WINNING GQ MAN OF THE YEAR
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For GQ’s 10th anniversary, we packed our tuxes and flew down to the City of Gold. Over several rounds of drinks and canapes at the Waldorf Astoria Dubai Palm Jumeirah, we chatted with four in-the-know locals – construction magnate Adel Sajan of the Danube Group; Kunal Nijhawan, who runs one of Dubai’s largest maritime services conglomerates; stand-up comedian Nitin Mirani, who recently opened for Trevor Noah in South Africa; and industrialist and educationist Navin Valrani – to find out what keeps the wheels of the city moving, as well as the hottest places to eat, play and party at in 2019; and why Dubai will continue to be the city of the future. (Bonus: Where to get the city’s most legit 4am omelette sandwich)
Which are the most underrated parts of Dubai that most people don’t see?
Nitin Mirani:Old Dubai, which has some fantastic heritage. Visit the souk, where, at one point, they had a thriving textile market. Designers – from Gucci, Prada – were coming in because the best fabrics were available there. Rangoli has great pani puri. There’s a mosque right next to a gurudwara, which tells you something about what the city stands for. Take a ride on anabra, which is a traditional boat; back in my dad’s day, it cost 50 dinars to get you across Dubai Creek.
Kunal Nijhawan:It’s gone up to two dirhams now.[Laughs]
Mirani:Yeah, they finally increased it! I think once you’ve seen that side of Dubai, what it used to be, its heritage, the architecture of its old Bedouin homes, then things make more sense. Without this context, people just see the tall towers, and feel like it’s all a bit much.Navin Valrani
Nijhawan:Interestingly, I did the whole tour only about a month ago because I had a client in town and she wanted to visit old Dubai. I’d never actually been before, or perhaps only as a child. It’s quite a cool experience. We did the textile market and the spice market.
Mirani:The museum in Al Bastakiya is also good – they have photographs of the first few pearl divers, because that’s where Dubai started off from. The oil boom came much later, in the Sixties.
Adel Sajan:The other place that’s a must-see now is the Dubai Frame, which launched just a few months ago and sits right at the intersection of old and new Dubai. If you go up to the top, you can see Deira and old Dubai on one side, and Sheikh Zayed Road and new Dubai on the other. The idea of the Frame is that when you’re in old Dubai, it frames new Dubai, and vice versa.
Mirani:The past and the future.
There was some controversy about the Frame’s design being modified and used. The Mexican architect, Fernando Donis, wasn’t happy. The original was supposed to be a minimal white frame, but the final version is more ornate and, unsurprisingly, gold.
Mirani:Gold plays a very important role in Arab culture, which is probably why it’s so ubiquitous. It’s quite a maximalist cultural aesthetic – everything from the hospitality to the architecture is grand.
Sajan:We do home décor, and it’s true that the Emiratis, who are a big part of our target audience, love anything gold – gold mosaics, gold Jacuzzis, gold bathtubs.
Mirani:I think they’re half-Sindhi.[Laughs]
How has Dubai changed in the last decade?
Navin Valrani:There’s so much more to do now: Adventure sports, whether it’s skiing, dune-bashing, zip-lining across Downtown Dubai, or the JBR. Skydiving – I know jumping out of a plane from 10,000 feet doesn’t appeal to everyone, but if you’re a group of friends doing it together, it’s a memorable experience.
Mirani:Basically, Zoya Akhtar should shoot the nextZindagi Na Milegi Dobarain Dubai.
Nijhawan:There’s paddle-boarding. Golf has really exploded – the course at the Emirates Golf Club is good. Dubai, obviously, also has great nightlife – you have your big-name restaurants and clubs but also nicer, smaller bars.
Mirani:We have amazing horse races here too, at the Meydan. The horses that race here are the best in the world. The Dubai World Cup attracts that quality of talent because the prize money is crazy – around million.
Nijhawan:Sheikh Mohammed has had a big role to play here. He’s a massive horse lover, and invests a lot in the race courses.
Mirani:The city can be quite creative too: We’ve had Holi parties in the desert, Diwali parties in the desert, weddings in the middle of the desert. This is quite doable between November to March, when the weather is nice. You’ll find people chilling outside, smoking sheesha outdoors on Sheikh Zayed Road.
Sajan:You know, [the government’s been] trying to fix the weather here too, with a lot of cloud-seeding, to create rain and bring the temperature down. They’ve actually been spending heavily on cloud-seeding.
Has it worked?
Sajan:Yes and no. This year it wasn’t that effective; last year, we had a lot of rain. They’re still working on it – it’s not an easy project. When you mess around with nature, it’s not like you can invest some money and it’ll happen. But, for sure, they’ll pursue it and keep trying till they achieve some kind of result.Nitin Mirani
Dubai is quite progressive and future-forward – something it doesn’t always get enough credit for.
Valrani:For me, Dubai has always been about risk-taking and thrill-seeking, and it really starts from its rulers. They really care about the city, and set the tone.
Can you elaborate?
Valrani:Just look at the city. It’s really only developed in the last two decades. When my family came here 20 years ago, it was deserted; today, it’s one of the five or six global cities in the world. You need a certain kind of mindset to make that happen. One question His Highness always asks is, “What do you think of Dubai?” If one wants to be in this town, and do business here, we should have that mindset too.
Navin, you’re doing a Masters at University of Pennsylvania, and you’re an educationist. Are you institutionalising this approach in your schools in any way?
Valrani:That’s right, I hit the reset button recently, and am doing a second Masters, in education. I’ve recently managed to create a programme here called the Junior MBA… It’s actually the world’s first. It’s based on a first-year MBA programme, and I teach it to children between the ages of 6 and 10.
Valrani:Yup… My kids can run spreadsheets, they can do financial models.
Nijhawan: I’m sending my kids to your school.
Valrani:Yes, so it’s all a part of that ability to innovate, the encouragement that we get from the environment that we’re in, to think beyond one’s comfort zone. We’re in a city that’s given us these opportunities, where religions co-exist, where tolerance is celebrated… We have a Ministry of Tolerance, and happiness is on top of its agenda.
Mirani:We have a Minister of State for Happiness.
Sajan:And a Minister of Youth who’s in her early 20s. We have more female ministers than women in the White House, in terms of ratio.
And the world’s first Minister for Artificial Intelligence. He’s 27, I believe?
Mirani:That’s what vision can do for you. And Sheikh Mohammed is a people’s champ. I remember he once walked into Atlantis [at The Palm], and there was this group of ladies, calling out to him, “Sheikh Mo, Sheikh Mo.” He waved out at them and then took some selfies with them.
Is he on social media?
Sajan:He is. So is his son Fazza, the Crown Prince, who puts up the best posts. He started the Dubai Fitness Challenge last year, encouraging individuals, gyms, schools and companies to get people to exercise for 30 minutes every day for 30 days. Nitin, when you were talking about vision, I remembered an interview Sheikh Mo gave about five years ago, where he was asked what his vision for Dubai was, and how much of it he had achieved. He said, 10 per cent. They asked him the same question last year, and he replied 8 per cent. Which makes no sense since Dubai has been growing tremendously – we’ll have the Dubai Eye soon, we’re gearing up for Expo 2020. He answered the question by saying his vision for Dubai had changed, it had become bigger. We’ve got smart tunnels for UAE residents at the airport already – which is part of “Smart Dubai”. You walk through the tunnel, it scans your face and that’s your immigration done right there.Adel Sajan
Mirani:Haven’t they announced the flying car too?
Sajan:Yes, and eventually, the plan is to introduce robot cops and for the government to move exclusively to blockchain.
Is Dubai still a cultural desert?
Valrani:Dubai is a young nation, only 47 years old. Are you looking for the culture of Europe here? You’re not going to get that even in the United States. It’s a new city – like Singapore. Having said that, we have a new-ish arts district called Al Quoz, with a bunch of cool galleries. And a design district too. Then there’s the Louvre in Abu Dhabi. Many of the world’s biggest artists have played here – Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran, Tiesto, Arijit Singh.
How fair is the criticism that Dubai is kind of soulless, all glitter and gold, but ultimately empty?
Sajan:As someone who’s lived here all his life, I’d say that there’s a balance between the flash and a feeling of being home here. Eighty per cent of the population here is from outside the UAE. Only 20 per cent is local. So they really make an effort to make people feel at home. When Narendra Modi visited, they lit the Frame in the colours of the Indian flag. For Pakistan’s Independence Day, they lit up the Burj Khalifa with the Pakistani flag. So you do feel valued. They celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi, and recently even allowed publicvisarjans.
Abu Dhabi is really buzzy right now. Is Dubai getting left behind?
Sajan:I think it’s a positive thing actually. Because now when friends visit, there’s more for them to do. Abu Dhabi is only an hour away from us. They can do all the Dubai stuff, then see the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, the Louvre, Ferrari World, drive a supercar at Yas Marina. The cities complement, rather than compete with, each other.
Sajan:The distance between the cities will be 12 minutes once the Hyperloop is built [in five years].
Nijhawan:I’d say Abu Dhabi [the capital of the UAE] is still more like Washington, DC; Dubai is like New York.Kunal Nijhawan
Which are the best places to eat and party at?
Sajan:La Mer, which recently opened.
Mirani:The Salt Bae meme guy has a restaurant called Nus-ret. Also try SALT for burgers.
Valrani:Dubai is a global city, so if you’re a restaurateur or a hotelier with any ambition, whether you’re the Bulgari hotel or Shake Shack, you’ve got to have a presence here.
Sajan:Noire is a fab concept restaurant, where you eat in complete darkness. You can’t see your plate, the cutlery, the people you’re with. Another favourite is PLAY, which has some incredible Japanese fusion food.
Valrani:I recommend 3 Fils, right by the harbour. This is also Japanese fusion food, run by a Singaporean chef who’s part-owner. It’s phenomenal.
Nijhawan:There’s a shack that serves amazing fish. Bu Qtair, I think.
Sajan:Another Indian spot that’s been making waves is Raju Omelette. I also like Last Exit, which is about 20 mins outside Dubai, on the way to Abu Dhabi, where they have about 15-20 food trucks.
Mirani:In old Dubai, try Al Ustad Special Kabab for the best Iranian food you’ll eat. It’s been around since the Fifties. At the other end of the spectrum, I love At.mosphere at the Burj Khalifa. And Zuma.
Sajan:Soho Garden in Meydan, which is partially outdoors, has a cool vibe. If you want to party, head to WHITE Dubai and BASE Dubai. Friday brunch is also a big deal here. People make reservations, dress up, go out.
Nijhawan:I love this bar called the Little Black Door at the Conrad: It’s understated, with great cocktails.
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