Abu Dhabi’s Funniest Home Videos

David Allan
12 min readFeb 11, 2024
An “Ishtar” reboot, fall from dromedary,
skiing indoors, hotel security the most scary.

I held the video camera on Jesse as Sheila the camel stood up — back legs, then front — rocking him in the saddle before it slipped off Sheila’s back. Jesse fell from five feet in the air onto his back.

While Sheila got spooked and ran toward the dune horizon, I started walking toward my injured friend, keeping the shot trained on Jesse as I asked if he was all right, barely stifling my nervous laughter. “Uuughh,” he groaned, in unfunny pain.

We were outside Abu Dhabi, and I would say I had no business being there, but it was actually for Jesse’s business that we were.

I hadn’t wanted to ride a camel, though, for the record. While living in Thailand, I made a rule for myself not to ride any animal unless it was the only option. There were opportunities to ride elephants there, but I wasn’t going to do it unless I needed to cross a dangerous river and the least-lethal way was on the back of an Asian elephant. I’m a traveler, not a tourist.

But this was our day off, and Jesse, no tourist himself, had hired some guides to take us out to the desert for fun, a triathlon of sandboarding down dunes (which is much slower than I’d imagined), driving up and down dunes in their SUV, and finally a camel ride, like we were at a sheik’s son’s 6th birthday party.

I rode Sheila first, and I must have loosened the saddle because, under Jesse, it slipped off faster than a fundamentalist preacher’s pants.¹ Later, in the hotel room, I gave Jesse’s lower back² a platonic rub and then, while Jesse iced down his ass, I downloaded the video from my camera and posted it on YouTube.

¹ Hat tip to A. Whitney Brown.

² Back only! No happy endings!

​Save the camel accident and, later, my final few anxious hours in the country, my first trip to the United Arab Emirates was fiasco-free. Jesse flew me there to be his assistant. He was a photographer to American schools in far-flung parts of the world. Turns out that not all cultures encourage children to smile in photos, and no one in-country could nail the cheesy laser-like backgrounds that Gen X parents wanted — because it’s what we had behind our school pictures — behind their smiling kids to send to relatives back home. You needed a globe-trotting, hard-working Gen X slacker like Jesse to get the job done right.

We worked hard, Jesse shooting and making kids laugh and me manning a laptop and organizing photos as they downloaded off his camera. Mistakes could be costly, and while I may not have been Jesse’s fastest assistant, I was serious and detail-oriented. We also played hard. We snorkeled in Fujairah, where black balls of tar on the beach got stuck on the soles of our feet. I skied inside a mall.³ I mentioned the sandboarding. Alcohol was hard to come by, but we managed that, too.

³ Three-minute lift to the top; one-minute 
to ski to the bottom; repeat until bored.
We then visited an après-ski lounge in the
mall with a window looking down on the
artificial slope.

This would be my last gig before I settled down into a real career. Weeks earlier, I was offered a job on the Travel desk of The New York Times, and they let me start after this trip since I’d made the commitment beforehand. It was travel, after all.

I had recently helped create a MTV reality show, and soon after it aired, I met with my new William Morris agent. When I said “But I’m really a film screenwriter,” he cut me off to say that the agency was currently only interested in my skills in a reality show capacity. And so I put my excellent adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Garden of Eden” back on the shelf and applied to The Times. Over the course of seven interviews to get the job, I avoided talking about getting fired at Random House and what I’d done since: an internship that led to a MTV dating reality show. None of that seemed on-brand for The Times.

After I got the job, I disclosed that I had a magazine travel assignment too, a tour of the then-new Burj Hotel in Dubai, the world’s tallest and among the most expensive. Security was so serious that you couldn’t even enter the grounds without a hotel or restaurant reservation. For our last day in the UAE, I booked an early dinner there.

And as with many travel assignments, the story behind the story made for a better tale than what was published.

First, I dropped Jesse off at a massage parlor so he and his butt could have a happy ending to his trip and improve his still sore back, which took the brunt of his camel landing.

 Just kidding! UAE is a Muslim country; 
Jesse waited until he had a gig in Nigeria
for the happy endings. Just kidding! I
mean China. Just KIDDING!!

I drove to the Burj in his rental car and took Jesse’s cell phone with me because it had a security code for the restaurant reservation. You show the code on the phone to the armed guard at the security gate.

Once inside, a bomb-sniffing dog was paraded around the car, and then I drove up a sweeping bridge onto the hotel’s carport. Valet was mandatory.

 One time, as a White House intern, I 
assisted Clinton adviser Bob Boorstein
on an errand to the Capitol building
where the guards asked us to stand by
while a dog sniffed the vehicle. “As if
we’d bring drugs with us,” I joked.
Another guard heard me and explained
that they were searching for bombs, not
drugs. “Oooooooh,” I replied,
embarrassed. Then he took a long pole
with a mirror on the end of it and
viewed under the car.

I felt conspicuous at the Burj for a few reasons: 1) The car was a tiny and somewhat dumpy little four-door rental. I was pulling up next to Lamborghinis and Hummers. 2) It was a mess inside, littered with empty junk food bags, soda cans and used napkins. 3) It was suspiciously packed with large duffels of luggage and photo equipment from floor to roof in the back seat, as well as the trunk.

I handed over the keys to the valet, apologizing with that universal sheepish grimace at how terrible the car seemed, comparatively. He handed me a tiny ticket in return. I stuck the ticket in my notebook and went inside for a self-guided tour that ended at the restaurant.

The hotel was as beautiful and opulent as expected. A giant waterfall in the lobby. A butler at the ready on every floor. The whole place was gilded, but not in that cheap Atlantic City way where you see the grime if you examine the carpet too closely. The Burj was immaculate.

I had a $200 vegetarian dinner for one. Then I made a final pass around the grounds and building and took a few more notes before going to the valet to get the car. Jesse and I had timed his pickup to when we needed to get to the airport with enough time to check all his equipment. I was cutting it close.

But I couldn’t find the valet ticket. I thought I had moved it to my pocket or wallet, but it wasn’t in either, nor my notebook. When I apologized to the valet, he directed me to the security office in the lobby.

It was like a tiny police station. Heavily armed security officers stood inside. When I said “Hi, I lost my valet ticket and was told to come in here,” a man behind a desk stood up and introduced himself as the chief of security and asked me to have a seat. I felt the old familiar shame of being sent to the principal’s office.

He had a shaved head and looked like he’d done some tough things, the kind of things where you’re vague on the details and nature of them.

After a few pleasantries, he asked me for my driver’s license. I handed it over, and he held it out to one of the armed men. The armed man took it and walked away, my eyes following my license. I would need that to leave.

“He’s just going to make a copy. We’ll give it back to you. But we need to have a copy on file,” he said without explaining why. Then he pulled out a pen and paper and asked me the car’s make and model.

I don’t know the first thing about cars. If it’s not a Porsche 914, 1992 Toyota Camry, Citroen hatchback or DeLorean, I couldn’t tell you the make and model of any car I’ve been in or seen. I have car brand blindness.

“Oh, I don’t know. It’s a rental car,” I said unhelpfully. “I can tell you it’s small and white.” The song “Edelweiss” from “The Sound of Music” popped into my head, and I smiled, which would have been odd from his perspective.

He gave me a puzzled look and asked me for the name of the rental car company so he could verify the rental.

“Oh, I don’t know that either. I’m here with a friend, and he booked the car.”

“So even if we called the rental car company, they would not have your name on file?” he asked.

“I don’t think he listed me as a driver, no.”

“Can you call your friend and ask him for the name of the rental agency?”

“Aaaah, I’m afraid not. I have his cell phone. I needed it for the code to get past the security gate. I don’t have a mobile phone here.”

“Where is your friend?”

“I dropped him off at a massage parlor about 15 minutes away.”

“What’s the name of it? We’ll call it.”

“Uhhh, I don’t know,” I said, like I was crumbling under interrogation. “I only know how to drive to get there. It’s along the main road there.” I didn’t even know the name of the road.

He asked me for Jesse’s name so he could have one of his team call the rental car companies at the airport and verify the vehicle, and then he handed the paper with Jesse’s name to a staff member.

“If I could just go to the garage, I could find the car,” I said helpfully.

“Mr. Allan, I don’t think you appreciate the seriousness of the situation,” he said, pleasantly but professionally. “We have a car in our garage with no ties to a driver. You can’t verify its make, model or rental status. As for going to the garage, only our trained security staff is allowed there. It is probably the most secure garage in Dubai. We have clients who store their valuable cars here and pay for that level of security.”

I now appreciated the seriousness of the situation. He then wrote down my description of the rental car and its contents, except for the part where I added “It’s probably the shittiest car in the garage.” He looked up at me when I said it was full of camera equipment. Then I explained what Jesse did for a living. He didn’t indicate that that made any sense to him. He handed his paper to the first guard, who shook his head at his boss.

The chief looked at me and said, “They called the airport rental agencies, and none have a record of your friend.” I could have sworn there was a slight intonation on the word “friend” that implied a doubt of his existence.

 At a considerable savings, Jesse had 
long used a small, independent rental
car company outside the airport, I
later learned.

I told the security chief that I was in a terrible hurry. It sounded like a likely story. I said I needed to pick up Jesse and get us to the airport for our flight. And, of course, I didn’t know the flight details when he asked me, because that information was in the car.

“It’s going to be OK,” he said, seeing me start to sweat. “My men are getting the car now, and you will have a passport or something else in your luggage to identify the car as being in your possession. We’ll look at the registration and verify the rental status, and then you’ll be on your way.”

And with that, we got up and headed back to the carport.

“And if we can’t verify those facts, Mr. Allan, we will detain you,” he added, pleasantly enough as we stepped through the automatic doors and into a warm breeze. The sun was setting.

A moment later, a guard pulled up in Jesse’s rental car. He got out and handed the car’s registration to the chief, who looked at it briefly before handing it to another guard, who took it inside. Then two other guards stood close behind me as I reached into my bookbag and got my passport, which I carefully handed to one of them, as they were armed. I noticed fingers near triggers.

A couple of minutes later, the chief handed me back both my passport and the car’s registration. “Everything checks out, Mr. Allan. I hope you make your flight and visit us again soon,” he said, smiling, if wolfishly, for the first time.

I thanked him, and then I got in and nervously drove in reverse, lightly touching the car behind me and causing its alarm to go off, as if I were in a 1960s Peter Sellers movie. I drove away, waving goodbye, before anyone could shout at me to stop.

Back on the road, I sped toward Jesse, registering only in hindsight that all the flashes I saw en route were speed trap cameras. Those tickets would later track down Jesse with $300 in fines incurred just between the Burj and the massage parlor.

We made the flight. And by the time those speeding tickets came around, I’d heard from a television producer from a home video clips show that they’d seen Jesse’s camel video on YouTube and wanted to use it on their show, for $600. Jesse agreed, splitting the money and covering me for the speeding tickets with my half.

 Like a poor man’s “America’s Funniest 
Home Videos.”​

The takeaway
Rich people play by different rules.

Unanswered question
What happens when you’re “detained” by the Burj hotel?

And now a word from a text message exchange between me and Jesse…
J: “sorry. i got a real bad case of covid and was even in the hospital. just trying to get through the days”
D: “Oh my god! You on the other side?”
J: “in terms of the hospital and seriously worried yes
when you said the other side i thought you meant dead”
D: “Feeling better? Out of the woods, I mean”
J: “not yet but feeling a bit better every day. thank god for kevin. he told me what medications to get right when it happened and they are kicking in.”
D: “Whew
I’m so sorry
You are trying so hard not to reply to those stories I sent you”
J: “my doctor said i should wait as long as possible because it will help on final movie rights negotiations”
D: “I think you could play yourself
They’re talking to Jason Bateman to play me”
J: “i’ve always wanted his hands on me”
D: “You’re going to have to fall off a camel again, I’m afraid”
J: “i’d fucking love that. miss the travel and having people carry my shit everywhere”

Related dream:
August 23, 2006
Our Cobble Hill apartment, Brooklyn

Missing the Boat

I was in a car in a foreign city waiting to pick up Jesse so we could get through a tight connection on a boat. We may have been in Dubai [where we are going together in two months time]. I didn’t see Jesse anywhere, so I went looking for him. That wasted a few precious minutes because he got to the car before I got back.

Then we went to the rental car dropoff, which was basically the lawn of an upscale hotel. As we unpacked, I noticed the gas station next door and remembered that I hadn’t refilled the gas tank before returning the car. Jesse was getting annoyed.

I tried to get the car back, but it was now blocked in by others. I went to get help from the rental agency, but then a new customer drove off with it. We may have still had a bag inside. I looked at my watch, and it was clear we were going to miss the boat.

I felt terrible, guilty. Jesse tried to act as though he were not annoyed, but he was clearly unhappy.

Staged photo of me, as Jesse’s lazy, messy, donut-eating assistant. Costume borrowed from the drama department at the school where we were shooting in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.



David Allan

CNN’s Executive Editor of Enterprise and Features (Travel, Style, Wellness, Science). This account represents my personal views, not CNN’s.