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A digital illustration of a floor-to-ceiling aquarium, with scuba divers and statues all in blue underwater. The silhouette of the author is in the foreground, staring into the water

The Sunday EssayApril 16, 2023

The Sunday Essay: A utopian dystopia 

A digital illustration of a floor-to-ceiling aquarium, with scuba divers and statues all in blue underwater. The silhouette of the author is in the foreground, staring into the water

Five strange days in Dubai, the world capital of crass consumerism and empty excess.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Illustrations by Link Choi

Day 1

I wonder if the stingrays behind me have an opinion on which handbag I should buy.

Mum and I are at the Guess store in the Dubai Mall, where I’m letting her pick out her own birthday present. From the sale section. We’re making the most of our five day stopover in Dubai, en route to India to visit family. This holiday marks the first time in four years that I’ve left the quiet of Aotearoa, and all of my senses are overstimulated.

I spend forever rifling through totes and crossbodies but all that catches my eye are the tails of the stingrays, whipping around to create bubbles in unnaturally blue water.

Only the tycoons of Dubai would see it fit to install a 10 million litre aquarium across three floors of a mall.

The cursed fishbowl displays 140 different species and holds one of the largest collections of sand tiger sharks in the world. They must feel right at home, nestled between H&M and The Cheesecake Factory. Back home, in the summer, you could spot rays gliding around the waterfront, soaking up the sunshine before returning to deeper waters. To catch a glimpse of a ray was a gift from nature. Here, it is a given.

While shoppers pause to watch the fish, I pause to watch them.

The customers streaming in and out of luxury designer stores look like faeries or monsters or gods. Head to toe in Gucci or Louis Vuitton ensembles tailored to perfection, they drip opulence and excess. Children get pushed around in prams with iPads in their hands and Balenciagas on their tootsies. Logomania reigns supreme.

If these shoppers were Sims, the green diamond floating above their heads would be replaced by a net worth. I can imagine their shock if I told them that David Jones, the only luxury department store in Wellington, shut down from a lack of business.

An illustration of blue flowers on a white background

I thought I liked my outfit when I got dressed this morning. An oversized pink tier dress from Mirrou hangs from my shoulders, topped with a khaki hand-me-down jacket from my dad. I’m in my “I love clothes that shroud my figure in ambiguity” era.

Now, I wish my cheap dress would swallow me whole. Turn inside out and envelope me into a parachute of pink viscose until I float back to where I came from.

Day 2 

At breakfast, gazing out the hotel window, the Museum of the Future sits directly in my line of sight. Shaped like an eye, it gazes back. Investigating its offerings is how I spend my second day on holiday.

The museum sits inside a mesmerising circular building, hollow in the centre, futuristic on all accounts. It explores Dubai’s vision of a sustainable and innovative future.

Expecting a Te Papa-esque experience, I’m confused by the lack of fossils and relics. There isn’t a taxidermied animal in sight. A nearby guide explains that I won’t find any historical items here. “Why look backwards, when you can look forwards?” he asks me.

I realise that this isn’t a museum in the traditional sense – it’s a spectacle. State-of-the-art technology shows me how the Amazon can be saved and fire-resistant trees can be engineered. Interactive exhibits urge visitors to care about climate change without ever explaining how we can make a difference. Like everything else in Dubai, this place is breathtakingly beautiful and removed from reality.

While the museum charges visitors an entrance fee to indulge in its environmental solutions, I can’t spot a single plaque that says it is committed to executing them. If I didn’t know what greenwashing was, I would’ve happily been schmoozed by the empty promises.

Dubai is what you would get if the richest people on Earth colonised Mars and built a civilisation in their image. An endless desert decorated with skyscrapers and entangled highways. A fantastical utopian dystopia where hotels are plentiful but greenery is not, where drinking water always costs money and recycling bins seem non-existent.

I had high hopes for what the future may bring. Climate justice, free health care, the bridging of the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Then I saw the future, and I hated it.

Day 3 

I’m in the Louvre. No, not the one in Paris. The one in Abu Dhabi.

Mum and I make a spontaneous day trip here to see family friends and I drag us all to an actual museum. As a student of history and a lover of culture, I finally have a chance to lose myself in rooms where everything is beautiful and nothing is for sale.

An illustration of greens and blues in the background with the white silhouettes of pillars in a row

The only thing standing between me and the most intriguing artefact in the exhibit is a woman in stilettos conducting an Instagram photoshoot.

She poses directly in front of the exhibit, obstructing it from view. A designer handbag tucked into her elbow, she feigns nonchalance. Her friend photographs her from every imaginable angle. They leave without deigning to read the label. I reassure myself it must be because they’ve been here before.

Beside the exhibit/photoshoot backdrop is a collection of nude Roman statues. There is not a genital in sight. Erased for modesty, I deduce.

I make eye contact with the marble Ken doll closest to me. “Your phallus may have fallen off while you were being shipped here,” I telepathically console him. The nipple-less female nude bust next to him remains unconvinced.

In the evening, we set out for the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the largest mosque in the UAE. A place of worship is sure to grant me the serenity I desperately seek. I approach the entrance, the doors open, and I am greeted with the glowing light of … a Starbucks. Shoppers walk past me with several bags in each hand. I rub my eyes in disbelief.

There is a mall inside the mosque.

The author at the Gold Souk, left, and censored statues at a Dubai museum (Photos: Supplied)

Day 4 

The Gold Souk is a traditional street market that sells jewellery, chainmail, tiaras, and even sunglasses – all made of solid gold. The further down the market we walk, the further my jaw drops. Mum laughs as I point to a mannequin wearing sturdy gold armour and asks if I want a picture with it.

Nearly 400 traders have stalls in this souk, bringing in luxury wares from all over the world. Dubai is home to expats from over 200 countries, speaking dozens of languages. And I feel like I’ve been called “poor” in every single one of them.

Day 5 

I am standing at the base of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, and stretching my neck back as far as it will go. I haven’t bothered getting a ticket up to the top floor to admire the city’s view. I’ve seen enough.

Day 6

While adjusting my luggage in the taxi, I spot a billboard proudly advertising that SeaWorld is set to open its newest park in Abu Dhabi. It will display over 150 different species – 10 more than in the measly puddle inside the Dubai Mall.

I am reminded of the scene from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone where Dudley’s parents scramble to buy their petulant child more presents for his current birthday than they did his last. Did the Durselys know they had created an insatiable monster, caught up in a pissing contest with itself?

I silently scream into my inflatable neck pillow all the way to the airport.

Keep going!