’s a pretty sweet video involving it. I wanted to check it out, but the $2000+ cost per night was a bit steep. I’m holding out hope that when I return this fall a connection comes through and I’ll be able to spend time there, if only for a mid-day tea visit.

Remember the giant towers flanking the subway? That's them, way down there.
The large towers previously shown from the ground flanking the subway


The top was still quite a ways above our heads

As the sun dissapeared beyond the Persian Gulf the city began to light up. Looking out towards the outskirts of the city, the light grid eventually gave out and was replaced by dark desert. I was told by a proud host that 100km away the tower itself was still visible, serving as a constant reminder of the extraordinary achievements a former landless Bedouin tribe had been able to accomplish within half a century.

Somewhere out there beyond our sight lay squalid trailer-cities lacking water and electricity. These slums house under-paid workers; modern-day slaves, many of whom will most likely never see their families again. A testament to the dark underbelly of human achievement. I wonder what the tower symbolizes to them as they look out upon it.

But the strobing rainbow of city-light didn’t reach all the way to the slums, and although the workers could see us, they remained out of sight of the tourist’s cameras.

For a more damning expose on labor in the U.A.E., check out The Guardian’s article on neighboring Abu Dhabi.

My flight was due to leave by 1 am, so after coming down from the top of the tower I decided to kill some time by catching a movie. American Sniper was playing in the Mall’s theater. I figured this was as perfect a place as any to catch the controversial movie, seeing as we were in a country bordered by Saudi Arabia and across the sea from Iran.

The Chris Kyle of the screen is a far simpler, more endearing version of the complicated character presented in the book, and the audience took a liking to him, laughing at his banter and gasping in fear as bullets hissed over his head. While the situations he found himself in were questionable, his moral compass never strayed.

Of course, outside of hollywood lazy archetypes don’t exist. No one is GOOD or BAD, but rather, man is an amalgam of various traits, some of them contradictory. War hero and liar, Christian and racist, these titles are not mutually exclusive.

After the movie finished I hurried to the airport, downed a Guinness (2 actually), and reached my gate just as the last call was being given. Upon reaching my seat I promptly passed out for the next 7 hours. I awoke somewhere over the Atlantic to deja-vu: swollen legs, cramping back, a bland dinner of rice and lentils sitting in front of me, and a long plane flight yet to go.

So what does Dubai’s future hold? Oil money is not going to rain upon the Emirates much longer. Dubai has anticipated as much and spent the last decade working away from it and towards tourism and green energy. While close to 80% of the U.A.E’s economy is based upon oil exports, Dubai has cut that down to around 10% today.

Non-citizens were recently allowed for the first time to buy free-hold land, which has led to significant growth in real-estate and construction sectors.

Industry leaders are taking advantage of tax-laws and moving their headquarters into the duty-free zones.

But the centerpiece of growth, the Burj Khalifa, still remains largely empty and devoid of foreign suitors.

Like Chris Kyle, Dubai itself is a contradiction. It showcases the best and worst of man in one tidily packaged city. The tower thrust Dubai into the world’s spotlight, but perhaps they weren’t ready for what came with that intense a gaze. Dubai is deeply in debt to neighboring states. The local emirati population is being dwarfed by ex-pats. International critique over labor practices mounts by the day. Oil reserves will run out. And yet, for a young state, the future has never been brighter.

It’s a fascinating place and a wonderful window into the Middle-East. I can’t wait to visit it again.


One thought on “Dubai Part 2- Bittersweet Views From the Top of the World

  1. Pingback: 2020 Spartan Race World Championship Venue Revealed as Abu Dhabi. Some thoughts on it. – Blue Highways

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