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It was a flying visit to Dubai for a two-day conference and an opportunity to revisit the city I’d lived in from September 2008 to September 2020. It’s not always a good idea to revisit overly familiar places from one’s past where every road and building has a memory of being travelled or seen. One either gravitates to those places that have fond memories, or make a point of avoiding those that don’t. I didn’t expect to be given a hotel room from which I had a view of the hotel I spent my final three (lockdown) months in Dubai during my delayed relocation to China, and also of the apartment I lived in for the seven years before that. I learned that my gravitation/avoidance theory of places past wasn’t a good way of describing the world as my former apartment was just an anonymous bit of curtain wall and I was happy to be where I was.

My other theory about revisiting places from one’s past had to do with change. After any period of time, things are going to have either changed or they won’t have. It was already dark when I boarded the Metro from the airport but even from the train I still noted that such and such a building with the hugely cantilevered skybridge held between two towers like a cigarette between two fingers had been completed, etc.

From my apartment across Sheikh Zayed Road, I’d watched the construction of the hotel I was now staying in but also that of UN Studio’s Wasl Tower and had been looking forward in some guilty pleasure way of seeing it completed with some inevitable light show spiralling up and around its curvy sides. After all, three years had passed. It was not to be. Cladding had just begun when I left and hadn’t progressed much between 2020 [left, below] and last Sunday [right].

Construction workers are still being bussed in at 6:30am and the crane was still present and moving. [The presence of a crane used to indicate that a project hadn’t been cancelled.] At this rate though, construction could be spun out for a decade or so until some financial calculus returns the right answer.

Buildings don’t catch Covid but their financing does, and that financial calculus had obviously been upset by the pandemic stress-testing the economy. With the 2008 financial crisis, some building projects were cancelled outright if they were not yet onsite. Others had their completion delayed by up to a decade and still others were abandoned mid-construction. [c.f. The Aftermath, The Uncompleted] The pre-opening publicity for building projects may appear much the same but the financing is invisible and so it’s impossible to predict which way a project will go when the market collapses. Once-prestige projects such as Dubai Pearl have suffered the indignity of being deconstructed.

Now alerted to this, I noticed that Meera’s Central Park development is cautiously proceeding with off-plan sales one-building at a time.

This is wise because mid-2020 its future was not looking good.

The future of another residential development along Dubai Water Canal is less clear. Cranes are still in place but this situation could last for years were it not for the fact that the land and project may revert to the government if left unfinished for too long. This new message to developers seems to be “Don’t start a project you can’t finish”. When making one kilogram of concrete creates one kilogram of carbon emissions, it’s upsetting to see buildings come and go while others with uncertain futures remain in various stages of incompletion.

Apart from Wasl Tower, there were few other surprises In the corner of town I was most familiar with. Given three years and a bit of water, plants had grown, as is their nature. I learned you can make delicious tea from three bougainvillea flowers steeped in hot water, but I’ve yet to try it.

About 2017 or so, people had given up trying to keep the letters of the famous Toyota neon sign along Sheikh Zayed Road lit and alternately flashing TOYOA in Arabic and English and so the signi was taken down. There must have been some sort of outcry over this piece of history being removed and so there’s now a static, un-illuminated sign in its place as a memory of what once was. I’ve witnessed what a nightmare to maintain neon in hot and humid climates but they did manage it in Hong Kong for many years. I couldn’t help feeling that even one of the new pseudo-neon LED reproduction would have been better. Over time, people will forget, but this lifeless sign will never engender the fondness its predecessor did.

Speaking of Hong Kong, Dubai Mall now has a Chinatown complete with much pseudo-neon LED signage. Questions of authenticity hardly matter. Inasmuch as there’s a Heidilao hotpot restaurant and a Xiaomi store it’s as authentic as the real thing.

Thinking about China in general, I noticed over breakfast how strange it was to now be in a country mostly populated by people not from there. This is neither good nor bad – it’s just different. It is strange though that I’d never paid much attention to this before. But after breakfast when I set out to meet the people I was there to meet, I noticed my payments and communications were now adapted to Chinese systems and no longer working let alone in sync. I’m used to things like this but it was a reminder I was now a tourist, a fact further confirmed by me turning up at the university I was supposed to go to and the building being vacant. I found out it had relocated two years earlier to a nearby shopping mall to two buildings, one of which had formerly been a department store if I remember correctly, and the other a gaming plaza. It seemed to work. Maybe even appropriate.

The hotel I stayed in was one of a popular budget chain and the familiar use of colour and graphics reminded me of popular budget chains in Europe. I didn’t see any plaques indicating a number of stars and this itself was a change. In older parts of town, even two-star hotels had felt the need to tell everyone.

The use of many colors to indicate a lightness of heart had begun to creep into the built environment. This too was new.

In the end, none of this mattered. The things I remember most were bumping into not one but two students I’d previously taught, and within one minute of each other. These two happy moments probably lasted less than two minutes in total. From Metro windows, I also thought I’d recognized three more former students walking along platforms. I also remember chats over coffee and breakfast with a long-time friend who was briefly in town, even though I was defeated by the German Bee Sting cake (so named because the caramelized almond topping is as irresistable to bees as it is to us). And not to forget Aleksr who gave me the best haircut, and Rashad and Alireza and the other new friends I made over the two days of the conference. Irrespective of what the built environment was doing, these are the things that made my stay, and the things I took away with me.

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