Having already bashed Dubai’s dunes to smithereens, the intrepid Ben Rhodes takes on the nightlife of the Emirati capital. Four hour brunches, Brit-pop festivals, designer clubs – and just a touch of Korean pop – are par for the course.
“OP OP OP OP OPPAN GANGNAM STYLE!” Dancing to the ubiquitous Korean hit on my own in front of a crowd of four hundred Filipinos with an Elton John lookalike and four lingerie models behind me wasn’t what I imagined the average night out in Dubai to entail. In fact, before I left for Dubai I was told that “you can only drink in hotels” which made me a tad sceptical about the possibility of a good night out at all, envisaging as I was a nightlife scene composed of sunburnt expats squeezed into Hilton lobby bars, with the Lighthouse Family or other muzak playing in the background. But, for better or worse, the city feels much more Western than you would imagine, with a plethora of pubs and bars masquerading as hotels set up for drunken decadence. The city has become particularly infamous for its brunches, a four-hour window to consume as much food and drink as you can for a set price.
With a soggy head from the previous night, we headed for brunch at “The Warehouse”, known for its debauchery rather than fine-dining. Yet before the consumption of anything greasy had even attempted to curtail the midday hangover, the shots had come out… accompanying the beer chaser… alongside the re-hydration Chardonnay. And with the combination of sunshine, BBQ’d meat and free-flowing booze, the atmosphere quickly became one of an animated, if not particularly Middle Eastern, party. It was a suitably heavy and delicious four hours spent at the table, leaving both the pork buffet and the bar staff decimated by the desperate expats. And then the music started and the tables quickly cleared as everyone streamed to the ‘club night’ in the upstairs bar. Perhaps it was one of the few places in Dubai where hands and tongues were allowed to be everywhere, but the occasional twitch of a curtain reminded you that it was 30 degrees, the sun was shining and it was still only 5pm.
Having suitably gorged ourselves all afternoon we headed to our main destination for the evening, that night’s Live@Atlantis gig, a semi-regular event held on the world famous Palm Jumeira with different acts headlining. On this occasion Noel Gallagher and Richard Ashcroft were playing, with Zane Lowe performing a DJ set. The evening suitably blurry by now, I had already lost the others and so found some fellow gig-goers to share a taxi.
“We’ve come all the way from Jordan to see Richard Ashcroft,” said the girl, providing me the refreshing surprise of discovering that 90s indie acts are still popular in the Middle East (rumour has it the Bluetones are still Number 1 in Kyrgyzstan). As we passed the opulent Atlantis hotel I marvelled at the architecture, built with a gaping hole in the middle. I also wondered whether the architects have missed a trick, as if they had tarmacked it over to build a car park we wouldn’t have had to walk so far from the drop off.
Live@Atlantis felt unerringly similar to a British festival set up (albeit V Festival rather than Glastonbury), with the added bonus of hot weather and a beach. There were drunken groups of lads swaying around, girls with dubious luminous make up and the waft of greasy food intermingling with the soundwaves. Richard Ashcroft was up first with an acoustic set which perhaps deserved a more intimate setting, yet there were a few classics that got the crowd mesmerised, with a stripped back version of Bittersweet Symphony providing a fitting end.
In between sets I looked around and it seemed a predominantly British crowd, though in our small group were a Canadian, an Indian Australian, French girls, two Filipino girls and a Palestinian, an indication of the cosmopolitan make-up of the city. “What brought you to Dubai?” was an obvious question I asked them all, and for most it was the lure of tax free earnings. What was interesting was the follow up from many of them: “I said that I would only stay for two years. That was five years ago”. Clearly the money is a big initial draw, but the weather, food and opulent lifestyle made it hard for people to leave.
As Noel and his High Flying Birds came on stage we bundled our way to the front. The set started off with some tub-thumping tunes from his new band, but you could sense the crowd were not here for the newbies and were waiting for some Oasis classics to kick in. We bopped along for a bit in anticipation and managed to hold on for “Digsy’s diner”, but soon our bladders got the better of us and we sloped to the toilets at the back, from where we could hear a boorish crowd chanting along to “Don’t look back in anger”. We picked up a few more ciders and sat on the water’s edge to share a shisha and people watch, before going all out to Zane Lowe’s dubstep session.
Just as we were realised that dad-dancing doesn’t work with dubstep, our two Filipino friends found us and said we should move on to a birthday party at a Filipino nightclub called Boracay. When they said there would be live music I wasn’t sure what to expect but a karaoke machine and drowning cat sprang to mind. In fact, it was an impressive set up, with a full band fronted by a small ginger Filipino guy (half Will.I.Am, half Elton John), and four girls dressed in white lingerie who were giving Whitney Houston-esque performances into the microphone. We settled down for some beers and Filipino food (fried pig skin, fried fish, fried squid) and some birthday cake to enjoy the show. Nobody seemed to be dancing apart from the band so I drunkenly tried to get the crowd going Gangnam style, with birthday cake still stuck in my beard. I think it went well if I interpreted the lack of handclapping correctly… a slightly bizarre experience, but if you are ever invited to a Filipino club anywhere in the world I would definitely advise accepting!
We were beginning to run out of steam but were still keen to sample some of the high life and so jumped into a taxi Downtown. At the base of the tallest building in the world is the Armani hotel, one of several designer hotel/bars where the beautiful people come to party. The club was as chic as you would imagine, with a sculpted white-neon wall reflecting on the primped and preened party-goers. It’s free to enter, but the price of drinks keep the riff raff out (expect to pay over a tenner for most drinks). Our friends escorted us through the bar to a circular table with a 2 litre bottle of vodka waiting for us. Whilst I wasn’t quite sure how we had bagged the best table in the house I wasn’t complaining, and was about to tuck in before a bouncer politely shuffled me along (it turns out there was a mix-up and that bottle of vodka was for someone who didn’t mind paying £1000 for the pleasure).
Wealth, rather the perception of wealth, is such a big deal to some Dubai residents that my local friends knew of people living in bedsit apartments so they could afford to regularly come to these designer clubs and show their financial muscle. Given the fortunes that the Emirati have amassed and a large reason people move here is for tax free earnings, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the display of wealth is a large part of Dubai nightlife. But there are plenty of less expensive and varied things to do if you hunt around for them (the next night we headed to Ravis, a Pakistani restaurant serving the best slap-up curry you could wish for under a fiver). It seems in Dubai that you are able to have your cake and eat it, just remember to wipe it out of your beard before dancing.
Noel Gallagher and Richard Ashcroft were playing as part of the Live @ Atlantis events. For future events with Arabic, Indian and European music artists check out their website. Atlantis also hosts one day Sandance festivals occasionally throughout the year, with Florence & the Machine headlining on 10th May 2013. Check out http://sandance.ae/ for more.