If I’m honest, it’s never somewhere I had dreamed of going. It was on my bucket list for sure, just not very near the top. Still, if someone had offered me a free flight and accommodation I wouldn’t have said no.
You always have preconceptions about a place and I’d heard plenty of stories about Dubai, some good – beautiful beaches, magnificent structures – and some not so good – super-strict laws, showy falseness. Of course, when your best friend lives there and not only regales you with such wonderful tales of endless summers and delicious feasts, but also shares snaps of paradise-like views, and offers to show you around for 10 days, it would be rude not to experience it and find out for myself.
Landing from my Emirates’ flight – and having been somewhat entranced by the promotional tourism videos on board – I was greeted at immigration by a rather cheery Arab gentleman in a brilliant white dishdash (robes), keffiyeh (headscarf) and black agal (headscarf cord). In fact, when I think back, everything seemed brilliant white and gleamingly shiny and nothing at all like arrivals in Europe or the States.
Once through I met up with Leandi and greeted her with a big hug before recoiling having remembered what I’d heard about public displays of affection. (Leandi didn’t seem as worried) Without condoning it, she mentioned that this was the airport and there was a certain degree of tolerance, the type that always seems to come with an airport arrivals lounge.
IN THE LINE OF PROGRESS
For the next 10 days I experienced all sorts of Dubai culture, from the workplace and dining, to sightseeing and pure indulgence mixed with history and tradition.
You might think it strange to put Dubai and history together, after all, part of what makes it so vibrant and dazzling is its constant change and determination, not just to break records, but also for progress. It was intriguing to see how quickly a city can grow, especially with Leandi as my guide telling me how in the years she has lived there, entire neighbourhoods and districts have emerged from the sand seemingly overnight.
Yes, Dubai is showy and parts of it do feel a bit false – Madinat to me did feel a little Disney-fied at times – but at the same time, you can’t not be impressed and amazed by the sheer feats of engineering and imaginative architecture – the glimmering Burj Khalifa and the indoor ski slope to name but two – or the warmth of the community that I met.
JUST A LITTLE RESPECT
Respect seems to be a key part of Dubai society; being respectful of the laws and of each other. There is a certain pride that emanates from those that live there because of it. There is an area that I perceived as not being particularly respectful and that was the almost conscious disrespect for the environment and sustainability. Of course, the air-conditioned bus shelters offered welcome relief from the soaring temperatures and humidity yet the power the city must need simply in order to operate seemed untenable. Also the lack of availability of places to recycle shocked me somewhat, not just because I am so used to separating my rubbish into various containers these days, but also that being a relatively “new” city, these should surely have been commonplace.
I’m glad to say that Dubai is making huge steps into the “green” world and is in fact striving to be “Capital of the Green Economy” by 2021. I just wonder how an economy that relies on fossil fuels will make this change.
With regard to those stories I’d heard of your not being able to go out without covering up etc. I am, to an extent, happy to say that they are not entirely true. For example, we were relaxing at one of Dubai’s beautiful parks and the park rangers asked a gentleman to put a t-shirt on as he was in the family area. A mere 50ft away was the beach where, as the ranger told him, he was welcome to sunbathe. The more I thought about it, the more I questioned whether this was actually strict at all, rather it was just respectful and demonstrated the kind of manners and good behaviour that any civilised society should want.
There will always be elements of any place that I agree with and those that I – sometimes vehemently – oppose. There are elements of the law and beliefs in Dubai that I cannot agree with but I felt far from a stranger there and, expat and western influences aside, I found it a hugely welcoming, tolerant and safe environment with an intriguing culture and history.
So what’s Dubai like? Well, it is a clash of cultures but they seem to work rather well with each other. Imagine waking up to the call of morning prayer from the nearby mosque, feasting on succulent lamb with rice or sweet khabees (dessert made with toasted flour), popping to the mall for some high-end retail therapy and a spot of skiing before hitting the beach and then dancing the night away with the beautiful people, and you’re almost there.
What are your experiences of Dubai? Let us know in the comments below.