The latest amazing new building to join Dubai’s fabled cityscape isn’t a mega-tower or super-skyscraper. It’s a graceful, curved, low-rise structure with a hole in the middle.
With its pale steel panels covered in Arabic script, it looks like a traditional bangle that might adorn the arm of a princess in The Arabian Nights — although more prosaic souls have likened it to a big Hula Hoop.
This is The Museum of the Future, a display dedicated to the cities and technologies of tomorrow. It was due to open in 2020 — but hasn’t.
The symbolism is irresistible: in Dubai, the future has been postponed.
I somehow doubt that name will survive: 2020 isn’t a year anyone here — a city where tourism, aviation and shipping are all vital industries — will much care to remember.
Dubai’s famous Burj al Arab hotel. This was to be a big year for the city and the wider UAE. Expo 2020, a mega trade fair with exhibitors from 190 nations was due to bring 25million people to the city. It will now take place in October 2021
Two guests try out the AquaTrek Xtreme experience inside the Ambassador Lagoon at The Royal Atlantis hotel in Dubai
As I lower myself down an artfully rusted ladder, a big diver’s helmet is placed over my head and attached to a strap on my back.
Minutes later, I am walking along the bottom of an aquarium, trying not to trip over basking sharks or get side-swiped by manta rays.
Welcome to new AquaTrek Xtreme inside the Ambassador Lagoon at The Royal Atlantis hotel. This is an indelible experience in which you brush fins with some of the 65,000 marine creatures who call it home.
As I wave at the tourists taking pictures on the dry side of the glass, I feel like an extra in the film Finding Nemo.
But, for British travellers at least, the play button has been tentatively pressed after Dubai joined Transport Secretary Grant Shapps’ pool of travel bubbles.
You’ll need two things: an approved Covid test and a travel insurance policy that covers you should you fall ill with the virus. The alternative is to take your chances with a test on arrival at Dubai airport.
As a positive result leads to two weeks in a government hotel, I would take the test in the UK. That’s a serious upfront expense with the extortionate rates being charged by private clinics. But with package and flight prices at historic lows, you will still have a cheaper Dubai experience than at normal times.
The authorities here keep close electronic tabs on you at the best of times. So when residents were allotted two-hour slots for shopping, phones and vehicle licence plates were monitored and large fines issued.
Now, the city feels almost normal, though you still have to wear a face covering everywhere. I forget to put mine on in a taxi and the driver stops the car. The taxis are fitted with cameras to prosecute both drivers and passengers if you break the rule.
Sitting outside the Jetty Lounge in the One&Only Royal Mirage, Olivier Louis and I remove our masks as the champagne arrives. Olivier, the managing director of this resort and its sister property across the water on the Palm, offers two toasts: to the return of his British clients — and to the end of 2020.
Mark says that Dubai has had two decades of negotiating a precarious path between conservative Muslim values and the needs of a high-spending, high-octane tourist and expat crowd
For a taste of the Empty Quarter, head for the vast desert land that stretches south, deep into Oman and Saudi Arabia.
I can’t help thinking of Wilfred Thesiger, the British explorer who made an epic crossing of the Empty Quarter in the 1940s.
He would doubtless be rather depressed at the idea that you can set out at sunrise in air-conditioned comfort, have a quick camel ride, see a Bedouin falconry display, take a selfie standing on the sand dunes — and still be back in plenty of time for lunch.
Hotel executives always talk up their occupancy rates but Olivier seems as bubbly as his Moet at the prospects for his business after a tough year.
One regular guest is already here on a booking of several weeks — the actor John Cleese. Another is cricketer Sir Geoffrey Boycott. I’d always associated Dubai with footballers and Love Islanders — but it seems our national treasures have a fondness for the place, too.
I tell Olivier that with Basil Fawlty around and England’s most blunt-speaking sportsman making an annual visit, his service had better be on top form.
And if you want Love Island, you can find it at the One&Only Royal Mirage’s Drift Beach Club. On my last day I have lunch there — but don’t feel I have the physique, the tattoos or the love of thumping house music to linger. I head gratefully back to my quiet garden room overlooking the Palm.
This is an historic hotel in the heart of ancient Dubai. The One&Only Royal Mirage opened 21 years ago this year — and in Dubai terms, that definitely qualifies as ancient.
Olivier smiles when he recalls his difficulties at the beginning — persuading guests to stay in a resort 13 miles from the centre of town. Now it is in the middle of one of Dubai’s many centres.
Another is on the way: a huge new development over at Dubai Creek with, inevitably, a new candidate for the world’s tallest building. Dubai’s Burj Khalifa still clings on to that honour. At 8pm, this is where Dubai feels most normal. Groups of people — rather than crowds — gather to see the fountain show, then drift into the Dubai Mall to gawp at watches, jewels, party dresses and the denizens of the in-mall aquarium.