Dubai vs. China: A Study in Contrasts

Hello friends!  It has been a few days since the last post, but I have been trying to get home and what a feat that has been.  13 airports in 21 days means more physical groping that I am used to, and far too much of it done by burly women without soft hands (TSA, can we do something about this?).  However, the long and numerous flights gave me the opportunity to reflect on my travels and what most stuck in my mind was the dramatic contrast in just about everything between Dubai, business hub of the United Arab Emirates and China, business hub for the rest of the world.

So, first a few essentials you should know about Dubai.  Although thoroughly covered in numerous posts last week, all you really need to know is that the city is like Disneyland, everything is perfect and to the nth degree. The most luxurious cars, the largest and most opulent shopping centers (Gucci is a brand purchased by the middle class; true money prefers Hermes), and more importantly, it is a city that went from Arabian desert to an expatriate’s dream (limitless opportunity and no taxes. None.) in about twelve years. It’s the living proof that “build it and they will come” is not only a line from a great movie. Just how much did Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (crown prince of Dubai and chief planner of the city) accomplish in just over a decade? Here’s the aerial view from the top of Burj Khalifa located in downtown Dubai (it’s also the world’s tallest building):

The Burj Khalifa itself is a masterpiece to behold:

It’s so tall, the whole thing doesn’t fit in the viewfinder of a professional camera!  And yes, this building was built in less than five years.  Here in NYC, the 2nd avenue subway line has taken over what, like four decades and it still isn’t complete. However, what vision and money bring together, let no inept politician put asunder. The real surprise is that with all the opulence, grandeur and polished veneer, Dubai was basically bankrupt in 2008. Locals told me that the economic crisis was so bad that dozens of  abandoned Lamborghinis at the airport was a common occurrence as foreigners fled and left what they couldn’t afford, but bought for appearance sake years before.

However, Dubai is not a city to take the hits lying down.  Rather it took a page from American bankers and called  on its sister state, Abu Dhabi (the richest of the United Emirate States, also the largest crude oil exporter), for a big bailout and voila! Back in business. Well sort of. One can’t help but wonder if Dubai is the new Wizard of Oz,  where everything looks like emeralds, but really, it’s just the machination of some guy working like crazy behind a curtain to make it seem that way. Moreover, if one doesn’t know it isn’t real, does it really matter? Dorothy was happy as a clam until she realized Oz wasn’t what it seemed.

For myself, even after a week in Dubai, I still don’t know how much is real and how much is a wonderfully manufactured oasis.  I can say I loved the city,  its people (who are ALWAYS happy and kind),  and the open offer to citizens from all over the world who have an entrepreneurial spirit to join in the building of a new global economy.

Now, China. There is no disputing that after the United States, China has the largest economy in the world. It is worth disputing when, if ever, China will become the global superpower. The country has lots of money (helped by the communist government keeping the value of its currency artificially low, thereby making exporting more attractive and generating revenue), its people work hard (six days a week, 11 hour days Monday to Friday and 8 hours on Saturday) and the frills of life just aren’t there.  (This of course is with the exception of Shanghai, Beijing and to some extent Hong Kong, its commerce and political headquarters). Yet, with all the money China has amassed, and subsequently spent on buying American debt, the country still cannot afford a normal toilet or plumbing:

Saraliously, whose idea is it to put treads on the side of the bowl to indicate where to place your feet?  Hello, it’s a hole in the ground!  It is sort of instinct to squat like you learned to do when you were a kid and the urge hit you while in the middle of the woods.  Frankly, its impossible to do, so this particular toilet, in the Beijing airport none the less, went unused by moi. Also, what is with the garbage pail to throw used toilet paper in? Even Mexico is beyond this. No wonder why the entire airport smells like a dirty bathroom.

Never been to China?  Chances are if you did, this is what you would find:

No frills here kids, just utility. Sometimes you feel like China’s unspoken motto is, “who cares what it looks like, as long as money can be made inside”.   It appears to be working.

However, the Chinese do have a good sense of humor:

At a local high-end Chinese restaurant, many guests removed their shoes prior to eating. Roughly translated, this sign says “Don’t wear brand name shoes. If someone steals them, we aren’t responsible.” God bless the Chinese! Please take off your shoes to eat, but make sure you wear your worst pair.  Exactly the opposite of what would happen in Dubai.  There ladies there would shuffle in wearing their Chrisitans, Manolos and Jimmys only to toss them into a huge pile without giving a second thought to if they would be there when they were ready to leave (anyone else remembering the Sex and the City episode where Carrie had her shoes stolen while at her friends party?). Honestly, you just cannot make this stuff up.

Alas, the moral of the story (isn’t there always one): appearances may only run skin deep. One cannot really project the true wealth of an individual, or country for that matter, based on how it appears. After all, who would give more than two pennies for Mr. Microsoft Gates?  What I can tell you is that if you are looking to enjoy downtime, why not do it in a city that makes you feel like Cinderella at 11:59pm?  Midnight is bound to come, but the magic before is totally worth it!  Final words: Visit Dubai.  Make money with the Chinese.

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