While I was away, Jan Morris, the celebrated travel writer, said that she felt Britain had become a nasty, materialistically driven, country, where politicians are venal, the police are corrupt and where money is king. She should try going to Dubai. I have just returned after a trip to this economic powerhouse of the Emirates, and I have to say that, whatever Ms Morris may feel about her homeland, Britain has a long way to go before we can even approach Dubai's mean level of raw, red-blooded capitalism.
There is no mistaking where Dubai's priorities lie, and they don't feel abashed about it, either. In his book outlining a vision for his people, the ruling monarch, Sheikh Mohammed, talks largely about building a country which becomes a genuine economic force in the world. There is not so much about creating the instruments of an open, free society. It is, to the British visitor, a rather baffling place, inspiring awe with its grand ambition, and yet leaving one enervated by its superficiality, and the overweening quest for money and status.
The cityscape is spectacular, like Manhattan on steroids, or a version of Gotham created by someone who grew up playing Sim City. On the seven-lane freeway heading into downtown, through a canyon formed from skyscrapers, you can imagine yourself in a remake of Blade Runner. But, most of all, you wonder what goes on 75 floors above ground. The answer, more often than not, is the pursuit of money.
Daily life is hardly replete with cultural references. Billboards are there for the hard sell. I was particularly struck by a poster that is emblazoned on the side of several extremely tall buildings in Dubai. It depicts a man in a suit with a rather desperate “trust me” expression. He is called Mr Kalyan and he pledges that “the history of jewellery retail in UAE will be rewritten”. Blimey. A bold claim, I thought. Dubai itself doesn't have much of a history. I can imagine, however, that jewellery retail has played a significant part in it.
Every one of the world's major brands has a presence in Dubai's cavernous malls. (Is it true, by the way, that the heating, lighting and music in malls all over the world is calculated to engender depression, leaving shoppers to believe the only way to cheer themselves up is to buy stuff? Surely not.) Many of London's top dining venues have a presence in Dubai, and virtually every restaurant chain has an outlet there. Very few pay respect to local tastes and culture, importing their own versions of Western gastronomy. I was particularly interested to see a branch of TGI Fridays. Surely, if they wanted to ingratiate themselves with the indigenous clientele, it should be called Thank Allah It's Thursday. (The weekend begins on Friday.)
It is all too easy to look down on Dubai's obsession with money, the chrome Bentleys and the bling and the billionaires. Jan Morris believes that modern Britain is heading down the same track. It depresses her greatly. “I used to feel so proud,” she said. “The public seem to think only of spending money.” She should visit somewhere where that really is the case.