I watched a documentary about Dubai when I was in high school, and I was instantly obsessed. Before that, I don’t think I had ever even heard of Dubai, but after one hour of a dramatic narrator over-selling Dubai’s list of ambitions and achievements, the city became my secular Mecca. I knew I must make a pilgrimage there someday. Having seen a comprehensive list of such shamelessly overwrought giant, flashy projects all in one place, I just had to see it for myself.
Ten years after my successful pilgrimage, I am in the midst of my third visit, and the city continues to bludgeon you over the head with its endless list of superlatives. Within the span of twenty odd years, Dubai has evolved from a desolate, sandy outpost into a major world city, with no shortage of absurd and/or awe-inspiring records to make sure you know good and well that this is a place now, and don’t you forget it.
Pretty much the entire city is His Royal Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s big, fat vanity project, and damned if it isn’t a spectacle, and a testament to what man can achieve with limitless vision and hundreds of billions of state-controlled petro-dollars.
Modern Dubai is home to hundreds of world records, ranging from the impressive (world’s tallest building), to the weird (most nationalities washing their hands simultaneously), to the records of questionable significance (world’s largest indoor man-made and life-sustaining tree), and right back to impressive again (world’s longest gold chain – it’s over 5 kilometers long). The running joke around here is that Dubai holds the world record for most world records. I don’t know if this is true, but it probably is.
Here are a few of my favorite records, and why they’re fun:
- Largest mall
Dubai Mall (spellbinding name) holds the title of World’s Biggest Shrine to Unfettered Consumerism, boasting over 1.1 million square meters of space, which includes an ice rink, an aquarium (which has the world’s largest sheet of acrylic), and the world’s largest candy store. And a dinosaur skeleton. Here is a transcript of the brainstorming session that led to that last addition:
Developers: “The world’s biggest mall needs more opulence. How can we achieve that?”
HRH Sheikh Mohammed, probably: *steely gaze, dramatic pause* “… dinosaurs.”
Developers: “… Incredible.”
- Most brands advertising on one single billboard
It’s 1,498, if you wanted to know. The number is not really important though. It’s just a record that serves to highlight the spend-yo’-money-here attitude the city has nowadays, juxtaposed with the we-already-have-enough-money-to-buy-whatever-crazy-record-we-want mentality that pervades all their endeavors.
The billboard was probably unveiled by a collection of sheikhs and sultans whose fathers un-ironically rode camels as boys. Times are a-changin’ here.
- Tallest building
World’s tallest building is a pretty flashy, highly sought after title, as it brings its host locale a good bit of notoriety. You think there was any chance Dubai was gonna pass on that? Nah. They snatched that title right out of Taiwan’s hands with their shiny sky spike.
Upon its completion, Burj Khalifa broke plenty of records beyond tallest building, such as highest occupied floor, highest observation deck, highest elevator installation, highest restaurant, highest nightclub, highest development team, and then some. It has been host to the largest fireworks display and the largest LED light show, and was even scaled by the World’s Shortest Action Star, Tom Cruise, in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Talk about prestigious.
Burj Khalifa will inevitably be surpassed sometime soon by some other building, and there is a fair chance that building will be in Dubai too, much like how the current tallest hotel did to the two former record holders.
- Tallest hotel
The last three holders of this title are all in Dubai, and all are fewer than 20 years old, which means Dubai also holds the record for Most Times a Hotel Height-Related World Record Has Been Broken by Buildings in the Same City Within A Few Years Of Each Other. Add that one to the list of incredible Dubai factoids.
The current record holder is the JW Marriott Marquis Dubai, but that hotel is less interesting than the third tallest hotel, so I’m going to talk about the Burj Al Arab instead. This one was still the tallest when I visited on my pilgrimage, and it was high on my list of priorities. It never officially billed itself as the world’s only seven star hotel, but many other people did, and the title fit anyway. It’s built on its own little island just off the coast, and access is only granted to those who have a bloody good reason to be there. I ended up giving them about $100 in exchange for food at one of their restaurants, and that turned out to be reason enough to grant me entry.
The massive atrium stretches almost all the way to the top, making a seriously impressive interior. There are two giant fountains that use what fancy-talking folk call laminar flow technology. It creates an effect that makes the spouts and arcs of water remain in perfect shafts that do not split into drops. The fountains use this technology to great ends, making quite elaborate and beautiful displays, especially on the enormous, two-story high main fountain that hits you like a wall as soon as you walk in. To reach the reception, you ascend an escalator flanked by the fountain on one side and a two-story tall aquarium on the other.
The meal I had was delicious (as it should be for that price – I ain’t got time for mediocre rich people food), and after I ate, I just rode the two glass elevators that run up and down the spine of the hotel, to get a look at the Palm Islands on one side of the hotel and the World Islands on the other. Unfortunately, I missed out on the restaurant that you have to take a submarine to reach. Alas, it’s not a real sub, though. It’s just an elevator with a simulated sub experience, but it sounds so much less Dubai-worthy to phrase it that way.
Just the fact that Dubai’s rulers are so unapologetically ambitious, and really don’t mind if you like their world map islands or not, earns my eternal respect. They’re gonna build ’em anyway. The weather right now is fantastic, and it seems to be a pretty family-friendly city overall. We’ll be back again to see if they’ve broken the world record for most times breaking the record for most records broken.