Beyond The Glitz

The sunlight in Dubai is blinding, a layer of searing white that blankets the landscape, best encountered from behind deeply tinted glasses. It is the most notable natural feature in an almost entirely man-made environment, one of the few things in this tiny, but technologically advanced emirate that cannot be controlled. In the glare, differences between the newly erected towers are obscured— postmodern, ultramodern, 50, 70 or 100 stories—and the net effect is one of disorientation. You determine your position in relation to the hotel that is shaped like a giant sail, or the world's tallest tower, or the indoor ski slope complete with artificial snow. A modern-day pleasure kingdom, Dubai has mortgaged its past in exchange for freehold ownership of its future.

Over the past decade the Emirate has moved at warp speed, with fantastical project after project competing for headline space around the world. Upcoming developments include Falcon City, a mixed-use mega-property that re-creates some of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, and the Snowdome, which promotional materials describe as "a gigantic indoor ski dome project that will comprise a ski dome, residential towers, hotels, a shopping mall, restaurants, coffee shops and other retail outlets." Many developments are owned in full or part by the government, and no idea is too expensive—or ridiculous—to pursue so long as there are 240,000 barrels of oil being pumped per day. Like New York City in the 1980s, the seemingly limitless flow of capital encourages not-so-subtle expressions of wealth, from magnums of fine champagne guzzled in nightclubs to a crazy concentration of designer boutiques. After a few days, the in-your-face prosperity can begin to feel claustrophobic, like being trapped inside an uncomfortably sunny, status-obsessed bubble.

Beneath the surface, however, there is a growing community of influential individuals whose idea of progress is not defined by the notion that biggest always means best. And they are staking out a parallel universe of hip, understated cultural space that is less flashy and far more personalized. Their ranks draw from young Emiratis and Arab expats with a global outlook—thanks to foreign educations, ex- travel and high-speed Internet connections—as well as Westerners who have carved out niches in media, fashion and design in the burgeoning economy. Though their numbers are small, they are increasingly making their creative mark on an ever-evolving cultural scene. The term "underground" doesn't apply to their efforts in the fields of art, retail and media, because they aren't seen in opposition to anything else, nor are they particularly inaccessible to the public. But they do present an increasingly welcome alternative to Dubai's better-known options.

The country's art market has already attracted considerable attention, with auction houses such as Christie's and Bonham's organizing highly publicized sales of contemporary Middle Eastern art. Now the local gallery scene is developing as well, promoting up-and-coming local artists and providing an accessible way for collectors looking to get in on the action. The XVA gallery, brainchild of Mona Hauser, has been open since 2003, operating in one of the most interesting parts of Dubai, Bastikya, a historic district home to many restored traditional buildings. Paintings are popular, but photography, sculpture, mixed-media and even challenging installation pieces are attracting interest. "Since I arrived in 1993 everything about Dubai has experienced amazing strides of development and evolution," says Hauser. "Dubai's growth brings more artists, more need for art, more art dealers, more movement of art in and out of the region. It makes for a whirlwind effect." Business must be going well; XVA now encompasses a small bed and breakfast, and a boutique and has expanded its gallery space.

A newer arrival on the art scene, The Third Line gallery, is set in the Al Quoz industrial park, a gritty, unpolished environment that stands in stark contrast to Bastikiya's nostalgia. The Third Line has built its reputation by representing some of the edgier artists in the region, including the post-Pop photographer known as X, whose hand-painted pieces invite comparisons to Warhol as seen through an Egyptian lens. "When we opened three years ago, we took chances early on in an almost non-existent art market," says partner Sunny Rahbar. "Now there are galleries opening all over Dubai. [They] are more professional, not just venues for art, but have actual programming. The bar is rising and with all the plans for museums and other institutions, it's going to get bigger and better."

The media plays an essential role in documenting Dubai's evolving identity. And while most publications are decidedly mainstream, an independent title called Brownbook concerns itself with less obvious aspects of Middle Eastern culture such as emerging artists, off-the-beaten-path travel options and innovative Arab-inspired design. Editor Rashid bin Shabib publishes the lifestyle magazine, along with urban guides to the region's biggest cities. The Dubai edition is an eclectic mix of options for curious tourists, from where to find the finest imported dates to sushi spots that are good enough to attract a Japanese clientele. Geared toward the kind of demographic that appreciates a Wallpaper* city guide, Shabib has cultivated a hip, knowing readership.

But the country's burgeoning alternative culture is most apparent in the retail sphere. Dubai's most eclectic independent boutique, S*uce, is headquartered in a strip mall set in an expensive residential area. Despite its prosaic location, the store is exuberantly offbeat, with a blend of feminine designer apparel and accessories from both regional talents such as Essa, one of the U.A.E.'s top designers, and international brands such as Cacharel and Vanessa Bruno. "The initial design concept for S*uce grew out of a desire to create the feeling of peeking into your best friend's closet," says head buyer and part-owner Zayan Ghandour. So they created an appealing display of pieces, each possessing a unique character that is expressed through color, embroidery and unexpected combinations.

The high-design gift shop 50ºC is another unexpected pleasure found in an unlikely setting: the Souk al Bahar mall, in the middle of Dubai's future "downtown" district centered around the Burj Dubai, the world's tallest tower. Straddling both high- and low-end, its offerings all share a strong design point of view, ranging from moldable furniture to limited-edition toys by the cult company Kid Robot, famous for its collaborations with artists in the fields of fine art, fashion, industrial design, graffiti and music. Shahi Hamad, an owner of 50ºC, applied a similar retail approach to her first project, Five Green, Dubai's original concept store, which opened in 2004. Designed by architect Khalid al Najjar, the contemporary concrete, steel and glass building showcases streetwear, artwork and limited-edition sneakers on a par with other international outposts of cool such as Paris's Surface to Air or New York's Reed Space.

Whether in traditional or cutting-edge venues, Dubai is still best defined by the consumer impulse. To be sure, the aura of worldly sophistication that surrounds this alternative cultural universe helps give the Emirate a patina of cool—an effect the government would be well advised to promote. As the number of unique destinations within Dubai continues to grow, it's clear that people like a little "counter-" with their consumer culture.

Beyond The Glitz | World