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Middle Eastern Promise: Why Dubai Is a Perfect Setting for Grand Theft Auto

The UAE's biggest city could be just the exotic injection of inspiration the GTA series needs to avoid falling into repetition.

The globally recognised Burj-al-Arab hotel, a building that would definitely be riffed on in a GTA game (photo by Cuny Guillaume, via Wikipedia)

Grand Theft Auto has long been parodying the American Dream, with games set in fictional versions of New York (GTA IV), Miami (Vice City) and Los Angeles (V), plus the San Francisco and Las Vegas analogues seen in GTA: San Andreas. Rockstar's infamous series has previously visited London though, suggesting that while its makers are publicly adamant that it'll always be set stateside, GTA could yet travel to new destinations, exploring the unknown to avoid becoming repetitive.


And when that move comes, to abandon America – perhaps for a single game; perhaps for the long-term future – there's one city that stands out above all others as the perfect candidate: Dubai.

The pearl-diving backwater turned Las Vegas of the Middle East has all the hallmarks of a classic GTA game: fast cars, iconic architecture and audacious criminal activity. Hell, it even has jetpacks. It's a gloriously tacky and grotesquely decadent world of paradoxes that would make the perfect fodder for Rockstar's singular brand of social satire.

A New Type of Sandbox

Picture yourself skydiving from the world's tallest building on a warm Arabian night, taking in the dazzling kaleidoscope of neon lights from the many high rises below as you soar towards the earth. Imagine landing your chopper on the helipad of a seven-star offshore hotel, before being escorted to the opulent penthouse suite that's been rewarded to you for completing a main mission for some corrupt tycoon. Visualise your protagonist sipping champagne on a luxury yacht as he takes it for a spin up the Persian Gulf, past ludicrous man-made islands shaped like palm trees.

Dubai is a city that is either vulgar or impressive depending on your perspective, but there is no denying it has a unique visual style that would translate well to a video game – particularly an open world experience like GTA. But what if you feel like taking a break from the hustle and bustle of city life?


GTA V let players explore the wilderness beyond the city of Los Santos, putting them in a world so rich in nature that it even inspired an Attenborough-style wildlife documentary. A game set in Dubai could offer the same sense of escapism, thanks to the city's proximity to one of the most untamed lands on earth, the Arabian Desert. Anyone who has ever been out to the deserts of the UAE will know the opportunities they boast for adrenaline junkies and thrill-seekers. Think quad biking, think dirt biking, think tearing up epic sand dunes in your 4x4 and you get the idea.

And perhaps, more romantically, the desert could also provide the opportunity to take a glimpse into Bedouin life. Maybe one of the game's story arcs could introduce you to the nomadic tribes who've inhabited this land for centuries, long before oil turned it into the billionaire's playground it is today. Their ancient way of life could certainly provide for some unique minigames – camel racing and falconry, anyone?

And, if nothing else, the desert could provide that most annoying (but necessary) of open-world game staples: the "edge-of-map-barrier". Wander too deep into the sands and your jeep runs out of fuel, your camel dies of thirst or your protagonist gets swept into oblivion by an approaching sandstorm.

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Plenty of Job Opportunities

Crime is the lifeblood of any GTA and, as glossy a place as Dubai is from the outside looking in, it also possesses a darker side within which you might expect to build your criminal empire. Much like its bombastic construction projects, the illegal activity that takes place in Dubai is headline grabbing and theatrical. There's no shortage of material here with which to inspire Rockstar's creative leads.

You want drug deals? Here's a story about a gang that was busted for smuggling a whopping 30 kilos of heroin into the country. Heists? Look no further than when a pair of Audi A8s smashed through the glass doors of a shopping centre, their drivers stealing $3.4m of jewellery in under three minutes.


You want assassinations? How about the slaying of a Chechen warlord with a golden gun. Or Mossad's meticulously planned hit on a Hamas operative in a Dubai hotel that featured assassins dressed in tennis shorts and false moustaches. If the latter doesn't sound like something that a Niko Bellic-type character would get roped into being a part of, then I don't know what does.

And if you're foolhardy enough to think Dubai's police will struggle to give chase once you've committed brazen crimes like these, bear in mind their squad of vehicles includes a Lamborghini Aventador, a Bugatti Veyron and a BMW i8 (see the video below for the evidence).

GTA V's LSPD might have made more of those five stars with some of these in their fleet

Letting Your Hair Down

Criminals need their down time, and what you spend yours doing between missions is as important to the GTA experience as the main story. Many of us have sunk hours into trying to become the best darts player Steinway Beer Garden has ever seen, or thrashing the yummy mummies of Vespucci Beach in a game of tennis. And Dubai is a city that takes fun seriously, with tourism playing a key role in its economy, assuring the potential for a wide variety of leisure activities to enjoy.

Take water sports, for example. One of the emirate's biggest attractions is its coastline, so it would be safe to assume that surfing, sailing, paragliding, scuba diving and powerboat racing could all feature. If the outside world's feeling a little too close for comfort, those looking for cooler climates could hit the slopes of an indoor ski dome – there's one in the Mall of the Emirates, over 22,000 square metres covered in real snow all year round.


This totally looks like the sort of thing you'd find in a GTA game

GTA players might be disappointed that there's no jetpack in Vso far, at least. But while the pretend LA can't deliver such thrills, the real-life Dubai certainly does – check the video above. Okay, it's not the sort of activity just anyone can join in with – but since when is your average GTA protagonist going to let their "average Joe" status stand in the way of doing something completely extraordinary?

For a truly modern twist, perhaps you could try your hand at a bit of drone racing? Dubai held the first World Drone Prix back in March 2016. And of course, if you're a traditionalist who would rather race cars (this is Grand Theft Auto, after all), there'd always be the opportunity to do that. Just try not to total your Ferrari like this guy did.

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New Material

Rockstar uses the cities of GTA to hold a mirror up to American society – albeit a distorted one that accentuates the worst that human nature has to offer. And if the minds behind future instalments want some new themes to tackle, they need look no further than Dubai.

Conservative Islamic values are upheld amidst a backdrop of capitalism and debauchery while obscenely lavish hotels are built upon the labours of exploited workers imported from the subcontinent. This is a world rich with contradictions for Rockstar to criticise, parody and poke fun at, while providing enough substance and entertainment to keep players immersed and engrossed.


And it's not like Rockstar couldn't tie a story – or several of them – set in Dubai to the lore they've already laid down in previous GTAs. The Ballad of Gay Tony starred Yusuf Amir, a playboy real estate developer with a penchant for tiger pants, stolen APCs and golden guns. Dubai is his place of birth, and as he made it out of Gay Tony alive, there's no reason why he couldn't play a part in a new Middle Eastern adventure. Then again, compared to some of the very real stories that have come out of Dubai, Yusuf sounds relatively tame – so perhaps Rockstar would have its work cut out to twist the already strange reality of one of the wealthiest and wildest places on Earth.


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