Story and Photos © Kerry Hennigan
As the Emirates flight from Munich banked for its approach to the Dubai International Airport, I wasn’t sure what to expect of the fabled city of skyscrapers and souks on the Persian Gulf. My only previous experience had been a brief airport stopover a fortnight earlier which included aerial views over the city and harbour and the off-shore islands development called The World.
This time I was staying a few days to relax and take in the local sights. I wasn’t interested in the gold sold in the souks overlooking Dubai Creek. Nor was I impatient to ride to the top of the (currently) tallest skyscraper on the planet.
I was after gold of a different sort – ‘Michaeling’ gold. Michael Jackson visited Dubai more than once during his self-exile in the Middle East in the second half of 2005. He dined at the Burj Al Arab (pictured above), hired Wild Wadi water park in its entirety for a day, toured the Palm Jumeirah (home of the Atlantis Resort) as well as The World development, and refreshed his signature on a piece of his own memorabilia at the Hard Rock Café.
He also visited the Ibn Battuta Mall where he was spotted wearing an abaya along with a traditional woman’s headscarf, and reputedly ducked into a ladies’ rest room to (according to the local papers) fix his make-up. The story goes that a woman who realised there was a man under the veil raised the alarm, causing Michael to retreat into the nearby McGrudy’s book store.
Michael’s publicist issued a statement that, having realised his mistake in entering the women’s rest room, he quickly left and waited in the bookstore until police arrived to escort him through the crowd that had gathered.
Michael’s host, the Emirates champion rally driver Mohammed bin Sulayem, dismissed the newspaper embellishments as rumor.
“People are always interested in gossip and in portraying a negative image of (Jackson),” bin Sulayem told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “The reality is that he’s an easy person to be with, not demanding and not difficult.”
On another occasion he was spotted visiting shops with his entourage and went to see a movie at the mall cinema.
An evening visit to Ibn Battuta Mall was the first thing I did on venturing out of my hotel in the Tecom precinct of the city. After the fresh spring air of Germany, the heat and humidity of Dubai hit me like a tonne of bricks. The weather was already hot in the Emirates, but it can get a whole lot hotter, I was assured by numerous taxi drivers throughout my stay.
During the day the heat was dry and dehydrating – not unlike my own home town in summer. But first thing in the morning and again in the evening, things became steamy in Dubai, and I always had to clean the lens of my camera before I could use it.
The air conditioned splendour of Ibn Battuta Mall was an instant relief (although, of course, all the taxis and hotel courtesy cars were air-conditioned). But there’s always those moments of crossing from the car to the entrance, or walking back to the taxi rank, or actually wanting to explore the mall’s architecture and landscaping from the outside, when you are exposed to the heat. You invariably want to quickly retreat inside again.
Ibn Battuta Mall is a bit like a theme park with brand name boutiques instead of rides. The different wings are lavishly decorated in the style of the different countries visited by fabled Medieval explorer Ibn Battuta of Morocco – who can probably be called the father of travel writing. You can read about him on Wikipedia. Throughout the mall there are displays of discoveries and inventions that originated from the Arabic-speaking world, some of which are bound to surprise the western visitor. But you only notice them if you can tear your eyes away from the surrounding décor – in particular in the Persian wing, where you can dine under a stunning dome of blue faience tiles while enjoying a Starbucks frappe.
Sadly, McGrudy’s is no longer in the mall, so I consoled myself with a visit to Borders, an old favourite, and browsed the shelves until it was time to eat. The most heavily stocked author was George R. R. Martin – not much different from home, really! Ibn Battuta Mall has a food court much like that in any other shopping mall, but I like to sit in comfort in an actual café or restaurant out of the way of families with kids and shopping carts balancing trays of food as they wind their way around tables looking for a place to sit. So, it was back off to the Chinese-themed wing for something that didn’t come from a fast food stall. (I was still on holiday, after all!)
While at the Mall I booked a pass for one of the double decker hop-on, hop-off bus tours that run between the major sites. It seemed the most economical way to take in everything in a relatively short space of time. And, of course, I would ‘hop off’ when I got to a place with a connection to Michael or otherwise of interest to me as a history and culture buff.
This resulted in a tour of the new ‘down town’ financial district which boasts the towering Burj Khalifa skyscraper (above,top), visits to the local museum (above) and a cultural village – the latter which seemed to be slumbering in the noonday heat except for a resident cat – and Jumeirah beach with the iconic Burj Al Arab, looking like a yacht with its spinnaker sail set to take her out into the Gulf.
Next door to the security gate into the Burj is Wild Wadi Water Park (below). It’s great to see the well heeled guests of the Burj and their kids mingling with budget travellers and locals and everyone in between at this fun place. Michael apparently walked about in a white lycra body suit when he hired the entire park and made it available free to families.
Unfortunately when it came to exploring the Burj, I couldn’t get past the front gate! Not surprising really – this is the world’s most luxurious hotel. If you want in you have to be able to afford the rates, the cost of a private tour, or at least a booking for their famous afternoon teas. Some other time, I’d like to do that.
Nevertheless, little MJ got his photo opportunity with the famous Burj, and I had to be content with that.
The Jumeirah residential area looks like it would be a very nice place to live – if you could afford it, and assuming you can handle the heat of the region. But the old town with its shop houses, narrow alleys and stalls is the traditional face of Dubai. It reminded me of an Arabic version of the back streets of Singapore or Penang. In all these cases, the somewhat ramshackle appearance belies the amount of trade that goes on behind the facade – and the amount of money that must change hands inside.
In Dubai this is where the gold souks do their trade; nearby is the creek with its lines of moored dhows – which all look to lack the masts of the traditional Arab sailing craft. Having been closely involved with the timber square rigged sailing ship ‘One and All’ back home for several years, I wasn’t much impressed by the sail-less dhows or the prospect of taking a cruise on one.
Another place I did explore was the Wafi Mall (above), famous for its pyramid restaurants. The Egyptian theme of the complex was the main attraction, and the pay-off was finding a replica of King Tut’s throne which was virtually identical to the one from MJ’s “Remember the Time” video. As with that one, which we’d seen in person at the MJ FanFest in Vegas in December 2011, little MJ had to have his photo taken sitting (i.e. standing) on it.
Dubai has lots of up-market shopping malls, and more are coming, with plans to extend the creek and build the world’s largest mall on an island in the middle of it. Tourism is Dubai’s big money-earner, and they are not letting the grass grow under their feet. In a city where the local train network runs between modern elevated stations that look like they belong to a futuristic Disney monorail network (which they’re not) the hop on hop off double-decker tour buses are probably the slowest way to get around. I found myself spending too much time waiting in too little shade at bus stops for my liking.
When you travel and have limited time in a place, it’s important to use that time judiciously. The train wasn’t handy to my hotel, it was too hot to walk to the station, and if I was going to have to get a taxi to take me there, I may as well let the taxi take me directly to my actual destination and have done with it. Time saved is money well spent, and the taxis were reasonable (compared, for example, to the price of a couple of cans of Diet Coke from the hotel café!)
Once over at the Hard Rock Café, I was on familiar territory. I walked in and immediately felt at home. The staff told me of the two occasions Michael had dined at HRC Dubai in 2005 during his time in the Gulf region. The Café was then located on Sheikh Zayed Road by Media City. Now it was in the Festival City development. “But the memories are still here” the manageress told me. She had held the door open for Michael when he arrived the first time around. It was something she still considers an unbelievable experience. His humble, polite manner to her and all the staff left a memorable impression on everyone.
There are some MJ memorabilia at the HRC Dubai, from early in his adult career. It’s the black and white jacket he wore in one of the Pepsi commercials from the mid-80s, a pair of shoes, and a fedora. Michael recognised them as his, and even re-autographed the hat.
On one visit he ate the Buffalo Wings, so I had a small serve of the same. Yes, spicy, as we know he liked his food, but delicious. On his other visit to the HRC he had a Cajun Chicken club sandwich, which he cut in two, eating only half of it. Sadly, it’s no longer on the menu, so I couldn’t try it, but I do believe I’ve had this somewhere else in the world at another HRC! Cajun chicken is, coincidentally, one of my favourites.
The staff were so much fun here, not only because of the memories and stories they shared of Michael’s visits, but because they were a multi-cultural group and knew how to make a customer feel at home. They were certainly all up for a group photo with little MJ.
The next day was to be my last in the city, and my destination was visible from the balcony of my hotel room and at night was lit up like a beacon on the edge of the Gulf. This was Atlantis, the popular resort at the top of the Jumeirah Palm development that juts out from the coast into the azure waters of the Gulf. The drive along the ‘trunk’ of the Palm passes one luxury hotel or apartment complex after another, until finally you come to Atlantis.
Atlantis has its own water park, shopping arcade (of course) and other attractions which are open to the public. When I walked in to the towering grotto-like lobby (above), it was full of family groups waiting to check in. It’s a busy place. There are parts that are accessible to guests only, but most that is worth exploring is open to casual visitors. The water park is accessible to non-guests who pay admission. I don’t swim, so it was of no interest to me, but I certainly intended to use the free pass I had for the Lost Chamber attraction.
The Lost Chamber is a cave-like aquarium maze (below) designed to be a window onto a lost alien civilisation (of course!). With the subdued lighting and the rippling reflections cast by the waters of the giant aquarium tanks, it really was like another world. There were mats and cushions on the floor so you could sit and take in the mesmerizing view of sharks and rays and other sea life gliding and swirling dreamlike through your field of vision.
An even bigger treat was in store, however, at the Legends of Atlantis gift gallery. Here I unexpectedly encountered a one-of-a-kind brother for little MJ, a combination doll-statue of Michael Jackson a little larger than my doll. I lifted him down carefully from the shelf, carried him to the counter tucked against my chest, and announced to the assistant that I would not be leaving the shop without him! She was a fan, and we became instant friends. I’m sure she was also pleased to make such a big sale – for ‘Atlantis MJ’ did not come cheaply.
So there I was, on my last day in Dubai, finally buying some local gold – MJ gold, that is. I flew out that night with him carefully packed in my carry-on, content that I’d experienced the best Dubai could offer me given the short duration of my stay.
Next time, I promised myself, it would be a different time of year, the weather would be cooler, and I would venture out into the desert and nearby historic outposts to steep myself in their history.
But for now, I was more than happy.
Posted 24 September 2016
Sources for MJ in Dubai:
Photo of Michael Jackson in Dubai, 2005 (above) Associated Press
Various reports of Michael’s visits and activities in Dubai:
Information on the medieval traveller, Ibn Battuta: