Sunday, 18 October 2009

The Amazing Race 15, Episode 4

Phnom Penh (Cambodia) - Dubai (United Arab Emirates)

This week’s first clue directed the cast of The Amazing Race 15 to fly to the “Persian Gulf” to the site of the world’s tallest building.

That should have been enough to send racers who’d been studying geographic trivia directly to the Burj Dubai (even if it’s not quite complete and the world’s tallest occupied building remains, for a few more months, the Taipei 101 office tower).

Many of the teams appeared never to have heard of the Gulf by any name. But the clue’s phrasing got the racers off on a culturally wrong foot for where they were going: the body of water called the “Persian Gulf” in Iran is properly called the “Arabian Gulf” on its opposite shore in Dubai and the rest of Arabia. It’s no longer “fighting words” to use the locally-disapproved label, as it was during the “Gulf War” between Iran and Iraq in the 1980’s, but it’s always polite to use local geographical terminology unless you want to make a deliberate political statement to the contrary.

On the other hand, sending them to the construction site of a grandiose but unfinished modern megalithic monument may have been the perfect metaphor for Dubai, where the world’s largest speculative building boom — featuring structures like the golf course where the grass grows on top of sand, and the indoor ski slope in the desert that the racers later visited — has been followed by the world’s greatest current real estate and credit bust — yes, far exceeding that in the USA, with average real estate values in Dubai only half what they were before the crash.

The Emir of Dubai has reportedly managed to refinance tens of billions of dollars of his own debts (with the help of a grudging multi-billion dollar bail-out by the Emir of Abu Dhabi by way of the central bank of the United Arab Emirates), and the flagship Burj Dubai is being completed, topping out at roughly twice the height of the Sears Tower (now officially the “Willis Tower”, although nobody calls it that), give or take a few hundred feet. But some of the other buildings originally planned as part of the Burj Dubai complex, as well what was to have been the world’s second-tallest building nearby, have been canceled, some even after ground had been broken. (For those keeping global score, what was to have been the tallest building in the USA, the 200-story Chicago Spire, has met a similar fate, at least for now, after more than a year of site preparation and foundation work.)

In the USA, the commercial real estate crisis has hit hotel owners especially hard, driving many hotels into bankruptcy with ripple effects that have brought bargains for travellers in every price range. I’m not sure how the real estate collapse has affected the previously dismal affordability of tourist accommodations in Dubai, though, because development had been so top-heavy in luxury and price as well as building height. If anyone has been there recently and can report on budget lodging prices and how they’ve changed in the last 2 years, please let me know or post a comment.

After a look at the view from an upper floor of the Burj Dubai, “The Amazing Race” headed for the desert and a four-wheel drive through the dunes. I know, all of Dubai is desert, but there’s the city and the construction sites and the labor camps, and then there’s the “empty” sand-dune storybook Arabian desert.

The racers were lucky: They had professional drivers. Citizens of the Gulf states, where sand driving is one of relatively few readily available diversions, learn to make it look easy. But try it for the first time, and you’ll quickly get bogged down. On a stopover in Qatar on my last trip around the world, I got to go along on a day trip to a desert beach with some inexperienced expats. Each of our vehicles got stuck, repeatedly, and we never figured out if we were trying to go too fast or too slowly in places where the sand was soft. We were very lucky that passing groups (all male, of course) of local citizens, often speaking little or no English, kept stopping to show off their superior skills and getting their spotless white “dish-dash” robes dirty digging us out.

Keri and Lance, who were eliminated, had trouble finding their way on the roads. I can relate. We spent several hours driving around Doha with a local resident failing to find the Eritrean Embassy, and got there the next day, after another hour of fruitless searching by taxi, only when we telephoned and the Embassy, with typical Eritrean generosity, sent a car and driver to pick us up from the street corner where we were walking around lost.

In Dubai as in Doha (a wannabe Dubai, sitting on natural gas beneath the sand instead of oil, but without any of Dubai’s tourists), everything including the roads is either just built or still under construction. We had been in Doha two and a half years earlier, and it’s still a small city, but almost nothing was recognizable. One construction site tends to look like another, and outside of town the desert sands and the empty roads are largely devoid of distinctive landmarks, at least if you aren’t well versed in recognizing desert details.

Map makers can’t keep up with the pace of change, and few people know their way around areas that aren’t on their regular rounds. Citizens tend to stay aloof from the majority of “foreigners” who do all the work. (No citizenship = no rights, no matter how long you live in the country, not that even citizens have any real rights in countries where the monarchs’ words are law.) Expats from different racial and national-origin castes — Bangladeshi ditch-diggers and hod carriers, Philippine nannies, Palestinian bookkeepers, white-skinned white-collar engineers, and so forth — live in separate compounds or camps, and mostly keep to their own enclosures when they aren’t working. (Some Afrikaner South African residents we met called the system today in the Gulf states “apartheid”, and said they thought it was worse than what they had seen in the “old days” in South Africa.)

I never saw a decent map of Doha. There was a rumor that Fedex had up-to-date digital street maps, but kept them secret to preserve their competitive advantage.

A GPS might seem to provide a solution — but only if combined with a decent map database. In and of itself, knowing your grid coordinates doesn’t necessarily tell you which road to take, as we found out on our way from the beach back to Doha. It was getting dark, a sandstorm was further reducing visibility, and we found ourselves lost amid an elaborate but inscrutable (and, of course, completely empty of pedestrians) network of boulevards through some vast half-built development, like the monumental promenades of a half-buried ancient capital mostly obscured by clouds of blowing sand.

Not to worry: Our host had rented a Range Rover with a GPS navigation system, capable of making its way through anywhere and anything. Just set the destination, and follow the GPS directions home to our hotel: “Go 1 kilometer. Make a U-turn. Go 1 kilometer. Make a U-turn. Go 1 kilometer. Make a U-turn….” Only by turning in a random “wrong” direction, and proceeding blindly by the compass for several kilometers until we happened onto a section of older roads that were properly mapped in the GPS back-end system, were we able to get out of the endless loop and back on track.

The racers finished at a new shopping mall built to resemble the old “souks” (markets) that are rapidly being demolished to make room for more new construction. A fitting symbol of Dubai, where the race will resume next week.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 18 October 2009, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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