The Essayist

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The New Mecca

George Saunders on Dubai, before we properly knew it was an abject exploitative nightmare.

In Which I Fall In Love With A Fake Town

From the air, Dubai looked something like Dallas circa 1985: a vast expanse of one- or two-story white boxes, punctuated by clusters of freakish skyscrapers. (An Indian kid shouted, “Dad, looks like a microchip!”) Driving in from the airport, you’re struck by the usual first-night-in-new-country exotica (“There’s a Harley-Davidson dealership—right in the Middle East!”), and the skyscraper clusters were, okay, odd looking (like four or five architects had staged a weird-off, with unlimited funds)—but all in all, it was, you know, a city. And I wondered what all the fuss was about.

Then I got to my hotel.

The Madinat Jumeirah is, near as I can figure, a superresort consisting of three, or possibly six, luxury sub-hotels and two, or maybe three, clusters of luxury villas, spread out over about forty acres, or for all I know it was twelve sub-hotels and nine luxury-villa clusters—I really couldn’t tell, so seamless and extravagant and confusing was all the luxury. The Madinat is themed to resemble an ancient Arabian village. But to say the Madinat is themed doesn’t begin to express the intensity and opulence and areal extent of the theming. The site is crisscrossed by 2.3 miles of fake creeks, trolled night and day by dozens of fake Arabian water taxis (abras) piloted by what I can only describe as fake Arabs because, though dressed like old-timey Arabs, they are actually young, smiling, sweet-hearted guys from Nepal or Kenya or the Philippines, who speak terrific English as they pilot the soundless electrical abras through this lush, created Arabia, looking for someone to take back to the lobby, or to the largest outdoor pool in the Middle East, or over to Trader Vic’s, which is also themed and looks something like a mysterious ancient Casbah inexplicably filled with beautiful contemporary people.

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