Over the past few years, Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, has emerged as a global financial center known for flashy billionaires, duty free shopping, adventurous architecture (it is soon to be home to the world’s tallest building), and the world’s first “7-star” hotel, the Burj al-Arab. Much like Berlin, Beijing and Miami, it is a city whose skyline is dotted with half-completed buildings and construction cranes. All of this is taking place in the middle of the desert, making Dubai the Middle Eastern equivalent of Las Vegas.
I had scheduled business meetings in Istanbul for the first week of May 2007 followed by a few days in Karachi, so my travel plans took me through Dubai. Time was short, so I opted to stay in the city rather than explore with desert. Dubai is known for its duty free shopping, so I figured I would check out the Mall of the Emirates, billed as the largest shopping “experience” outside of North America. First, a caveat. I feel a bit sheepish admitting that I would travel half way around the world to visit a shopping mall. I had heard, however, that the brand new Mall of the Emirates was much more than just a mall.
I entered the 5-star hotel that sits adjacent to the mall only to come upon a Starbucks. As I walked by the Borders, The Athlete’s Foot, and KFC, I had a moment of déjà vu that made me think I might be at the Fox Run Mall. My bubble was burst as I came upon a mosque and failed to spot an Orange Julius. Then, as I rounded a corner, I saw a sight that convinced me that destiny had brought me to this mall. Just beyond the Papa John’s I spotted children playing in a vast field of snow behind a wall of glass. Alongside the children I saw their fathers, wearing the traditional local dress of a white cloak and headscarf tucked into heavy winter parkas. As I approached, I realized that I had found the much-touted Ski Dubai indoor slope and snow park (www.skidxb.com).
I have been an avid skier ever since learning at King Pine and then taking part in after school trips to Shawnee Peak during junior high. Up until a few years ago, I was also a strident defender of East Coast skiing versus those wimps in the West. Having skied on the West Coast for the last several years, however, I figured I might as well continue my indiscretions by trying out Ski Dubai. After all, it was almost too easy. For about US$40, Ski Dubai offers its customers two hours of skiing. Since it’s usually 85° or hotter in Dubai and no one has ski gear, they throw in skis, boots, poles, snow pants, and a jacket. All I was missing was a hat and some gloves, but I figured that as a tough Mainer, the indoor climate would be balmy compared to Sunday River in February.
As I expected, skiing indoors is a novel experience. First of all, there is no wind. Second, the snow has the consistency of a Mister Misty. Although the Mister Misty has always been one of the McGinnis family’s favorite non-brazier treats at the Diary Queen (only second to the Peanut Buster Parfait), it’s not a great surface for winter sports. Finally, I soon realized that the 5 minute ride on the lift yielded just 4 minutes of actual skiing, and even less if you rock some Bode Miller moves. While all of these factors were disappointing, the true indignity came when I noticed that there was a huge TGI Friday’s overlooking the slopes. It was replete with large windows allowing diners to overlook the slope during dinner. Call me a purist, but when I ski, I prefer mountain vistas over the sight of a British tourist eating an order of Zen Chicken Pot Stickers.
Although I wasn’t a huge fan of skiing in Dubai, I realized that the slopes, much like many of the sights in Dubai, speak to the brash modernity and prosperity of the city. While we often associate the Middle East with unrest, traditional lifestyles, and strong anti-Western feelings, Dubai clearly breaks these stereotypes in many ways. It is a sophisticated city that has chosen to adopt customs and experiences from all over the world, yet its approach to these imports is often sui generis.
On my way out of the mall, I passed through the food court and caught sight of a DQ. I decided to keep on walking. After all, I’d already had enough Mister Misty for one day.