They are two cities that Indians often travel to. And some of us, if asked, would consider moving there because neither city would seem too far from home. Singapore and Dubai have much in common. They are both cities that only came of age in the last decades of the 20th century. Neither city has much by way of natural resources. Singapore is a city State which imports nearly everything it needs. Dubai seems prosperous but that’s not because of any oil wealth. Compared to its neighbours in the region, Dubai has hardly any oil.
Both cities were built by individual leaders with vision. In the case of Singapore, there were times in the 1960s when its very existence seemed to be in danger. But because of the visionary (if somewhat iron-fisted and unforgiving) leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore grew to become one of the world’s great cities. Dubai owes its success almost entirely to the leadership of Sheikh Mohammed, its hereditary ruler whose vision of a modern city rising out of the sand has been realised.
Both cities have used foreign talent to fuel their success. Dubai has always welcomed useful foreigners and Singapore has long been a home away from home for Asians from all over the region and for skilled Europeans and Australians.
And there are other similarities. Both have gleaming skyscrapers and broad modern roads. Both have malls that are little towns in themselves. Both are packed with international hotels. Both are proud of their dining scene. Both have liberalised their original rigid regulations. It is now easier to get a drink in Dubai than ever before. And Singapore transformed its prim image in the early years of this century by allowing casinos to open.
So, how do they compare? During the pandemic, I went twice to Dubai but, till recently, it was hard to get into Singapore. But now that Singapore has liberalised entry requirements, it is easy enough for vaccinated Indians to visit. I was there last week and wondered if perhaps I had to re-examine my views about the differences between the two cities.
The Basic Differences: For all its internationalism, Singapore is very much an old city with a traditional culture of its own. Yes, there are Indians and Malays, but this is primarily a Chinese city. (The Chinese constitute something like 75% of the population.) The Chinese dominate the city, speak Singapore Mandarin to each other (though you will still find people who speak Hokkien and other dialects) and will be the ethnic group any visitor sees most often: Front office staff when you check into a hotel, taxi drivers and shop assistants.
This gives Singapore cultural roots that Dubai does not have. Dubai is a city full of foreigners with locals constituting only under 20% of the population. If you see an Arab in Dubai, the chances are that he or she is from another part of the Middle East. Consequently, the influence of Emirati culture is very low in Dubai compared to Chinese culture in Singapore.
So Singapore is a Chinese city that welcomes foreigners. Dubai is an international city in the United Arab Emirates.
The Indian Factor: Singapore has always had an ethnic Indian population. More Indians have travelled and settled there over the years. I am always surprised by the number of Indians I bump into who regard themselves as Singaporeans, either by birth or by adoption.
But Dubai is dominated by Indians and Pakistanis. You can probably speak to your taxi driver in Hindi or Urdu. Every hotel room service menu will offer Indian food. A large proportion of the people you will see working in your hotel will be South Asians. It will be the same at the airport.
There are times when Dubai just feels like an extension of India; one reason why Indians love the city so much.
Traveller Convenience: There was a time when I was convinced that Changi was the best airport in the world and Singapore Airlines was the best international airline. These are still valid positions but I am less sure about them now than I used to be.
Dubai has improved so quickly that I think it may have surged past Singapore. Travelling through Changi this time was not the breeze it used to be. (I found it hard to believe that it took me less time to clear immigration, collect my baggage and go through customs at Delhi Airport when I returned than it had taken when I arrived in Changi.)
Dubai Airport has coped much better with the pandemic. All passengers from India were tested at the airport both times I landed but the testing was so smooth and so quick that it did not delay us much.
In Singapore, on the other hand, after we had exited customs, we had to queue for over 20 minutes to get tested. And the test in Dubai was free. Singapore changed the equivalent of ₹7,000 or so per head. (Singapore was due to abolish the airport test shortly after I left so that might have already happened.)
Singapore Airlines had scantily manned check-in desks in the premium sections, passengers were kept waiting longer than was necessary and the lounge was packed with dirty tables which were cleared only desultorily. The in-flight food ranged from poor to inedible and the business class wines were undistinguished.
In contrast, Emirates now seems like the far superior airline with speedy check-in, lounges that are efficiently run and food and wine that is memorable.
Who would have thought it?
Hotels: Both Singapore and Dubai have excellent hotels so comparisons probably depend on which hotel you stayed at and at which time. For instance, I thought Dubai’s Marriott Marquis was ghastly when I stayed there five years ago, but lots of people have had good experiences at the same hotel. I stayed at Singapore’s Four Seasons three years ago and loved it, but this time the hotel’s services seemed to have collapsed. With the exception of the front office (which was good), nothing worked. Room service seemed to be run by two-and-a-half overworked people who could not cope. Housekeeping was slapdash. The one meal I had at the hotel was pretty bad.
So it’s hard to generalise. It varies from person to person and from stay to stay.
Transport: It is much easier getting around in Dubai. Taxis are plentiful. The drivers are friendly. And you are unlikely to get lost. Taxis are harder to find in Singapore and unless you have an account with Grab or some such service, you could find it difficult to get around. (I did not use public transport so I can’t comment on the quality in either city but I am guessing that most tourists will not have time to master bus routes).
Dining: This is the only chink in Dubai’s armour. There are very few good restaurants of the city’s own. Nearly everything that is popular is a branch of a restaurant somewhere else. The recently announced Middle East edition of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants rates Zuma as the second-best restaurant in Dubai and includes Le Petit Maison and Coya among the top Dubai restaurants. They are probably very good but they are all branches of London restaurants and one of them is actually run by the owners of the London branch of a Nice restaurant. (None of the original and better London restaurants is good enough to even feature in the World’s 50 Best which tells its own story.)
This is not much of a dining scene to compete with New York, London, Paris, Hong Kong or any great city. But nobody seems to mind. They genuinely believe that Zuma is the greatest restaurant in the world and everyone tries to rip it off.
In contrast, Singapore is now the gourmet capital of the East with world class restaurants of its own. Odette, with three Michelin stars, could take on any Paris restaurant. Burnt Ends has revolutionised how people look at barbecue places. It helps that Singapore’s dining scene is patronised by the global financial community (which moved there in the 21st century after Hong Kong was returned to the Chinese), whose members could be eating in Paris one night and Singapore the next. So the benchmarking is international, the world’s best wines are served and guests know the difference between real Japanese food and Dubai’s disco-Japanese cuisine.
So where should you go? It depends. I like the convenience and friendliness of Dubai. As an Indian, I feel at home. India never seems too far away.
But as a foodie, it would have to be the far more sophisticated city of Singapore where you can have an excellent lunch at a Michelin three-star restaurant and a terrific dinner at a hawker’s centre.
And both meals will be equally enjoyable.