A queasy, confusing trip to the Babylon of bling

Dubai is often described as a marriage of hyper-modern capitalism and traditional Arabic culture. Inside Dubai: Playground of the Rich, the BBC’s three-part portrait of expat life in the Middle East’s Babylon of bling, was likewise full of contrasts, though the results were confusing rather than captivating.

This film took us into the lives of extraordinary wealth and privilege beneath the city’s gleaming skyscrapers, and it was fascinating to observe the city’s one percenters live it up.

A Danish zillionaire explained that driving around in a Bentley would probably result in him getting beaten up in his home town. In Dubai he was free to flaunt his fortune. Gaynor Scott, born to a working class Stoke-on-Trent family, enjoyed a breathtakingly pampered existence in an exclusive neighbourhood after marrying a multi-millionaire.

A crueller series would have mocked her designer lifestyle – and her designer lifebuoys (one Hermès, one Chanel). Yet she came across as reasonably self-aware regarding her privileges, even as she prepared to take an £80,000 private flight back to the UK. “I don’t think I’m anything special,” she said. “I’m lucky”.

Women posing at the races in Inside Dubai: Playground of the Rich (Photo: Spun Gold/BBC)

The problem was, this also tiptoed around the darker side of Dubai, “under a blanket of CCTV”, and its absolute ruler Sheikh Mohammed – criticism of whom is forbidden, it was revealed.

This made for a queasy mix – it was as if the documentary wanted to deliver a warts-and-all portrait but was reluctant to inflict too much January gloom on the audience. One minute Inside Dubai was luxuriating in the excess on display, the next it was dropping ominous hints that there was more to this paradise on earth than met the eye.

In the end, it was a triumph of surface gloss over substance: neither fluffy enough to qualify as leave-brain-at-door escapism nor rigorous enough to pass for hard-hitting journalism. It might have been soaked in Dubai’s endless sunshine, but it made for muddy viewing.

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