The story of Dubai is one of the greatest success stories of our time. It is hard to imagine anywhere else in the world that has developed at such a pace, in such a short time, for so many different people. It has literally erupted into a cosmopolitan city which is barely recognisable from what it was 30 years ago. As a Middle Eastern Expat since 1994 I have seen massive changes in the region and have been very privileged to have experienced both early Dubai and the city it has grown into.
I moved to The United Arab Emirates to find adventure and escape. It was always joked about with my colleagues that we were like a foreign legion. All looking to escape a previous life and to some extent they were right. I remember making the decision to move to the UAE and being bombarded with questions from friends and family. Where is that? Is it safe? Can you drive? Can you drink? Unbelievably, I still receive similar questions today, generally from people who are unfamiliar with the region.
The UAE is made up of seven emirates Abu-Dhabi, (the capital and political centre) Dubai, Sharjah, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Um Al Quain, and Ajman. I moved to Fujairah, a very small place which consisted of one hotel, one motel, one supermarket, some small restaurants, and only 50 expats. As you can imagine living in such a small community meant that life could become quite incestuous at times.
Entertainment was limited and most of it was centred around The Hilton Hotel. After work my colleagues and I would head over to the pool to relax and maybe go back in the evenings for a glass or two of something stronger. Alcohol was easy to buy in the hotel and could also be bought at the ‘hole in the wall’ at the Beach Motel. If you knew any of the american servicemen, who were regularly stationed there, they would gladly buy alcohol for you from their military base.
The Beach Motel was an experience in itself. The best way to describe it is like an evening at a caravan park club in the eighties. It was dark and seedy and usually had live entertainment (if you could call it that) consisting of a barely dressed Filipino band singing the best or worst of the sixties, seventies and eighties.
The other highlight of our evenings was Club Tropicana. This was part of the Hilton Hotel and was an equally tasteless place to go. The clientele here often consisted of young Emirati boys dressed like american rap dancers or in National dress. In the winter it was not unheard of for them to be wearing anoraks, hats and shoes with their National Dress. This became even more amusing when they moved to the dance floor without taking off the anoraks.
Saturday night was always Hash night,(A sort of running treasure hunt, very popular in expat communities.) Tuesday was netball and big Wednesday night was usually party night at someone’s house. Everyone helped everyone else and we were all one big family but needless to say it didn’t always smell of roses.
On quiet weekends we used to travel up to Dubai. It was around a 90 minute drive. Dubai, even then, compared to Fujairah was a big city. It had supermarkets and one or two shopping malls. The one we frequented was Bur Juman, usually followed by a drink in The George and Dragon and then dinner and a dance at Pancho Villas. If we were feeling up for it we would go to the Highland Lodge to finish off the night. There was not much more choice at this time. Difficult to believe when you see the buzzing nightlife of restaurants, clubs and bars that are available today.
The other place I need to mention is Karama. This was a souk area filled with local shops and stalls. It was the best place to buy fresh fruit cocktails, sharwma and a Rolex watch for a fiver. I remember many times walking past a trader who would whisper out the corner of his mouth “Wanna buy a watch?” At which point you would be taken into the attic of the shop where there would be an Aladdin’s Cave of fake watches. I presume Karama is still there but I’m not sure in what capacity.
In our daily lives we were forced to mix with the locals because we were all thrown together and because of that we didn’t just have an overseas experience we had a cultural one. For example, I have sat on the floor with an Arabic family sharing a meal off one plate. I have been to many Arabic weddings, (Not that I’d like to go to anymore) have been offered help and assistance by locals when in trouble and been proposed too more often than I care to count.
My life then was very different to what today’s Middle Eastern expats experience. Expat’s travel to the Gulf to make money and live in their own cultural bubble. Their lives change very little apart from the location they are living in. Every modern amenity is available and friends and acquaintances are generally from the same part of the world. Opportunities to mix with locals are rare and I suspect unnecessary.
No one belongs in Dubai. Its economy is based on transience as is its community. Everything is temporary including its culture which is now largely based on a highly cosmopolitan society with a diverse and vibrant nature. Since 2006, the weekend has been Friday-Saturday, as a compromise between Friday’s holiness to Muslims and the Western weekend of Saturday-Sunday. Dubai has also been criticised for perpetuating a class-based society, where many of the migrant workers are treated as lower classes.
If you travel to Dubai you are unlikely to see an Emirati in National Dress unless you travel to the airport which could service a continent never mind a small Emirate. It is the single largest building in the world by floor space. National Dress is not allowed in the bars and restaurants which serve alcohol so if you go out in the evening you are unlikely to see any evidence that you are in the Gulf. The Emiratis are now the minority group in the country. ( National Dress for men consists of a long white garment, much like a dress called a dish-dash or thobe and ladies usually cover their clothing with a long black flowing garment called an abaya.)
Dubai is a city of amazing feats of engineering, architecture and vision which is evident in the incredible infrastructure that has lured so many. People move to Dubai now because it is seen as the land of prosperity. They go to make money, but the reality of it is, that no one really belongs there and no one stays. The society relies heavily on workers coming for short periods of time. When they realise Dubai isn’t paved with gold they move on. The experience is fast paced, expensive and does not offer a vastly different way of life than in the Western World.
Everything in Dubai is trying to be bigger and better than the rest of the world. They boast they have the world’s largest mall, the world’s tallest hotel, the world’s tallest building, the first underwater hotel, the largest waterfront development and the fastest-growing tourist market. What they have achieved is incredible and commendable but at what cost?
Dubai has been built with limitless amounts of money but money cannot buy what they have lost in the process. Heritage and culture cannot be pawned. Is Dubai trying to buy a new culture at the expense of the old? Has their culture, which was based largely on Islamic traditions, been sold to the devil in exchange for countless malls (over 70), skyscrapers and 8 lane expressways?
Let me leave you with this last thought: Dubai has Media City, Internet City, Sports City, Motor City and Knowledge Village. Strange that the thing that makes us develop as a people — knowledge — is classed only as a village……