Dubai. Just the sound of its name is like a whisper, a promise of great things to come. And as I looked out of the porthole window of the aircraft, the distinctive leafy shape of the Palm Jumeirah spread across the blue, blue sea before me, and tilted upon its axis as we turned to line up for the runway. A luxurious complex beyond the wildest imagination of most people, built on land reclaimed from the sea.
I’d been with my employers for just over a year. They had sent six of us to a conference in Dubai as a reward for good work. But I wasn’t stupid. I knew we were here in order that our hunger for the good things in life would be sharpened. We would be shown what a good and loyal servant of the company could aspire to. A life of luxury in a tax haven, with gold-plated year-round sunshine and everything one could possibly want. Of course they glossed over the hours one would need to work in order to achieve this lifestyle. Even so, it was starting to make my studio flat in grey, grimy Croydon pale into insignificance.
Dubai. A name like a question. Do you buy? Oh yes, if you have the money you can most definitely buy. And to live in Dubai money is what you’ll need. Millions and millions in whatever currency you’d care to name.
Touchdown, and the plane slowed to a halt. Endless travelators, baggage collection, customs clearance, and finally, the automatic front doors of the airport slid open, exposing us briefly to the hot breath of 36 degrees. Then into an air-conditioned limousine. A whirl past fabulous architecture as we crossed the city, coming to rest in the expatriate quarter, at the doors of the hotel where we were to spend our week in paradise. Nowhere near as grand as the Burj al Arab, but head and shoulders above anywhere I’d ever stayed on my paltry ventures abroad. Once inside another air-conditioned cocoon, it was apparent that even the most modest rooms of our hotel were spacious and opulent.
After a brief rest to unpack and freshen up, we were summoned to our first meeting. A couple of hours of pep-talk. Then we were divided up, sent as individuals for an evening with an employee already based in Dubai. Clever. I was introduced to Ben Richardson. Tall and tanned, with a sharp suit and a firm handshake.
“Pleased to meet you, Gary,” he said as we headed for the car park. “I hope you enjoy your stay in Dubai.”
Of course his car was top of the range. He showed me some of the sights on the short drive to his home, pointing out some of the homes belonging to British celebrities and a couple of health and fitness clubs.
Of course Ben’s home had the wow factor. It was in a gated compound, with a garden bursting with exotic blooms. A tasteful modern home built from golden sandstone. Ben introduced me to his wife, whose model good looks were replicated in their two perfect children. Sarah had prepared a barbecue, and we ate by the pool.
“Yeah, I worked hard to get here but it’s been worth it,” said Ben, stretching in his chair. “UniFied have been good to me, to us,” he added, including his family with a broad sweep of an arm bearing a chunky gold wristwatch. “I’m still on call 24/7, but calls during the silly hours don’t happen very often and these days the pace of life is more relaxed. I feel I have enough time to enjoy the good things in life with the people who matter to me.”
It was all a bit too perfect.
The following evening perfection exceeded itself. Three of us mere mortals employed by UniFied were invited to a party at a home on the Palm Jumeirah itself. As the sun dipped low on the horizon our limousine swept along the broad central avenue and turned left on one of the ‘fronds’. The scene before me was bathed in a rosy, golden glow and I wondered whether the sunset alone was responsible. The limo deposited us at a pair of imposing gates which swung open. If I’d thought the Richardson home was amazing this one was in a league all of its own. The sheer size of the area where we were partying, along with the fabulous light show, were enough that I had to pinch myself a couple of times just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. The imposing home stood in vast grounds which were landscaped in a way that made neighbouring houses almost disappear. And the view across the water to other parts of the Palm Jumeirah was spellbinding.
I had a chance to chat with a female employee of UniFied who had been in Dubai for around six months.
“As long as you stay within the boundaries it’s a fantastic way of life,” enthused Liv. “You can party and drink alcohol and kick up your heels in private homes like this, but you have to moderate your behaviour in public of course. You can live your life totally with the ex-pats if you want. After all, people born and bred in Dubai are very much in the minority. But I’ve enjoyed exploring modern Muslim culture here.”
“So you plan to stay here for some time yet?” I asked.
“You bet!” she replied, taking a sip of her cocktail.
Luckily there was little planned in the way of meetings for the following morning. We didn’t get back to the hotel until nearly four a.m. Still, I didn’t feel as hung over as I would after a night out in Croydon. There certainly seemed to be something supernatural in the air of Dubai.
All too soon my week in paradise came to an end. As my ‘plane ascended into the early evening sky I took one last longing look at the panorama of Dubai, with its landmark hotel standing proud like a sail.
I’d only been back in England a few days. I’d just about come back to reality. On Wednesday afternoon I was in the office when I heard Jon at the desk opposite utter a loud gasp of despair.
“Bloody hell!” he said, pushing back his chair. “There’s been a massive tidal wave and Dubai has been swamped.”
“You’re winding me up,” chipped in another colleague.
Jon shook his head, eyes wide. “Come and see,” he invited.
We crowded around his computer, watching the scene of devastation. The Palm Jumeirah was almost completely submerged, and the waters had swept some way inland. It appeared that a shifting of the earth’s tectonic plates had been responsible for the tidal wave. The Burj al Arab was still standing, but some of the lower floors had been badly damaged. The news reporter who was speaking live from the scene said that the death toll was not yet known.
I suddenly thought of Ben and his family and their perfect home. Of the place where we’d attended the party just a few days before. Of Liv, and others that I’d met in Dubai. It occurred to me that I’d had a narrow escape.
Over the next couple of days news filtered into the office. The Dubai base of UniFied had been flooded and would be closed for the foreseeable future. No-one on the ground floor had survived, and even some people on the upper floors had perished trying to get out. However Liv had been one of the lucky ones. She was on her way back to the UK via Saudi Arabia. Ben had died in his car, on his way to visit a client. His wife Sarah and their two children had been in the swimming pool when the tidal wave struck. They hadn’t stood a chance. The death toll across Dubai was already over a thousand, rising by the hour as bodies were found.
It was all too much to take in, even after a couple of days. I was walking around in a daze. It was all too apparent that the power of nature was mightier than anything man could create.
by Karenne Griffin
Last Modified on: 05-11-2015