I just got back from my first visit to Dubai in three years, and I couldn’t believe how much it has grown. They do things big in Dubai, and they do them quickly: They already have the world’s busiest mall, and they are building another more than twice as large. They want a Ferris wheel, so they are building one 50 percent taller than the London Eye. Some 70 million passengers passed through the Dubai airport in 2015, but a new airport that will handle twice that number of passengers is under construction.
I lived for many years in Phoenix when it was one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States. I can relate to the phenomenon of a city rising out of the desert over the course of a few decades. It’s exciting to be in a place where new things are being created. In Dubai, I looked out from the 148th floor of the world’s tallest building at projects sprouting everywhere. The energy is undeniable.
But how do you find the soul of a place like this, full of new, shiny, imposing buildings? In Phoenix, I loved finding the city’s distinctive spots. On my trip to Dubai, I was excited to do the same.
In Al Bastakiya, the old part of Dubai, at the Sheik Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding I learned more about Islam and Dubai’s openness to outsiders, then I took an abra (water taxi) across the creek and walked around the silk souk, which gives you a good sense what the place was like 40 years ago. I sampled Bedouin life at a desert conservation area outside the city, drinking tea, eating bread baked in the sand, and stargazing. On Kite Beach, I stopped at Salt for a burger served from an Airstream trailer next to a sleek, glass-walled dining area, and I watched the locals walk, jog, and bike by as I ate.
Of course, you find the true soul of a city in its people. I met Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, who founded the Barjeel Art Foundation to promote Arab artists throughout the world; Abrar Ahmad, a travel industry investor who moved to Dubai because he found the pace of Los Angeles too slow; and Ala’ Alsallal, an entrepreneur who moved from Amman and started Jamalon, which has already become the Middle East’s largest online book retailer.
So many people have chosen to live here because it is stable, clean, and safe. Dubai is becoming the commercial capital of the Middle East, northern Africa, and South Asia. Opportunity abounds, and if you know where to look, you’ll find it has plenty of soul.