Dubai - A swirl of swallows, passing through from deep in Africa to the distant north, zipped around the windows of the Al Muntaha restaurant on the 27th floor of the Burj al Arab. It is one of the more delicate wonders of Dubai, communing at eye level with a supreme athlete of the skies.
I’m sure these birds have already updated the migratory map imprinted in their navigation system. After all, this sumptuous landmark in the shape of a yacht with billowing sail, where Agassi and Federer once famously played tennis on the helipad, already qualifies as, if not quite “old”, then certainly well-established. It’s been here all of 15 years, one of Dubai’s few trophy buildings from the 20th Century.
Al Muntaha is Arabic for The Ultimate, but that superlative is so widely bestowed in Dubai these days (world’s tallest building, and biggest airport, with the ambition to be the world’s most visited city – beating London – by 2020) that we may soon have to think of new ones.
They serve “ultimate” afternoon tea in the mosaic and marble-floored Sahn Eddar, at ground level in the Burj al Arab, for example. Now others do something similar. So I would suggest “best” high tea with scones and Devon clotted cream, and champagne cocktail with gold dust, served under the world’s highest atrium (590ft).
Young though it is, touristic Dubai already has dates in its social calendar to rival some of the most famous of the world’s grand hotel occasions, such as afternoon tea at Reid’s in Madeira and cocktails at Raffles in Singapore. Tea at Sahn Eddar is one. Friday brunch in the Fairmont Dubai is another.
I would add an event of my own: a drink at dusk on my ninth-floor balcony in Dubai’s Raffles hotel, to take in the whole of that crazy, magnificent, skyline. Let’s reduce the appeal of Dubai to this. It’s the most brazen, fast-moving, outrageous, exciting and most rapidly updated visitor experience in the world. That view from Raffles wasn’t possible ten years ago. This hotel didn’t exist; that skyline wasn’t there. And I’m sure things have changed even since my visit.
Dubai has done all this frantic building because it wants to base its future on tourism and events such as the Dubai Jazz Festival, Rugby Sevens and international cricket, and its financial sector. Unlike its richer neighbour Abu Dhabi, this emirate never had much oil, and its reserves could be gone by the next decade.
Its next big target is Expo 2020 and we can expect it to be unlike anything we have seen before.
On one level you could simply treat Dubai as a conventional winter break. A stroll along the strand with your feet in the Indian Ocean in February is certainly a great antidote to the British winter. But walking out on to the beach from a high-end hotel is an option available around the world, and it’s easy to forget where you are. In Dubai you never do.
Take Raffles. Inside and out it makes a good stab at impersonating Tutankhamun’s Palace. The only other place on Earth where they do so much gold and marble and huge vaulted space, and with such attention to detail, is Las Vegas.
The best way to make sense of Dubai is to ride the elevated Metro Railway. It’s brand new, obviously, with seductively curved and gilded stations. Completed in just five years, it connects the airport to a stop close to the major hotels. We crammed into the front of the driverless train to snap the 2014 edition of the towering skyscape.
There is a better vantage point still for photographs, from the world’s highest building, the 2,716ft Burj Khalifa, which is the most unreal structure I’ve ever seen.
After a 120-floor, two-minute, non-stop lift ride we emerged on to the viewing platform. This is as high as some geographers’ definition of a mountain. While Abu Dhabi is building its future around world-class museums, including outposts of the Louvre and the Guggenheim, Dubai prefers to mark its forward march with pure wow and wonder. And it is doing it at a rapid rate.
This was my third visit in seven years, and I’m seeing a new Dubai. To put this in perspective, imagine visiting Rome at its peak, then returning a little later to find they had built a Colosseum bigger and grander than the original.
So Dubai has the new Al Maktoum International Airport, already partly open. On completion it will be the world’s largest passenger and cargo hub. Up to four aircraft will be able to land simultaneously, 24 hours a day, on parallel runways.
Dubai is a blur of nationalities. The mixologist who gave me my cocktail-making lesson in Fairmont the Palm was Serbian. The singer was from Texas. The senior staff we spoke to in hotels were Iranian, Russian, French, Moroccan, Syrian and Lebanese. The real Emiratis were more likely to be swishing grandly in their dishdashas out of Waitrose in the Dubai Mall, or standing outside a hotel restaurant, waiting for the valet to deliver the Lamborghini.
That sums up how far Dubai has come since the days when tribesmen of the Al Maktoum family measured their wealth against the bounty the pearls divers brought up out of the shallow seas. But some things don’t change.
You can still wander down to the Creek and, for 20p, take the noisy, smokey and utterly authentic abra ferry. Every time I return, I visit this ancient tableau of open wooden boats scooting over this narrow inlet with foreboding. Have they ‘modernised’ the Creek? I’m delighted to report that, apart from every off-duty boatman being busy on his smartphone, no they haven’t.
In its fast and furious dash to the future, I think Dubai will be true to its past.