Dubai woke up Sunday morning with a fire raging through a skyscraper in the Jumeirah Lakes Towers community. As I scrolled along Facebook, I realize the building looked familiar. Hey, that’s where I used to live!

The fire began at 2 a.m. and wasn’t put out until well in the day. It took firefighters 20 minutes to get there. I’m not sure if that meets acceptable levels of response times for high-rise fires. New reports over the past two days have quoted residents saying sprinklers and fire alarm systems failed to activate – outrageous considering there was a massive fireball above their heads. Amazingly, there are no injuries or deaths.

The spark is still unknown but what contributed to the fire spreading so quickly was the building’s cladding, something that is a common feature on buildings here. The Gulf News ran a story last May after there were three high-rise fires in Sharjah, saying that about 500 buildings were constructed with this cladding. It’s not fire-resistant which I imagine would break fire code in the U.S. Builders here preferred to use it because it’s cheaper. These claddings are made of low-density polyethylene, a petrochemical product that burns within minutes compared to certified fire-retardant panels that repel fire. There are no civil regulations that prevent this.

If we were still living there, the fireball would have melted off our eyelashes and engulfed our apartment in smoke and soot.

Earlier this year, a building in Tecom and another in Dubai Marina went up in flames as well. The culprit? Cladding that is, in effect, kindling. And then this week we have the fire in JLT. It turned out that it wasn’t my building but the building right to the front and side of us. If we were still living there, the fireball would have melted off our eyelashes and engulfed our apartment in smoke and soot. I used to wonder about these buildings, what would happen if there was a fire. I knew from experience that they were poorly constructed. It was brand new when we moved in but nearly immediately things began falling apart: sewage smells coming from inadequately laid water and wastewater pipes, the kitchen light fixture that suddenly had water pouring through it.

So, let’s recap: Hundreds of buildings in the U.A.E. are wrapped in highly flammable material. There are no regulations preventing this. And even though at least six recent fires were made worse – resulting in people’s deaths and untold damages in people’s health and property – there are no regulations preventing the use of this material or forcing building owners to replace the cladding with fire-retardant material.

And now, according to an article in The National this morning, Dubai Municipality is saying that since the building is in a free zone – an area where foreigners are allowed to purchase properties – Dubai is essentially not responsible for what happens there.

Given all this, why would anyone live in a high-rise here?


A number of U.S. magazines have launched Middle Eastern editions based out of Dubai in the last year. The latest is publishing stalwart, Good Housekeeping, which had its debut this month. My friend Eileen Lee was doing the makeup for the premiere edition of “Look for a Lifestyle,” a monthly feature where Danielle Elmes, the magazine’s stylist, revamps hair, makeup and wardrobe. I happily volunteered to be the first guinea pig back in October. I tried Kera Straight on my hair for the first time — wow, it really does knock out the frizz — and got to rummage around GH’s trunk o’ goodies, including couture like the DVF dress I ultimately modeled. The weather had just started to cool off so we did the main photo shoot in the outdoor bar area in front of the Ibn Battuta Gate Hotel, much to the curiosity of guests and staff. (Ha! My minutes of fame!) It was definitely a pleasant afternoon.

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Dubai’s heating up

Yes, it’s that wonderful time of year. No, I’m not screwing up the calendar, confusing May with Christmas. I’m talking about summer in Dubai! Or as B.P. once termed it, “Broil.” (I think he was technically speaking about August in Dubai, but close enough.)

Woke up this morning to cool-ish air blowing through the air-conditioning vents. Coolish is lovely when you’re standing on the Juliette balcony of your rental apartment in San Sebatian, Spain, sipping tea and watching the world pass by underneath. It is not so lovely if you happen to live in the desert where the temperatures do not deign to dip below 100 from April through October.

J.B. went downstairs to find out what’s up and, sure enough, the entire building is sweltering – more so, depending on how high a floor you live on. (We live on the 34th floor.) Apparently, Palm Cooling, which provides the chilled water used to condition the air, just can’t keep up with demand. They literally don’t have the capacity, it seems, to provide enough cold water so that the air is actually cold. We didn’t have this problem last year at this time, so I’m thinking the new buildings that have opened up on JLT have strained the plant.

Now, one might say, “Well, that might’ve been a good thing to consider before you built all of these high-rises. Of course, they will all want to have regular and sufficiently cool AC.” Ha! Now you’re just being silly. That would be logical.

It’s not like you can build a chilling plant overnight and if this is a sign of things to come — temps here will reach 120F — I’m glad we’re moving. I just hope Palm can better cool that building. Cross your fingers for me!

Corner office

Well, not exactly. More like a desk, purchased at IKEA, in a corner of my bedroom. It ain’t fancy but it’s a comfortable place to toil. I’ve set up a VPN, bought a printer/scanner and I’m just a few doors down from the best kitchen in Dubai. And unlike when I had to drive nearly three hours every day to Abu Dhabi and back, my commute these days is basically non-existent!

Details, details, details

One today’s page one of The National is a story about the collapse of a parking garage in Sharjah, the emirate on the northeast side of Dubai. (Abu Dhabi borders it on the southwest-ish side.) Luckily enough it collapsed just as the workers had left for their lunch break. Six of them were injured but no one died. According to the story, 100 workers were all over the nine-story building minutes before.

Accordion garage
Accordion garage

It wasn’t the first building to fall into itself, the story went on to note: “Taha Hafifi, 32, died two weeks ago when the roof of a building collapsed as concrete was poured onto it in Ras al Khaimah. His death came a month and a half after the complete collapse of a building under construction in the Deira district of Dubai, which an investigation committee later blamed on a design fault. In that instance, 21 workers fled the building shortly after hearing it creak. 

The most serious recent incident occurred last year in Ajman, where six men died at the Laguna Beach Hotel, as a concrete floor was being poured above the basement.”

The story reminded me of something I’ve thought about off-and-on since moving here: the quality of construction. Think of it this way. An area the size of Uptown and Knox-Henderson is built from scratch in about two years, from dirt to full-scale urban village in two years. All the permitting. All the plotting. All the water and sewer lines, the electric and phone connections. All the building of 40-story skyscrapers. In two years.

I’m still amazed when I look out over the Dubai Marina, a thriving mega-neighborhood carved around a manmade marina. It rose up out of the desert two years ago. While I do admire Dubai’s ability to just say, It will be done and that it actually does get done, I do wonder. When you’re putting up buildings so fast, what gets not-done?

Until last year before the economy tanked, Dubai couldn’t issue the labor visas fast enough; tens of thousands of workers from the subcontinent and other parts of Asia were eager to come here to make the relatively high wages in construction jobs, despite having to leave their families behind.

Not all of them were already tradesman in plumbing, or sheetrock installation or any number of the specialized skills needed in putting a building together. But they were given training to perform jobs and the buildings have gone up. For the most part the buildings are what they appear to be, luxury high-rises with spacious apartments and amenities. But living in one exposes you to the little details that I think got lost.

The AC unit in my room never switches off. In theory, you set it to 75 degrees, it cranks on and keeps cooling until the room has reached the desired temperature. Standard stuff. Mine doesn’t stop. It just keeps going, cooling it down to such a degree that I shut the AC off during the day and even if I’m home and the mercury is topping 100 degrees outside. I know very little about this sort of thing, but I think a gauge of some sort has been left out or mis-installed. I’ve tried to explain it to the maintenance staff but they don’t understand. I’m sure they’re just thinking that I should be glad I have the AC in the first place; they probably don’t. (And they’re right in a way. All things considered, it’s a small problem. I just switch it off when I get too cold.)

But it’s just an example of how little things I think have not gotten done in the frenzy of building the world’s latest metropolis. The last few mornings, I’ve noticed a leak in our basement parking garage, a leak that looks suspiciously like human waste. (I’m not getting close enough to tell for sure and my allergies have so screwed up my sense of smell that I can’t tell unless I do so.) It runs along the outside wall of the elevator shaft, spilling down the driveway, pooling around the speed bumps. As far as I can tell, no one has attempted to clean it or to at least stop the leak from escaping the wall. Each morning, J and I gingerly step around it on the way to the car. I don’t think maintenance has even noticed it!

What I can smell is the mold that’s currently growing under my bathroom sink. Yuck! The maintenance guys have been in my bathroom three times now, trying to fix the leak that’s ruining the wooden doorframe and has seeded the mold colony. I do think they are sincerely wanting to fix it. But I have my doubts that this last visit will have been the charm.

Unwelcome cultures
Unwelcome cultures

All I can do is keep putting maintenance requests in. But there doesn’t seem to be a way to force the building to truly fix the problem. There are no tenants’ rights as best I can tell. Hell, my landlord already has the year’s rent, so why should he care? We’re still waiting to be reimbursed for having to hire a cleaning service on move-in because the landlord failed to make sure it was clean beforehand like his agent said he would. (It looked like they had left the windows open during a sandstorm.) Naturally, the agent has ignored J’s requests to submit the receipt for reimbursement.

(In the UAE, landlords have demanded, and gotten, a year’s rent at the signing of a lease. While the economic downturn is forcing some owners to agree to quarterly checks or bimonthly checks, most still cling to the practice. But it puts renters at a disadvantage when maintenance issues come up.)

I.C. at the management company that is helping the developer with facilities issues at our building has been responsive and sympathetic to our emails and phone calls. But he goes away in December when the developer hands over the building to the apartment owners. Other than the mold — and well, there was that water/electricity commingling problem in the kitchen — most of our issues are minor. But given that our landlord refuses to acknowledge a $200 cleaning bill, I’m worried he will simply ignore us, no matter how urgent the request. So, basically, I’m hoping that, as long as we live here, nothing major comes up.

Room to let

Life in the new apartment has been progressing quite nicely. J has nearly completely unpacked his Brooklyn belongings – with perhaps, a small bit of encouragement from me – and the apartment is actually taking on a lived-in look. The mattress is gone from the dining area, paintings and prints are being hung on the walls. We actually sat in the living room last weekend and watched a DVD, sipping from glasses of wine. It was quite civilized.

One snag in this reverie, unfortunately, is that our third roommate has decided (again) that she is going to move out. Now, the three of us entered this lease as equal partners, so to my mind, you don’t just get out of the lease. Or you can but you have to still meet your rent obligation. But J and I don’t want to battle on this and we’ve been trying to find someone who’s willing to take the room. It is a great place and, if I do say so myself, we’re good people to live with. Here’s the ad copy J came up with:

“Spacious bedroom in a large 3-bedroom apartment – right at 3,000 square feet – available in Dubai’s JLT area. Each bedroom has its own private bathroom. Fully outfitted kitchen, which is the site of much culinary activity. Huge loft-style dining/living room area with amazing, full-wall views of the Marina and the gulf. Maid’s room, library/guestroom and two balconies. Rooftop complex includes pool, 2 Jacuzzis, a sauna and steam room and a gym, all included with the rent.
It is a great building and an even better apartment. 5,000 per month, plus maid’s fee, DEWA and du (TV and internet). Room is available furnished (outgoing person wants to sell her furniture, which is new) or unfurnished and can be yours immediately.”

Sounds great, right? A year ago, we would’ve had any number of takers. Summer is always a slow season in the UAE – many Emiratis and expats flee for cooler climes – but I’m concerned that the fall influx won’t be as large as usual. The economy here is still recovering; it doesn’t seem that the hiring pace of recent years will continue. And for those who are coming here, a glut of rental property means tenants are in the catbird’s seat. What I’m hoping to find is a professional, who likely travels a lot for work, who would want a place they don’t have to outfit. Just move in and crash. We’re sending out word to everyone we know. Cross your fingers!

In response to one of those missives, a friend in Dubai told us we were advertising wrong! She sent along a photo of an ad she recently saw:

Creative advertising

AND a chicken! Of course! I suppose a guaranty of some succulent poultry would be quite the draw. I mean, these are hard economic times. Good marketing needs to have a hook, right? Hmmm … what will we do? All ideas welcome!

There’s no place like home, wherever it is

The UAE, but Dubai especially, is a tricky place to call home. About 85 percent of us who live here are expats — not immigrants — but expats. We live the most temporary of existences. We’re basically here until our employer decides we don’t have a job. If someone loses their job, it’s not, hey, I’ll work in a coffee shop, do some freelancing, while I look for another one. It’s you have one month to sell your stuff and ship the rest because you’re going back to where you come from. A rep from your company will literally meet you at the airport to make sure you get on the plane.

Makes you want to stay a while, huh?

I’m a white-collar bracero here as long as the (Emirati) Man lets me.

After six months of living out of four suitcases, I finally moved into my own place. Rents in Dubai have come down post-economic meltdown and with apartments in Abu Dhabi still scarce and super expensive (think London rents for slumlord accommodations), it made sense to scoot over to Dubai despite the hour-long commute each way. It’s a nice place on the 34th floor with a big kitchen, balcony looking over some of Dubai’s iconic structures, a pool and gym on the top floor.

The development is called Jumierah Lakes Towers, across from the Dubai Marina, if you’re familiar with the city at all. It’s a group of about 25 towers, a Midtown Manhattan sprung up in two years. The buildings are all in some form of half-completion. Our parking garage is still being worked on and you can’t yet drive up the drive to get to the front entrance.

Basically, I’m living in a live construction zone: 24-hour construction permits, dodging concrete trucks when I leave in the morning to get on the highway. From my bedroom window I can watch the laborers scale the next-door skyscraper on rickety risers. Let’s just say they wouldn’t allow this sort of co-existence on Turtle Creek Boulevard. (I’ll post pics soon.)

The suitcases are unpacked, I’ve bought the basics in furniture and the kitchen is stocked. I bought a new car. I’m meeting people, making friends. But it’s weird to have no shared history – well, at least not longer than six months — with anyone here. So what I’m thinking about now is: how to make this home.