Giles Coren Visits Dubai

A madman's nightmarish vision of humanity's desolate future, or the perfect place for a half-term break? Bit of both, really, says our man

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I don't know about you, but I find it very hard to get excited about the idea of a holiday on Mars. Or on the moon. Or even on Venus, although that gets talked about quite a bit less, on account of all the sulphuric acid. But from time to time, whenever there is a significant breakthrough in the efficacy of space transport or something a bit like water is "found" on a rock in our solar system, futurologists come out saying that by 2050 it will be possible to holiday in space. And Richard Branson pipes up saying he will sort the transport, and Leonardo di Caprio and Tom Hanks immediately put their names down for first-class seats and a suite with a view of, er, whatever there is to see up there. 

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But the idea does not float my boat. Just because you can go somewhere doesn't mean you should. Just because a place unfit for humans can be made habitable does not mean that living there would be nice. What would you do on Mars? Sure, you could recreate your own domestic living conditions in a giant, closed, airless community, but where would the joy be in that? Wouldn't it all be a bit ugly, being in a desolate space with nothing to look at but the detritus of the technology that got you there?

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Wouldn't you get bored surviving on rations that had flown as far to be there as you had? In the absence of any local population, wouldn't you get lonely? And I mean lonely in the grand, existential, "whither humanity?" sense. Wouldn't it be just too weird to enjoy?

Wouldn't you spend your time weeping for the fate of a humanity that will one day, according to Stephen Hawking, have to colonise this godawful void merely to survive and with no hope of earthly return? Wouldn't your soul slowly starve to death? 

I know that mine would. Because I am just back from a week in the closest thing we have on Earth to such a place: Dubai. I am not saying that I didn't have a wonderful holiday there with my daughter, because I did. Largely because Kitty did.

This is the great lesson I have learned by travelling occasionally with my daughter and leaving my wife and son at home: all the sorts of things that can annoy a grown-up on holiday — unfriendly staff, wrong view from room, absence of balcony, dreary hotel food, crowded swimming pool, wrong kind of sheets/pillows/towels, shit local beer — mean nothing to them. They just want sand, water and ice cream. And if they have that, they are happy, and as you are compelled to see the world through their eyes because you are living with them cheek-by-jowl (sharing a bed, a bath, a breakfast table) then you are happy, too.

Last year, I took Kitty to Antigua, which is a royal shithole on the face of it: angry locals giving grumpy service, bollocks food, fucked infrastructure, drug dealers on the beach who call you racist when you say, "no thanks, it's just me and the kid"… But the sun shone, the pool was warm, the birds sang, the air smelt of cloves and cinnamon, the beach went on for miles and the "kids' club" had a giant bucket of mostly headless My Little Ponies which she played with in the sand for 14 hours a day. Time of her tiny life. She has talked about Antigua every day since.

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So when she wanted to go again this year I was in a pickle. We went last time because she was still at nursery and I could hoik her out during term time when flights are cheap and get us there on air miles (though not all four of us, which is why the wife and baby stayed home). Now, though, she is at big school and they won't let her out except at half-term, which is when everyone wants to be away and you can't get an air miles flight anywhere in the world where the sun is out and the temperature is above 25°C.

Except Dubai.

So that's where we went. Sure, the whole city-state is a soulless gimmick thrown up in the desert overnight by slaves in the pay of the ruling elite which offers barely a nod to democracy and has no indigenous culture or natural beauty. But Kitty is five, she was never going to know. And besides, a friend of mine who lived there around the turn of the century swears he used to lie on the beach and look up at the builders on the skeleton of the nascent Burj Al Arab hotel until he saw one fall to his death, and then go back to his book. What kid wouldn't dig that, eh? 

So off we went. It was a nice, short night flight and by 7am we were breakfasting on the terrace of our gigantic and extraordinary hotel. The breakfast spread was astounding. What Kitty likes in the morning is waffles, pancakes, maple syrup, bacon, hot chocolate and strawberries. At home, she gets a bowl of Cheerios and a glass of water. So she was a piglet in shit at this place. And while she gorged herself I tucked into a caviar omelette, assorted spring greens, great coffee, glass of Bolly, fresh tropical fruit and a plate of sushi. 

Because this is Dubai, and there are no seasons and there is no local produce, and since everything has to be flown in, everything is flown in. There is nothing you can't get. It is a place predicated on the notion that a fat little prince in a gold turban (or Kendall Jenner or Selena Gomez or Gigi Hadid or Claudia Schiffer or Roger Federer — Dubai regulars all) should be able to clap their hands once and receive… anything.

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So I sat and consumed, thoughtlessly, like a lotus-eater. And while Kitty chased the good-natured waiting staff around (who are all from Kerala and Goa, flown in en masse and confined to same-sex quarters but in better conditions than the Bangladeshi labourers who live in veal crates) I shut my eyes and allowed my senses to take in…. nothing.

Not a thing. Not a whiff of smoke or spice or vegetation, none of the flavours that greet you by the dozen, on the air, when you land in Africa, Asia or South America. And not so much as a tweet of birdsong, nor the chitter of a single cricket. Just the faint, automated buzz of machinery, the bass note of the traffic that growls all day and night on the endless flyovers and spaghetti junctions that surround you, the dying screams of the slaves who hold the place together and the faint sound of weeping in heaven.

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But, my God, the swimming pool! I've never seen one like it. Easily the size of Wales, blue as a kingfisher's wingtip, warm as a bath and dotted with little islands, each with its own palm tree. Kitty and I swam between them all day and in the vast toddler's zone of the pool the water depth was so perfectly pitched (at about 3ft) that my daughter (who can swim a bit but can also drown) was given the illusion of total aquatic freedom, while at the same time she was able to put her feet down on solid ground in moments of panic.

Kitty loved that pool, almost as much as she loved the young Keralan hotel worker who looked after us. And he was such a lovely man. As Keralans tend to be. He was recruited in Kerala by the group and is glad of his job, which pays him maybe 20 times what he could earn back home. He is to be married this year. He will go back to Kerala, meet and marry his wife then return without her to his work because married quarters are available only to management. When I asked how long it would be till he became a manager and was able to bring his wife over, he said cheerily and without rancour, "Oh, never. Management is only for Europeans!"

Of course it is. I was just joking. And after all, who cares about an explicit, race-based caste system when the beach is as good as this? It's but a one-minute walk through beautiful gardens to golden sand and lovely warm sea. Although the view while you're paddling is a bit rum as you look across the bay at the celebrated man-made archipelago known as The Palm, a giant, grey belt of construction work smeared across the horizon. Mostly half-built and slummy looking, with assorted link bridges to the mainland, rammed at all hours of the day and night with howling traffic jams. And low flying aircraft droning constantly overhead. 

And then from about two in the afternoon until dark there is the ear-splitting din of massive jet skis whizzing back and forth across the bay, as loud as Formula One cars, ridden mostly (I was told) by the sons of the sheikh and their friends. But they look like they are having so much fun, tailgating tourist boats, spraying them and then racing off, that one hates to quibble. Any more than you'd quibble with feral joy-riders on your local council estate. But this is Dubai, you're not here for peace and quiet. 

Sorry, I said, "YOU'RE NOT HERE FOR THE PEACE AND QUIET!!!"

You're here for the miracle of someone having created a holiday destination for celebrities and billionaires out of sheer nothingness. It's amazing. I mean, when you wiggle your toes down into the beautiful sand you come almost immediately to a strata of rusty screws and fag butts and rawlplugs and plaster from when the place was built, only minutes ago. Although don't worry: there's plenty more sand when this top layer washes away. It's all piled up in a massive mountain in the middle of the bay, giving the whole gorgeous, multi-billion dollar resort a sexy hint of suspended roadworks on the M25.

And I shouldn't have said there are no birds, because here on the beach there are both seagulls and crows, all noisily fighting over carrion. One even landed on Kitty's head and tried to take her hair away. That was nice. And then minutes later a muntjac deer broke cover out of the palms and ran down the beach against the back drop of parked up luxury yachts and smog, like something out of Revelation.

Better still is the pure mind-blow of walking through palm trees at the beach's edge and to fancy briefly that you are on a lush, deserted island, only to come upon a glistening, multi-coloured metal city of curvy, shimmering skyscrapers like the future as it was imagined by comic artists in the Thirties, when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster drew Superman's home planet of Krypton. And indeed there is something of the doomed interplanetary whiff of Krypton about Dubai. They've even given a massive development on The Palm the name of Atlantis. I mean, actually taken the name of a mythical city that was damned for its hubris and sunk beneath the ocean with the deaths of millions, and reapplied it like it was a good thing. We went there to play at the water park, Kitty and I. It was like a film set of Nineveh built out of Duplo. Magnificent and terrifying but, when you tapped the walls, hollow as a dustbin. 

And the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo was so sad: millions of wonderful fish — sharks, turtles, octopus — but no information about them at all, no attempt at habitat replication. Just the underwater plastic film set (ruins, sunken boats) and the miserable water beasts swimming round and round like in some Bond villain's wretched vestibule, being gawped at by the bloated fly-and-floppers in their swimwear. Because nobody here is interested in where anything comes from, or where it is going. 

My hotel was wonderful, the best for comfort, food, facilities and service that I have stayed in anywhere. Because in Dubai, with money, you can do anything. But at what cost? The emirate itself is a hell on Earth made palatable by shiny trappings, a brazen cycle of resources pillaged and wasted. The oil is dug up, sold and the money spent on noisy, stinking ways to burn more oil.

I have no doubt the human race's extra-terrestrial future lies, at best, in developments such as this. And while I am pretty confident that I will not live to see it, I do worry that Kitty might, and that this might be what her distant future holds. So next year, while it's still possible, I think I'll do us both a favour, turn my pockets out and take us back to Antigua.