It's hot and ugly – and I don't mean the gorilla

Dubai feels like a place where every architect has off-loaded their ludicrous pet project
  • @domjoly

I'm in Dubai. I didn't think I'd write those words, as the place has never appealed. It seemed to me to be some enormous Bluewater shopping centre in the desert. The problem is, I loathe Bluewater but love the desert.

I'm here working so it gives me the opportunity to judge for myself, and a curious place it most certainly is. The plane out seemed to have been chartered by the entire cast of Towie and I'm pretty sure that I was the only person on board without a tattoo. The drive into town was phenomenally ugly – on a par with Pyongyang – endless clusters of glass towers surrounded by building sites and dusty car parks. Sat-navs are useless here as construction moves at such a pace that roads disappear and appear overnight. It feels like a place where every architect has off-loaded his or her ludicrous pet project that they never believed anybody would ever commission.

Impressive architecture is reserved for showy buildings like the vast malls or Burj Khalifa (temporarily the world's tallest building) and the self-appointed seven-star hotel: the Burj Al Arab. There is a rumour that when seen from the sea, the Burj Al Arab forms an enormous crucifix on part of the structure, either a mistake or a parting shot from crusader architects.

They wanted to build a Versace Hotel here, like the one on the Gold Coast in Australia (the most tasteless I'd been to), but the recession hit and plans for air-conditioned sand on the beach were scrapped. And yet… my kids would love it. There are some wonderful hotels, top-class restaurants and bars, and endless shopping. Earlier, I went indoor skiing before declining an offer to be photographed with some depressed looking penguins employed to amuse the skiiers. Then I crossed the "Creek" on an old wooden abra for one dirham, seated next to an assortment of Dubai's invisible underclass. The cool breeze and sudden sense of relaxed disorganisation was wonderful.

Wandering back I passed bored-looking ex-pats padding about the luxurious marble halls wondering whether the lack of soul was a price worth paying for being a tax exile in a gilded oven. At breakfast, western tourists in mere inches of clothing perused the endless buffet next to Emiratis fully covered save for the heavily mascara'd eyes that they used to select mountainous portions of breakfast mezze.

Just over 16 per cent of the population is Emirati. The Emiratis are citizens, the remaining 83 and a bit per cent have few rights in a country that is described as "safe". There is no question that the "can do" culture so shouted about is a fact. Just look at a photograph of the city 20 years ago to see the phenomenal building that has taken place to turn Dubai into a "global hub". The problem is that money can build palaces but can't deliver soul. You drive from air-conditioned venue to air-conditioned venue as if travelling between glass oases. Tomorrow I'm filming a fake gorilla in temperatures of 40C. How I miss the rain.