Grow old and be happy

I spent the last week in Dubai and Abu Dhabi feeling quite old. I’m only 25 and only marginally attentive to how I look, but I felt rather out-of-date as I strolled through the trendy hotels and bars. This feeling isn’t necessarily new but there was something about being in the UAE that amplified it.

A look around the economic landscape of Dubai, however, quickly pinpoints the causes of my concern. Conspicuous consumption and planned obsolescence are in a heightened state of development in Dubai. This shows no more clearly than in the hotels that fill the skyline.

First, there’s Jumeirah Beach Hotel, a 597 room, five star resort that opened in 1997. With 20 amazing restaurants and bars, and with every room boasting an ocean view, it was at it’s opening, the world’s premiere tourist destination and the 9th tallest building in Dubai.

Then, a year later, construction on the Burj Al Arab hotel began on an artificial island just off the coast. This $650 million structure is the world’s second tallest hotel, and with Michelin star restaurants, quickly became the new place stay in Dubai. Jumierah Beach Hotel, by the time the Burj was completed, ranked only in the top 100 tallest buildings in Dubai, and is now seen only as a good location to view the impressive Burj building.

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In response, the Jumierah hotel chain expanded to become the largest resort in Dubai, adding an impressive mini city designed like old Arabia complete with a souk, hundreds of shops and restaurants. Guests can move between the summer houses, lobbies, shops, restaurants, and bars set across the 40 hectares of gardens via gondola. For a (short) while, the romance of this ‘authentic’ experience made it the ‘place to be’.

Enter Atlantis. Following the artificial island theme, Nahkeel has been developing a series of (the world’s largest) artificial islands shaped like palms since 2001 (the self-proclaimed 8th wonder of the world). The first hotel on the complex, Atlantis opened in September 2008. The resort boasts 20,000 square feet of retail space, a 160,000 square meter conference center, dozens of restaurants and bars including Nobu, and one of the world’s largest water parks. But the real attraction is it’s massive aquarium which houses a huge whale shark (see claims of its abduction), lining the walls of the resort attractions. Its fifteen-minute official launch included roughly seven times the amount of fireworks used for the Beijing Olympics and cost around $16 million. The Jumierah chain now looks petty in comparison.

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Atlantis is expanding to include two more adjacent hotels but there is much evidence that it will quickly become obsolete. The palm that it is built on is set to house 23 more equally impressive hotels. Even more astonishingly, the Palm is just one of the 3 much larger complexes of artificial islands being built by Nahkeel. And in case artificial islands go out of fashion, huge new developments like Dubai-land are in the works.

The effective life of hotels in Dubai is indeed very very short. If hotels had feelings they would feel old and haggard quite quickly. This, though, is capitalism. Dubai has enjoyed roughly 10 per cent annual GDP growth over the past 10 years, and is somewhat of a Middle Eastern economic miracle.

It is obvious that this type of capitalism is environmentally and even economically unsustainable. There is no better illustration of this than witnessing a shark that can live longer than almost all other sea creatures being locked up in a hotel aquarium that was be done and dusted before the shark reaches my age. Last week’s Economist also highlights Dubai’s current economic worries.

The less well-known but equally disastrous effect of this rapid cycle of growth and destruction may be people like you and me who feel old prematurely. This is socially unsustainable. It leads to breast implants and middle-age crises. I referred in previous blogs to the coming ageing population problem. In response, people will need to be productive and active well into their 70s and even 80s. Feeling old at 25 won’t help this.

As we begin to move towards a more sustainable world, both things and people will need to be made to last. A large part of this lies in making them feel worthy. Once we begin to cherish the older rather than newer objects, we will all feel a lot better about ourselves.