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To say that Dubai is unique would be an understatement. To capture what is going on in Dubai you have to realize that the amount of growth and construction which Dubai has seen in the last 10 years is probably without precedent in human history. While many cities have undergone construction booms, there are few times where a city so large has sprang up from nothing. Even in cases where planned city has been created by a emperor or pharaoh, they didn’t have the construction techniques available today. A city like Shanghai which has experienced tremendous growth in the past decade has been a major city for over a hundred years. Planned cities like Brasilia, Canberra or Washington took much longer to create much less. Modern Dubai was born fully formed from the desert.

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The initial reaction is to compare Dubai to Las Vegas. The similarities are obvious; a new city with lots of construction which emerged from nothing out of the desert. However, the analogy is superficial at best. If you have been to Vegas a few times, you can probably name all the major construction projects in the past decade. Many of the new casinos have replaced old ones, which were the original buildings on the space now occupied. It is almost impossible to count the buildings which have been constructed and are being constructed in Dubai. All of the Vegas strip could easily be contained in any of the numerous large scale city projects underway in Dubai.

I had heard that 25% of all the construction cranes in the world were in Dubai. Throughout the 3 days we were in Dubai, I counted at least 100 of them.

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Dubai is a city of contradictions. One one hand, people and goods probably flow more freely in Dubai than anywhere else on Earth. The immigration process at the airport was the easiest I’ve encountered in the world. I didn’t even have to fill out an immigration/customs card. The many free zones in Dubai are perhaps the purest form of capitalism in the world. Almost nothing in the way of regulation with a small, efficient government which will bend over backwards to make sure what needs to get done will get done. There are no personal or corporate income taxes in free zones.

And there are no restrictions what money can buy you in Dubai. An ice rink inside a mall, while the temperature outside is a sizzling 105 degrees Fahrenheit.

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It also allows you build the tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa. Even though I’ve been to Dubai many times before, this time was my first chance to see it from the top of the world. I waited to enjoy it together with my family. The experience is rather pricey, it costs you at least $70 to just see the top. If you want to go VIP (even higher floors and separate elevators) you can pay up to $300 for the experience.

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The elevator ride of 124 floors is an engineering and entertainment feat in itself, not taking longer than 40 seconds or so and made more exciting with a video show inside the cabin. Once you’re up there, you feel the subtle swaying of the building, count the cranes and experience the amazing human experiment Dubai is.

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We were excited to watch one of the best water shows at the Dubai Mall from above but all shows were cancelled for that day.No matter what, the view never disappointed.

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On the other hand, they somehow censor the internet. In years past, it was much stricter when I experienced blocking of Twitter, YouTube and other innocuous sites. This time, I barely encountered any blocking, things have become freer and more liberal. Given that Dubai is a Muslim society, it’s not surprising that finding access to alcohol can become a tough task. One night, the municipality issued the edict that no alcohol could be consumed after 6pm and so Dubai was completely dry for 24 hours. Outside of hotel restaurants and bars, no alcohol can be purchased. Supermarket shelves are filled with non-alcoholic beer and, as you can imagine, the duty free shops upon arrival are crammed.

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Modern Dubai was a purposeful, planned creation of the Dubai ruling family going back almost 50 years. Oil was discovered in the mid-60’s in Dubai, and there wasn’t much of it. Unlike more countries who’s rules squander the revenue brought in by oil, Dubai invested the oil revenue to prepare for the day when there wouldn’t be any oil. It was bold, risky and brilliant. One of the best quotes I’ve read about Dubai came from Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, who said

“My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel”

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There has been a great deal of effort to turn Dubai into a tourist destination. For the most part they have focused on the ultra-high end market. You are lucky to find a hotel room for under $100/night, with most hotels going many times beyond that. All the malls I visited were focused on high end luxury brands. The fact is, there isn’t much to see or do in Dubai as a tourist other than shop. There are beaches, but honestly, if I wanted to go to the beach, I can think of a hundred places I’d rather go than Dubai. Witnessing all the construction is pretty neat, but that will disappear in a few years. While in Dubai, I didn’t meet many Arabs. I saw them at the mall and driving cars, but I can’t say I had an interaction with any Emaratis outside of the creek area and the Gold Souq. Every person you interact with in hotels, restaurants, stores and taxis are either Filipino or South Asian.

The best bet to visit Dubai is rent an apartment with AirBnb. You pay much less than an average hotel, have multiple bedrooms and the killer view above, including pool and gym. You don’t have all the food establishments downstairs but a short walk through the brutal heat rewards you with any food you like, mostly American brands like Starbucks, Quiznos and other staples of the American mall scene. We saw CPK, PF Chang and multiple Baskin Robbins’. As I always say: People in the Middle East love America and the American Way, they just don’t like American politics.

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Should you visit Dubai? Yes, you should. It’s a unique human experiment, never before tried by any civilization in the world. Don’t come for the beaches or the malls or the major attractions. Come for the Old Town. That’s where you experience life in Dubai outside of the typical tourist paths.

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On the first evening, we walked through Old Town Dubai, the bazaar and watched the sunset at the Dubai Creek. While taking pictures, one water taxi driver asked us if we wanted to experience a tour through the creek for a small amount of money. This half hour watching Old Town Dubai transforming from a city of sun into a city of lights was magical. And, just to experience that moment again, I would come back.

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