Dubai is extraordinary. It sits there on the edge of the desert and every year it is quantitatively larger and more dynamic than the year before. They say that you can plan and build a skyscraper in Dubai faster than you can get planning permission in London, and as I drove in I was stunned by the new architecture that soared all around me. Here was a building that looked like a flickering candle, another that I swear was modelled on Big Ben – only 10 times larger – a third that could have been the Starship Enterprise.
There’s a fabulous new opera house on the way, designed in the shape of an Arab dhow. Push a button and the floor will level out, the walls and boxes will swivel around and it will all turn into a banqueting hall. No – I’m not joking. Earlier this year I arrived for my fourth visit. The last time I was here, Dubai was in trouble following the subprime crisis. Now the place looks like it is in the midst of a building boom. When you drive home, you take a road which you feel sure wasn’t there when you left.
I was there for the Dubai Literary Festival, one of my favourites in the world – a whole week spent in the company of such writers as Ian Rankin, Victoria Hislop, Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Dobbs. This time round I met the brilliant astronaut, Chris Hadfield, whose zero-gravity rendition of Major Tom on YouTube has received 31 million hits. But the star of the festival was 21-year-old performance poet Harry Baker, just out of university, which gives you an idea of its breadth.
The festival is held at the Dubai’s InterContinental Hotel Festival City, which has an odd, glass-bottomed swimming pool that juts out over the street. I often imagine what would happen if it cracked, how many literary heroes would be swept, like salmon, to their deaths.
I recommend the hotel thoroughly, by the way. It’s not in any way startling (certainly not like the seven-star Burj Al Arab) but the staff are incredibly attentive, it has some nice bars looking out over the creek and the restaurant is extraordinary. At dinner time, they offer a buffet with cuisines from about seven different countries including fresh oysters, lobsters, crabs, giant prawns, steaks, pasta, pad Thai, curries, cheeses, chocolate fountain and so on. I have never been more indulged. I sat down feeling like Henry VIII – and left looking like him.
As always, I was able to escape and see a bit of the city. For the first time, I went up the Burj Khalifa, famously the tallest man-made structure in the world. There’s an outdoor observation deck on the 124th floor (there are 163 floors in total) 1,490ft up – and the lift that takes you there is quite startling in itself. You feel nothing. But a light display gives the illusion of movement. So as you travel, your brain is sort of fighting against itself.
It really was like having a front-row seat at Armageddon
It was raining on the day I visited and although I write those words quite casually, it was actually quite a shock. It was raining! It hardly ever rains in Dubai but when it does, everything comes to a standstill. Schools close. Cars crash into each other. Everyone panics. It’s the Arab equivalent of half a centimetre of snow in London.
Of course, like all the other writers, I was hugely disappointed by the weather but at the same time I have to say it made for a memorable visit. As I stood out on the deck, the clouds were rolling underneath me, writhing snakelike between the other skyscrapers while an intense, electrical storm sent brilliant lightning streaks searing through the sky. It really was like having a front-row seat at Armageddon. (Be warned, though. I was taken on a private tour of Burj Khalifa by the literary festival. Go at the wrong time and you can wait two or three hours to get in.)
When the sun came out, I visited Old Dubai in the company of a relentlessly upbeat guide, who showed me the old city, which is quite charming, but doesn’t actually feel very old at all. So I slipped away with the writer and broadcaster Paul Blezard who took me on a tour of his own. This began with lunch at Bayt Al Wakeel, a truly delightful, authentic restaurant with a veranda on the creek. Over meze and fresh mint tea he told me something of the history of Dubai and its transition from pearl fishing village to major trading centre.
We took a water taxi – an abra – across the river to look at the small, brightly coloured dhows that cross the oceans, “part of a centuries-old tradition of seagoing transport”, as Paul put it, only now they are laden with vacuum cleaners, fridges, TVs, nappies, great piles of cardboard boxes marked “Made in China”. All these were visible out on the quay. We walked through souks which are smaller and less frenetic than other Arab cities and tasted surprisingly pleasant camel milk chocolate. It was lovely to discover an ancient heart in a city which, on the face of it, is defined by the modern age.
Sadly, on this visit, I didn’t have time to go to the Wild Wadi Waterpark (where blasts of water propel you up the slides). I didn’t go cruising on a dhow, hot air ballooning, or dune bashing in the desert. Nor did I have dinner beside the Burj Khalifa and watch the amazing son et lumiere show with dancing fountains propelled by 22,000 gallons of water in a 30-acre man-made lake. I did however give a talk on Alex Rider and another on James Bond and, as attractions go, I like to think I held my own.