In 2001 my boyfriend and I traveled to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to visit a friend who had been working there since 2000. Realizing an opportunity to tour this unique Arab nation with someone who knew his way around the place wouldn’t come again soon, we began the tedious process of obtaining visas and invitations from what would be our host country for a few weeks that winter.We arrived in Dubai, one of the seven emirates in the UAE, after stopping in Zurich and Saudi Arabia. What we found was a city that seemed to grow even in the short time we were there. Dubai is an emerging tourist destination and apparent refuge for expats in the heart of the Middle East. At its core, it is a symbiotic blend of opposites: camel races occur every Friday, women are veiled, the ruling Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum has six wives (but only five palaces), and drinking alcohol is forbidden if you are Muslim; yet cell-phone-talking, sports-car-driving nationals proliferate in this city where some of the most daring and original examples of modern architecture–including the Burj al Arab, the ambitiously tall hotel that towers over every other hotel in the world–stretch skyward in defiance of old ways. Presumably the significant expatriate population, combined with Dubai’s openness to visitors makes it a city with a consistently malleable personality.
When I woke up the first morning, groggy and out of sync with the inordinate amount of sunlight streaming into my room, I was immediately awed by how well tradition merged with an unceasing desire to be modern. At first I was jarred–though, eventually calmed–by the sound of a nearby bell ringing. I looked out the window and identified the source of this sound: a beautiful, tall mosque with delicate minarets perched atop round foundations. A moment later, I witnessed a Ferrari racing past our building. It took a few days, but I quickly grew accustomed to this juxtaposition. Dubai has built an aggressively modern city while clinging to important traditions. Religion, predictably, has a prevailing influence. The call to prayer is itself meditative, as bells chime men and women throughout the city toward their religion five times daily. Since non-Muslims are not allowed inside places of worship, I could only peer in after the devout dozens unbuckled their sandals and entered to pray. Perhaps the mosques retain their mystery that way–I am unable to imagine what exactly draws the majority of a country inside to prayer and meditation each day, and while the answer may not be found within those hallowed walls, admittedly, I found myself curious for a look.
Though the mosque was off limits, I could explore the rest of the city freely. Dubai expands along both banks of a long and famous creek, and its central business district is divided into two parts: Deira on the northern side of the creek, and Bur Dubai to the south. Each side is full of mosques and busy souks (markets), impressive buildings, shopping malls, hotels, schools, and residences. Outside this center, the city extends to the neighboring mercantile emirate of Sharjah to the north, and south and west along the Gulf, through the more conservative emirates of Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Umm All Quwain, Fujairah, and Ras Al Khaimah. Each emirate has a distinct personality, and Dubai is the most westernized and open to tourists.
The advantage to traveling in Dubai is that Westerners are rarely excluded. Female tourists need not don burqas, nor must they confine themselves to certain areas of the city. I explored every corner I could. Dubai is earnest in its invitation to tourists, particularly Europeans, with the hope of establishing a livelihood that will last when the oil runs out. However, their openness does not always lead to comfort. To explore the business district of Dubai, I first had to take a flat, barge-like boat, called a dhow, across the harbor. Each boat carried approximately 50 passengers, and I was the only woman each way. To step off the boat required several leg-stretching steps that made exiting in a skirt appear unavoidably immodest. These boats did not cater to women; women found little place in the massive, yet intriguing, new architecture that housed Dubai’s impressive list of foreign companies: HSBC, Merrill Lynch, and more. Across the creek and past these giants of architecture, one enters one of the larger shopping districts of Dubai. I happily skipped over the business area to explore these markets.
Huge sacks of spices flank the walls of interconnected open-air markets. I loved this place. Strong smells of coriander and fenugreek wafted through as veiled women negotiated and wide-eyed tourists searched for unique souvenirs. In true Dubai fashion, markets found their opposite across town in huge modern shopping malls, boasting boutiques full of Chanel instead of coriander. Supposedly, the women in Dubai love to shop and wear designer clothes under their traditional dress, and if the sheer availability of designer wear is any hint, in addition to the number of gorgeous heels I saw poking out from beneath drab burqas, this rumor may be true. Compared to its neighbors, the UAE is not as restrictive of its women. Women can drive. They are educated. They sometimes hold jobs and are often not entirely covered. Men typically wear a white, loose-fitting garment that floats to the ankle, called a kandoura, or dishdasha. The women’s robes–or abayahs–are similar, but colored black. Men and women both wear head coverings (for men the gutra, for women, if it also protects the face, the burqa) ostensibly to protect them from the sun. The patterns and colors of the men’s head coverings reveal a man’s homeland, but a woman’s is simply black. Women in Dubai and throughout the UAE wear makeup and jewelry, and sometimes paint themselves with henna, in intricately beautiful patterns. I wish women in my family had such a custom. I grew up in a small town in New England; as a child, I wasn’t even allowed to wear eye shadow, never mind such detailed and artistic patterns in ink, painted all over my hands, arms, and forehead. It’s painstaking work to paint these designs; it takes time and great patience, which seem to translate easily in this special art.
Though tradition does ground Dubai somewhat, it is a city that abounds in difference and choice. The people who live in Dubai come from all over, and the expatriate population, whether from Pakistan, Nepal, or Europe, comprises almost three-quarters of the total population. The variety of cuisine alone is indicative of Dubai’s diversity. While visiting, I ate Moroccan, Indian, Turkish, French, and I had some of the best sushi I’ve had anywhere. Part of Dubai’s uniqueness is in its variety–in its firm decision to be different and undefined by its Middle Easternness. Set just above the eastern part of Saudi Arabia, lying next to Oman, and barely bordering Qatar, Dubai is trying to reposition itself culturally, even if its geography is fixed. This attempt is evident in its welcome to foreigners, its call to McDonald’s and the Gap, and its leniency toward women. Yet, like other countries in the region, it remains strictly devoted to religion, traditional clothing, its monarchy, and its industry.
Dubai did not spring up overnight, though it sometimes feels that way. Although regional history dates back roughly to the Bronze Age, it wasn’t until the 1800s when Dubai–just a small fishing village at the time–was taken over by the same family who rules today (the Al Maktoum family); the majority of its development did not begin until the discovery of oil in the 1960s. But while its oil-rich neighbors may be a source of income for Dubai, the city’s reputation is first as a trade center–once rich in pearls, textiles, and gold, it is now a trading post for everything and anything under the sun. A port on the Persian Gulf just a short distance from Iran, India, and other headline neighbors, Dubai has always been a progressive trade center and importer, with some of the largest souks on the Gulf Coast. As trade developed there, merchants from nearby countries began to settle permanently in the area. This growth precipitated Dubai’s relationship with Great Britain as a preferred trade partner, and eventually protector (until the British left the Middle East in 1971), and led to its inclusion in the federation known today as the United Arab Emirates. The emirates prospered shortly after their coming together, due to the discovery of oil in 1966, which rapidly transformed everything about the UAE; but Dubai was able to keep hold of its place as the region’s “free-trade” center, where capitalism and opportunity reign.
Dubai entered its current period of swift growth in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Much of its current architecture was built only a few decades ago, and just occasionally will you witness one of the old wind towers, an early form of air conditioning in Dubai. This tactile sense of modernity and sudden growth is evident throughout the city, so much so that when I encountered an older building, such as a mosque that had been standing since the nineteenth century, I did not quite know quite what to make of it. Many of these “artifacts” were exciting to me simply because of their rarity. There is one historical and archaeological museum in the city that contains Bedouin-crafted clay pots, the remnants of original buildings, evidence of the pearling industry, and memories of a more nomadic culture. Touring this museum meant leaving the present Dubai behind. The museum chronicled the city’s growth from its early days as a stop-over destination for nomadic Bedouin tribes, to its period under British protection, to its discovery of oil just a short time ago–the majority of the pictures are post-1960s. I had never before seen a museum with such a bereft historical record. There is still, however, the palpable feeling that Dubai did not grow up all at once, but rather out of a tradition. And there are pieces of that tradition and elements of pre-oil Dubai, as a center for trade and fine crafts. Dubai still has some of the most beautiful and heavily traded gold in the world. The neighboring emirate of Sharjah still trades rugs that are handmade by families who have been honing that craft for generations. But Dubai is consistent in its contradictions, as evidenced by the rivaling billboards near where I stayed: one, a picture of Sheikh Maktoum waving and reminding all of his power; the other, an advertisement for the Gap, encouraging individuality through denim and striped scarves.
Beyond the city, the UAE is not easy to define either. Situated on the Persian Gulf and in between deserts, those visiting the UAE can enjoy recreation in either extreme. In the desert you can hike through mountainous dunes and ride “quads” (pared-down ATVs) through them. I am unsure of the ecological damage these vehicles cause, but even I have to admit, as someone who dislikes jet skis, snowmobiles, and anything resembling an ATV, they looked like a good time. There is also “wadi bashing,” where a group explores the dried-up creek beds, or wadis, of the desolate mountains and desert region, in search of new discovery. The desert is the only inland playground near Dubai. It is the only undeveloped expanse of land available for romping around and exploring freely. On the shore, there is a gorgeous stretch of white sand beach, but no one seemed to enjoy it–at least not in the winter. The water is a clear, seemingly creature-free aqua, and with daily temperatures at a steady 80°F (in January and February, when we visited), I never understood the aversion to the beach. My friend told me that since this was the coldest part of the year, most people abandoned the beach. They saw the ocean as the only respite from the unbearably hot summer, and did not want to waste their time sunbathing in the winter. As a native New Englander, I found it vexing to deny a good swim in 80° sun, but then again, there were many things I did yet not understand about this place. The apartment my friend lives in is on the beach, and I never tired of looking out to see if anyone snuck in a quick swim around lunchtime, or thought to put down a blanket at sunset. But no one did. Many people come to Dubai to work, not to vacation.
During the unbearably hot summers, manual labor does not cease. The state law dictates that once temperatures rise to 60°C, laborers may not work. People say that even on the hottest of days, every meteorologist reports a “scorching 59°,” and everyone goes to their job. The municipal projects in Dubai are unbelievably efficient. Even in the few weeks I was there, I saw what seemed like more progress on a nearby hotel than I have seen on any one section of Boston’s notorious “Big Dig” in five years. Dubai draws labor from nearby countries like Pakistan and Nepal where the wage is so low and the quality of life is so poor that these immigrants are willing to work throughout heat and long hours for the higher pay. Thus, Dubai has become a refuge to heads of families from all over the Middle East and Asia, working to send money back home while enjoying a better life in Dubai.
On a brief excursion to nearby Fujairah, we found that people did take advantage of the water. After several days in Dubai, we drove east to snorkel near this small town. Fujairah, at the easternmost tip of the UAE, lies on the Arabian Sea, a body of water that is not as bold a turquoise as the Persian Gulf. From behind my snorkel and mask, I viewed small sharks, sea turtles, coral, and many kinds of brightly colored fish. The fish darted by as we paddled around a small rock formation that provided good hiding places for the underwater natives. Fujairah is simply another reminder of the UAE’s diversity, both geographically and historically. It is not cosmopolitan like Dubai; the road to it is relatively barren, mountainous, and hard to build on. There was an occasional open-air market, which provided the only color we saw along the way: bright fruit and tropical plants. The UAE is less populated inland and away from Dubai, and thus it feels more open. Its buildings are neither as tall nor as close together, and in only a couple of hours, Dubai seemed far behind us.
As a sports spectator, those traveling to or living in Dubai have options. Weekly camel races occur each Friday and last hours. Tiny young boys are recruited from nearby places to ride animals I’d never thought of as speedy. But the camels are fast, and the boys are light, and somehow the hours pass as the humps stream by with little arms and legs keeping hold atop them. After one race, my friends and I talked to a few of the riders and camel trainers. My host, who fortunately speaks Arabic, related the praise one trainer spoke of his animal and about how fortunate the boys are to ride them. According to the trainer, it is very lucky to be chosen as a camel rider because your family is paid well and you achieve social status. Many families, trying to take advantage of this opportunity, move from a less desirable country to live in Dubai. Many of the young jockeys were from Bangladesh and would earn more money in one race than their fathers did in a month of labor. I never decided if I thought this was good or bad. The boys, we learned from our friend, woke early, trained hard, and were forced to live apart from their families for long stretches of time. Very few of them were more than nine years old, and many people view the practice of putting these children through the hardships of this lifestyle as unjust. On the other hand, their quality of life apparently did improve, they were fed well, and it at least appeared that they bonded with their animals. More famous than the camel races is Dubai’s World Cup, one of the most prestigious horse races in the world. An ingenious decision on the part of Sheikh Maktoum to host this race, as well as a tennis open (both of which occur in March of each year) and a fast-growing multinational golf tournament, the World Cup draws tourists and much international attention. The purse is huge, the tourists are wealthy, and everyone congregates to enrich Dubai literally and figuratively. Dubai’s leaders know that the emirate cannot rely on oil forever, nor can it function solely on trade. It has thus invested in international tourism instead.
As a relatively newly developed country, I think Dubai struggles more with its identity than other places. It is still deciding exactly what kind of place it wants to be. Shiekh Maktoum loves his horses, his billboards, and his wives. No one is yet forcing Dubai to decide on any one identity. As turmoil has erupted in the Middle East, many in the region openly resent Americans. The climate in the Middle East has shifted, even in such an open-minded place as the UAE. My friend, who still lives and works in Dubai, sends reports of new bullet-proof glass in most offices buildings. I am glad we traveled when we did. I like to think the camel racers would be as friendly now as they were then, and the Nepalese woman who worked at my hotel would still want to tell me her life story. I like to think the drivers of the creek-crossing dhows would smile in the same welcoming way. But, of course, the future remains uncertain. The UAE is carefully balanced between old and new, open and critical, progressive and traditional. And for now, that balance holds steady.