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Away from Dubai's skyscrapers, shopping malls and seven-star hotels...
Away from Dubai's skyscrapers, shopping malls and seven-star hotels...
Jochen Temsch

DUBAI - Beer? Of course not! Sayed Kamal looks at his guests with astonishment. Alcohol is only served in the big hotels. This is a youth hostel!

It is in fact the only youth hostel in Dubai. "But I can offer you something similar," says blue-shirted, tie-wearing Kamal as he emerges from behind the counter where he checks visitors in. He opens a huge fridge, which together with a laminated plastic bar top and a stylistic mix of wooden chairs, leather armchairs and computer terminals constitutes the hostel’s lounge area.

From the bar you can see the lobby: high-ceilinged, its neon lighting reflected in the marble flooring, with large portraits of regional leaders and a sculpture of a rearing horse.

Kamal takes two green bottles out of the fridge. They look like beer bottles but what’s inside tastes like liquid strawberries. He refuses the 100-dirham note (about 20 euros) we hand him to pay for the drinks: “I don’t have the change,” he says.

It only took ten minutes to get here from the airport, but already we’re in a Dubai we didn’t expect. This is the emirate where the money apparently never runs out, the Orient of tomorrow where the highest buildings in the world thrust into the sky. It’s the land of the largest shopping malls, of hotels boasting seven stars, sand remolded into artificial worlds. But here at the Dubai Youth Hostel, it’s a lot less extravagant. In fact it’s down-to-earth, which is very nice.

From the outside, the hostel has an austere sort of charm. It’s located on a six-lane road, with overhead rail tracks for the subway. You can hear the planes from the nearby airport. The main building is a functional block that used to house the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Community Development. Fluorescent lighting tubes imbue the façade with an atmospheric blue color and a frangipani tree fills the parking lot with the sweet scent of its white flowers. The rooms are squeaky clean; some of them have a flat-screen TV and refrigerator. Floor tiles, walls, bed and bath linens are in pastel tones that all harmonize. But mainly it’s the friendliness of Sayed and his colleagues that make us feel comfortable right away.

"I only reserved for two days, but I’ve prolonged my stay," says Chrystiona O'Sullivan who’s checking her e-mails in the bar. She hails from LA, and is taking a trip around the world on her own to get over a divorce. "In youth hostels you get freer, more open spirits than you do in the luxury hotels, so it’s easier to get to know other people," she says.

Not that you’d be left on your own for long in the city’s most recently opened luxury hotel, the JW Marriott Marquis in the business district. Barely inside the door when a staff member rushes over to meet and greet, and accompany you to one of the many check-in desks. But of course that’s programmed friendliness, part of the establishment’s top-of-the-market offer: 72 floors, 1,608 rooms and suites, a dozen restaurants, bars, lounges, ballrooms, and a business center, housed in two palm-shaped towers one of which opened in February – the other opens in 2014.

This is the Dubai you expect, where nobody talks about the economic crisis, where there are already 588 hotels with some 77,000 rooms to which 11,000 are expected to be added by the end of 2013. Europeans, Chinese, Latin Americans, Middle Easterners and people from emerging African countries stay at these hotels which have an official occupancy rate of 80%. Ten million visitors make it to Dubai every year, double as many as eight years ago.

The culture of spending a nice moment together

And some of them stay at the youth hostel, where we’re having breakfast in a room with walls the color of sand. Paintings show idyllic mountain scenes – except that they feature cedars instead of fir trees. There’s an electronic flycatcher, and a verses of the Koran in both Arabic and English course across the TV screen. Guests sit together at a long table and strike up conversations easily with one another.

The young men in sweat pants having tea, bread and hummus are soccer players with the Iraqi premier-league team FC Samarra, in Dubai to train for a week. Not only is the pitch of local team – FC Al-Ahli – nearby, but the hostel also has a great swimming pool. "No disco, no alcohol – this is the kind of place where we feel comfortable," says a 23-year-old soccer player.

Also enjoying the breakfast buffet is fitness trainer Melanie Cripps from the UK. Says the 38-year-old: "I stand a lot more chance of getting a job here than I do in Europe; the economy is flourishing, and people in the Middle East are totally into sports and health.” Among Dubai’s two million inhabitants there are tens of thousands of expats who work in the local subsidiaries of large multinationals. With over 200 countries represented here, "it’s more international than Singapore," Cripps says. But since she doesn’t know how much longer it’s going to take her to find a job, she doesn’t want to shell out too much for her accommodation. "Youth hostels are ideal for people like me," she says, "and this one is practically a hotel."

Hassan A. Mansy, the director of the Dubai Youth Hostel, likes hearing comments like that. With his dark suit and large wristwatch he could easily pass for a manager at the Marriott. "In 1984, all there was at this location were two wooden huts in the desert," he says. "When we saw how fast the UAE was changing, we thought there has to be something besides ever-bigger projects – something for people who can’t afford an expensive hotel." The hostel has room for 300 guests, and most of them come from the Emirates, Europe, and Africa, he says. Here too occupancy is 80%. "We don’t only invest in the buildings, but in the culture of spending a nice moment together," says Mansy, explaining that the roots for that approach lie in traditional Arab hospitality.

The Youth Hostel’s modern-day version of that tradition works – so well that the hostel is expanding. By the end of the year Mansy is planning to open 120 extra rooms and 12 conference rooms on two additional floors. Maybe the hostel is not so untypical of Dubai after all.

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