Inside Dubai: Playground or Purgatory?

A new BBC documentary dives into the lives of the UAE's ultra rich. But does money really buy you happinness? Or just Chanel pool floats?

British expatriate workers in the Arabian Gulf like to tell new arrivals a bleak metaphor. “Living here,” I was once told after arriving in Qatar, “you carry around two buckets. Every day, one of them fills up with money and the other fills up with shit — the shit that you take from being bored and drunk and trapped in a compound. The minute that one of the buckets is full, you leave the country and never come back.”

The Gulf reminded me of Las Vegas. The first 48 hours are like taking every drug at once and stepping into the future. But every hour after that soon becomes unbearable. You hardly need to be an expert in Zen Buddhism to know that indoor skiing and the Burj Khalifa’s viewing deck and another trip to the world’s largest shopping mall are not ways to achieve spiritual fulfillment. A tax-free life in a luxury gated community sounds good at first. But there’s not much else. Expat life is a way for insanely wealthy man-children to earn Bezos money so they can spaff it on supercars, Champagne, and therapy to treat their crippling depression. 

Dubai's expat community: "a whole new breed of oddball millionaire."

So it was a surprise to watch Inside Dubai: Playground of the Rich, a new BBC documentary, and see people claiming to enjoy their gilded cages. It is a fascinating scientific study on the effects of silly money on the human brain. Their key finding was that great wealth apparently buys the right to be unreasonable. We met scores of workers who break their backs to serve obnoxious one-percenters.

Take the long-suffering staff of the Atlantis Hotel, the 1,500 room palace on an artificial island that opened with the largest display of fireworks the world had ever seen. There, the most expensive suite costs £23,000 a night. It comes with a private library, media centre, massage room, and a team of bartenders, butlers, and chefs. The soaps have bits of gold leaf in them. Dan Worsley, a hotelier in charge of dealing with high net worth clients, said that it was normal for guests to ask him to change the furniture in the room. Or ask him to put up their own works of art on the walls. Or demand food not from the restaurant downstairs but to be flown in by private jet from their favourite spot several thousand miles away.  

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