An intrepid writer travels to Southeast Asia and the Middle East in a time of great upheaval but in grand fashion, part 4

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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After three weeks of traveling, I finally reached Dubai, the endpoint of my Southeast Asia/Middle East adventure (read part 1, part 2,  part 3 of my journey). On my first day in the city, I traveled into the desert where I drove over sand dunes, saw dirty camels in what I have a sneaking suspicion was a camel prison and went sandboarding. I also saw a falconry display in which a pigeon was used as bait. The falconry expert, in fact, had a rope wrapped around the pigeon and whipped the live animal around, slamming it to the ground at points, in order to entice the falcon to perform. I noted to the others with me that Michael Vick went to jail for less — which isn’t exactly true, but you get the point. Let’s just say that PETA would not approve — and in this rare case would have good reason to protest. (See below the alleged camel prison and the pigeon whipper.)

In the afternoon, I traveled into Dubai itself to see the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. The building is attached to what is billed as the world’s largest shopping mall, which marketing wizards in what was surely a moment of true inspiration named The Dubai Mall. Since my reservation to go to the top of the tower wasn’t until later, I ventured around the complex.

The mall was probably the best shopping center I have ever been to, but like many things in Dubai, it is a great tribute to the West. Nothing in the mall was really representative of the ingenuity of the Arab world. Everything was Western brands and restaurants. I have seen American restaurant chains in many countries around the world, but never so many as I saw in Dubai – I was unaware Potbelly had branches overseas. And how about Red Lobster? Not there yet, but it’s coming. Let that sink in. They are building a Red Lobster in Dubai! Who is demanding this? We don’t even want Red Lobster in America.

The best part of The Dubai Mall was Sega Republic, an fantastic arcade brought to you by the people who came up with Sonic the Hedgehog. Sega Republic is actually why I call The Dubai Mall the best mall I have ever been to. If such facilities were in every mall, I might actually like shopping. An avid ping pong player in The Daily Caller’s Washington Bureau (note: The Daily Caller has no other bureau other than its Washington Bureau), I especially enjoyed the virtual ping pong game in the Republic of Sega. And as any red-blooded American should in an overseas arcade, I quickly broke the high score record in the basketball shoot – actually, I destroyed the high score.

During my mall visit, I also encountered what may have been my favorite image from my entire trip (though I was unable to capture it on camera). I saw a lady in a burka walking with her husband who just happened to be wearing a Run DMC t-shirt.  Go figure.

As for the Burj Khalifa, which I went to the top of after my jaunt around the mall, it is a nicely designed, very tall building. There is no taking that away from it. And besides being the world’s tallest building, it may also be the world’s emptiest.

That night, I went to dinner at an upscale restaurant in Dubai (of which there are many) called the Cavalli Club. The restaurant is owned by Roberto Cavalli, the fancy pants fashion designer. I love tomatoes more than any human being should so I decided to order as an appetizer a tomato and burrata cheese salad. It was the most interestingly designed dish I may have ever seen. The tomatoes came in a caviar jar and were basically molecular balls. It looked like a work of art. Unfortunately, it was tasteless.

I had made the mistake of making my dinner reservation for 8:00 p.m. Apparently, things get started late in Dubai and I was told by my waiter that the restaurant becomes a club later in the evening and is actually the place to be in Dubai starting at midnight. But I had no intention of waiting three hours after dinner for things to pick up at the bar by myself, so I exited without having had the full Cavalli Club experience.

In a cab on my way back to get some sleep, the driver told me that the Cavalli Club is often frequented by high-priced prostitutes in the hopes of picking up an Elliot Spitzer, though he didn’t put it in those words. His words were: “They got pretty bitches there,” referring to the prostitutes that come around.

Now, I am not one to employ the company of a prostitute, but in the very unlikely event I were to ever change my mind on this matter, I am pretty sure it wouldn’t be in Dubai. While the cab driver said the Dubai authorities turn a blind eye to these activities, I wouldn’t think it would be worth the risk that the Sheiks would suddenly have a change of heart. After all, in that part of the world, people get there hands cut off for stealing – I can only imagine what they would cut off for hiring a prostitute.

Indeed, my main goal in Dubai was not to end up in jail. Just weeks before I arrived, a British national was arrested and allegedly beaten to death in a Dubai prison. That was a fate I assiduously sought to avoid. And since I am writing this from the comfort of the USA, I can report it was a mission accomplished.

The next day I visited Ski Dubai, the city’s famed indoor skiing facility. Like everything in Dubai, it was in another mall. Since I don’t ski or snowboard – I was born unfortunately with terrible, terrible knees – I went into what they call the ski park instead. Among the several activities in the ski park, one activity in particular caught my attention immediately. It appeared as if people were being loaded into a giant plastic ball – an abode befitting the bubble boy – and rolled down a hill. This looked like something that I had to try.

Unfortunately, what looks good in theory isn’t always that great in practice. Perhaps it would have been better if I was 10 and under 100 pounds and not 27 and over 170 pounds. I felt sick afterwards, but not too sick to fail to have my picture taken in my nifty ski suit:

So what can one make of Dubai? On one level, I say nice try. You have to give the Emirate credit for trying to diversify its economy in a region best known for producing oil and terrorism.

But Dubai has lots of problems. It should be noted that Dubai depends almost completely on foreigners – only around 20 percent of the population are native while the rest are foreign workers who human rights groups say aren’t treated so-well. The building that has occurred in Dubai and that continues to go on seems completely out of proportion to what is warranted – best exemplified by the world’s tallest and, most crucially, emptiest building. And while driving through Palm Island, the island the country created from reclaimed land and shaped into a palm tree, I couldn’t believe that all the apartment buildings and houses that were constructed or being constructed were occupied, or would be occupied once finished.

Dubai’s other man-made island community — called The World because it consists of many small islands in the shape of various countries – is almost completely uninhabited. In fact, some of the islands are apparently sinking, like these two I saw from above during a sea-plane ride over the city:

Some, like one businessman I encountered on my trip, believe that Dubai is the business destination of the future, the next New York or London. But will that really be the case if people are getting thrown in jail for public displays affection? Or possibly beaten to death in prison? Dubai may be more liberal than many countries in the region, but it is not an open society like we understand in the West. I don’t think this bodes well for it becoming the epicenter of world business.

This is not to say Dubai isn’t worth a visit. It is an intriguing place, a strange combination of Las Vegas, a sterile New York and Disneyland well worth seeing once. You can have a splendid time — just so long as you don’t end up in jail.

Jamie Weinstein