I am catching up on the blog this week. For our Fall Break after spending a day in Almaty, Kazakhstan, we flew Air Astana to Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates. We spent 4 nights and 5 days in the UAE and really enjoyed the desert sunshine and the remarkable transformation of a pearl diving village on the Persian Gulf to an ever-expanding metropolis.
Dubai is a fascinating place and one of the world’s global cities. It reminded me of Singapore or Hong Kong. Author Justin Marozzi sums up the city well in his excellent book, “Islamic Empires: 15 Cities that Define a Civilization” when he quotes a professor from a university in Dubai, “Find me a Syrian, Iraqi, Lebanese, Tunisian, Algerian, Moroccan, Sudanese or an Egyptian who doesn’t want to live in Dubai,…They all do.”
I have mixed emotions about the city. I love the openness and tolerance demonstrated by the Emiratis. It is a model for the Islamic world. The city welcomes foreigners, and over 200 nationalities reside in the city. It has lifted the standard of living for many. Cities in the Middle East can learn lessons from Dubai Inc. The downside of Dubai is how large it has become. We fought traffic to drive across the city to the Dubai Mall and the scale can be overwhelming. The sheer scale of capitalism – hotels, apartments, restaurants, stores, etc. is dehumanizing. I was much more relaxed when we left the city for the Hajar Mountains in the Dubai exclave of Hatta.
Another negative aspect is the vast infrastructure of Dubai is built by low-wage expatriates from Asia (India / Pakistan/ Nepal/ Bangladesh/ Philippines) working in tough conditions. The Emiratis only make up about 25% of the population of the country. Yes, these immigrants are there because it is better than where they are from and I would think remittances help their families back home, but watching the workers on these huge construction sites, showed they have a tough job in the hot. desert sun. Most of our interactions with “locals” were Indians and Nepalese.
The Maktoum Dynasty founded Dubai and Sheikh Rashid of the Maktoum Dynasty is the real force behind Dubai Inc. The emirate has had a smart strategy of making it easy to set up businesses in Dubai. They outcompeted other regional cities to dominate the Gulf Region. They did it by taking risks as well to build the infrastructure way ahead of the demand. This included taking out huge loans for dredging Dubai Creek, building two massive ports, an airport, an airline, etc. Time and again, Sheikh Rashid took bold risks that paid off. The growth is phenomenal and it is now a transportation hub for this part of the world.
It is amazing to think that he took a place with high humidity, extremely hot sun, and a barren desert full of sand and turned it into a place that 15.8 million tourists visited in 2018. When we were thinking of where to travel for the Fall Break, Dubai was one of the easiest choices. There is no visa required, lots of flights and places to stay, and it was the most hassle-free vacation choice to make.
We paid the requisite visit to the largest shopping mall in the region, the Dubai Mall. It is an absolutely massive palace to consumerism. After a long night of clothes shopping, we watched the famous Dubai Fountain Show, along with hundreds of others. The show itself was uninspiring, but looking at all of the tourists and the buildings, including the world’s highest building, the Burj Khalif, was interesting. We rented an Air B&B apartment near the JBR Beach. The views were cool from the 21st floor although the apartment was cheaply made, but comfortable. Hotels are very expensive in Dubai so the apartment was a reasonable $200 per night for a family of four.
Each morning we walked to the beach and went swimming. I miss the ocean sometimes, living in a double landlocked country. The water was a perfect temperature and it was delightful to spend time with the kids and Nadia. The cityscape background reminded me of Miami or Chicago (summertime!). We met a Russian woman who works in Dubai. There were a lot of Russian tourists and it was funny to keep hearing Russian on our holiday.
On our last night in the city, we drove over to the Dubai Marina Mall. The marina is another of the massive development projects and I appreciated the 7kilometer+ running trail. They built a mosque between the towering apartment buildings and the juxtaposition looked different. We ate at Pier 7, a building attached to the Dubai Marina Mall with 7 floors of restaurants, each with different cuisine. We chose Lebanese on floor 4. The lighted backdrop was spectacular and the food good, so a nice way to end our time in the city.