There aren’t many places in the world I have no desire to visit. About three, in fact. And third on that list is Dubai. It might have something to do with the tourist press to date espousing nothing but its virtues as a shopper’s paradise and an unadulterated embodiment of globalisation, the former being something to which I am allergic, the latter the big black cloud that looms over the head of every adventurous traveller. With that in mind, there are precious few occasions that would have me pack a bag and venture to such a destination: a good friend’s wedding, perhaps, the will reading of a recently deceased oil tycoon relative or, say, the product launch of a new collaboration between Porsche Design and BlackBerry. On second thoughts, I’d probably politely decline the wedding.
Coincidentally, I had been invited to the launch of an exciting new collaboration between Porsche Design and BlackBerry, and in none other than the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa. Never one to turn down an opportunity for adventure, let alone go inside one of the marvels of the modern world, I packed a bag – a very small bag – and boarded a train for Heathrow. I was off to Dubai.
It would be quick. Just as well, I thought. After all, for a destination of such little desire it was an advantage that of the 36 hours it involved, 12 of those would be spent in the air, six in bed, four at the event itself, an hour in interviews, 20 minutes in the hotel pool and 30 seconds to the see the city. I felt less like a journalist on a jolly, more a purposeful businessman heading for the heady heights of one of the world’s busiest business capitals.
I’ve been through a few airports in my time but none so expansive as Dubai International. It’s a metaphor for what I imagine everything about the city to be like. Huge, grandiose, over-indulgent for purpose. In short, it’s a statement. The terminal building is so vast it took what felt like an hour to walk from the gate to Arrivals. Were it not for the fact I had been going in a straight line in that time, I thought I’d taken a wrong turn. The map of the terminal I’d been given indicating our hotel transfer pick-up, which I’d initially dismissed as obvious, soon became essential in spite of it being spectacularly off-scale. The onset of delirium from the overnight flight compounded the fear I’d landed on Brobdingnag, but it wasn’t long before I found a welcoming sign with my hotel’s name on it, was ushered into a gloriously luxurious sedan car and was soon gliding on a network of expressways through alternately desolate and densely built tracts of desert.
But here we were. The hotel, The Address, in Dubai’s ‘downtown’ development and conveniently overlooking the Dubai Mall, was my home for the next…hour. A short nap, a missed lunch with the PR team and an invigorating swim later and it was time to get to it. Interviews were teed up with the design teams from both Porsche Design and BlackBerry. As I went up to the conference area, I confess I still wasn’t entirely sure what product this was supposed to be the launch of. A BlackBerry car? Or a fast phone? Maybe something entirely new and revolutionary?
It is, in fact, quite enviably, one of the most sophisticated, crisply composited, satisfying to hold, delightful to own pieces of telecommunications kit you’ve yet seen. If you can afford it. If you’re a BlackBerry man, a technophile. Alas, I am none of these. As Todd Wood and Juergen Gessler, BlackBerry’s Design VP and Porsche Design’s President respectively, entered the room, I had to apologise as I pulled out my iPhone to record the interviews. Can you imagine? That’s like going to a meeting with Sir Alex Ferguson wearing a City shirt. The gentlemen, however, were gracious enough to humour me, although I sensed Juergen bristle at one point when he glanced at my phone the table.
To the point, however. I was sharing the room with an astonishing meeting of minds. Their respective CVs read like a copy of Wired magazine. This phone, the P’9981, is the result of a collaboration that began 18 months ago with, Todd tells me, “a synergy of brand ideology”. It’s testament to its development that there were no disagreements; “it started as a dialogue,” Todd says, “about design and technology, and continues to be. There were some basic principles that we both agreed on.” And the driving principle behind this, Juergen tells me, was “engineered luxury, the idea that form and function are synonymous”. And that synergy existed even before the idea of a collaboration; Gessler, and avid BlackBerry fan, had only one company in mind for the smartphone he wanted to develop, and Wood, even as a student, in admiration of their products, wrote to Porsche Design asking them about their design philosophy.
The starting point was taking BlackBerry’s signature product, the ‘Bold’, and giving it a serious makeover. I take it in my hand. It’s certainly a handsome object; forged steel frame, hand-wrapped in leather, scuplted keyboard, there’s a weight to it that tells you it’s expensive. I was curious as to whether it was only Porsche’s influence on the physical appearance. “Not at all,” Todd says, “their design also applies to the user interface, the icons, the liquid graphics; they were involved throughout”. Significantly, then, it’s not a BlackBerry in a different box. This is a limited edition, too – with personalised PINs for each user – the definition of a luxury item.
For all this, I wondered why they decided on Dubai for the launch. Surely London, New York, Shanghai? “Dubai is the starting point,” Juergen tells me, “because it’s a perfect fit for the market – here there is a thirst for luxury product.”
That night, the main event. A fleet of cars ushered guests the long way round to the Burj Kalifa. When I first saw it on the drive from the airport, I wasn’t even sure I was looking at the tallest building in the world. With nothing anywhere nearby for comparison I couldn’t get a sense of scale. Up close, however, from the hotel’s poolside that afternoon, it seemed almost surreal, as though superimposed onto a fantasy landscape. Now, at night, illuminated and arriving below it, I began to get a sense of its significance. The facts surrounding it are astonishing. It’s twice as high as the Empire State Building, it was erected in five years at a cost of $1.5billion and, as though standing as a symbol of the global financial crisis, now remains largely unoccupied.
About halfway up, from an elevator ride that took seconds and made one’s ears pop, we were welcomed into At.Mosphere, technically the world’s heighest restaurant, and here Dubai’s great and good mingled in conducive circumstances to delectable canapés and dry drinks. Jurgen gave us a few words on Porsche Design’s classics – did you know Aviator shades were theirs? – and how the new phone fitted into this canon. As we mingled and bantered, I took a moment to give one of the phones a go. Several were mounted on display plinths about the room and I saw this as an opportunity to give the user interface a thorough review – and to check Twitter. No sooner had I picked it up, however, than it triggered a security alarm and a flustered assistant came bowling over to shut it off. I stammered my innocence, professing that I didn’t realise Twitter was verboten.
As the evening drew to a close, and bed beckoned, my colleagues had other ideas. You can’t come to Dubai and not see what’s on offer in the evening. After all it’s known for its nightclubs as much as its shopping malls – perhaps another reason I’d had little prior desire to visit – and our hosts soon whisked us off to a beachside destination, whose name escapes me, where the ‘table’ we had booked transpired to be a large double bed, and scantily clad girls performed incredible tricks twirling fire batons and dancing to sets by celebrity DJs.
The next morning, we gathered over breakfast – albeit a late one but still looking remarkably chipper given the previous night’s proceedings – and considered what to do in the short window we had before our return flight. With little more than a couple of hours at our disposal and, fortunately, having seen everything the downtown Dubai Mall had to offer, we struck upon the inspired idea of making our way back over to the Kalifa and seeing what it had to offer in daylight. After all, we’d seen everything else, hadn’t we? Thus, having only the day before run a lap of the interior of the mall, it seemed only fitting that we might tour the outside.
Within seconds of our stepping from the air-conditioned comfort of our hotel, this seemed possibly the least sensible thing we could have done. Not one to be dissuaded from a casual stroll in 96 degree warmth, and dressed in everything that wouldn’t fit in the small bag I’d packed, we set off. Two things became apparent relatively quickly: first, that there is no way into the Burj from outside and, second, that we were the only people outdoors. The oppressive heat notwithstanding, it’s also symbolic of Dubai’s changing fortunes that their flagship downtown development is, instead, rather desolate – although, in fact, everyone was in the mall. As we circled the Burj, seeking a way in, only to be met with closed gates and fences, a technician sound-testing the PA for a concert that evening echoed dissonantly across the water.
An hour and a half later and a pound and a half lighter we arrived back at our hotel, were ushered back into our travelling sofas and whisked off to the airport. Waiting at Bag Drop, in anticipation of the six-mile walk to the gate, I felt a twinge of regret that I wasn’t here longer. I was certain there was more to see, a new subway to ride, the seven star ‘sail’ hotel, not to mention the palm island, and, of course, the museum. Yes, they have a museum. It wasn’t up to much when we looked it up on our, ahem, ‘smartphones” that morning but, nevertheless, there is a museum.
Three miles to go to the gate and the words of a young woman I had been talking to at the nightclub, who’d moved out here, began to resonate: “There’s a lot more to Dubai than what you can see in 24 hours,” she said. I shall have to come back.
For more information on the P’9981 smartphone, visit the BlackBerry website. The models are available through Porsche Design stores throughout the world and other specialist retailers and e-tailers. For more information on Porsche Design, from pens to sunglasses, visit their website.
Larry stayed at The Address, Emaar Boulevard, Downtown Dubai, P. O. Box 123234, Dubai, UAE. Tel. +971 4 436 8888. Website.