When you exit the plane in Dubai, you see its motto “The UAE, where the impossible doesn’t exist.” Dubai is big, bold and outrageous. It shimmers gold in the heat of the day. It’s pure progress and yet it feels like something has been left behind, too.
It’s confusing to write about Dubai because it is a land of contrasts. I’ve really loved aspects of it and I am also quite happy to depart as well. It’s glitzy and some people live like kings, but at what price? You can buy high end products and stay in golden hotels, but can’t speak your mind without jail time, have no real freedom as a woman and workers are brought in by the millions from developing nations to work in poor conditions (more on these later).
Overall, we had a fun time in Dubai. We swam in the blue clear waters of the Arabian Gulf (aka the Persian Gulf), relaxed and rested. We braved the 114 degree heat and made our way through the days and got used to it. We ate dates, got henna tattoos and hung out in the desert. We went to a mosque and spoke to a Muslim woman dressed in her abaya and asked her anything we wanted for 2 hours at the local cultural center. Luna won 2000 tickets on some jackpots at an arcade. We explored the gold souk, the ridiculously massive malls and have seen more sparkling golden jewelry than ever before.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a country that was created in 1971, after the Brits left. It’s made up of 7 states and Dubai is one of them. When in the UAE was formed there was no electricity, little running water and apparently everything was dirt roads and quite under developed. Fast forward 50 years and the city is sprawling, dazzling, overwhelming. All over the city they are building huge mini cities the size of Nashville’s downtown that dot the horizon. Once the new city is built and completed people move into it- it’s growth on a scale I haven’t seen since China. The leaders here literally had a blank slate (the desert) to create any kind of place they wanted, and the money to do it because of oil. Dubai gathered the best ideas in the world and created a place with stunning architecture, the world’s largest malls, and they even make it rain by flying and spraying the clouds to create chemical reactions(but at least in June rain is merely a dream). There were no streets to move when they wanted to plan housing areas, metro, or wide highways. The founders of Dubai had huge vision, and in many ways they’ve manifested those visions into a modern city that is leading the way into the future.
As bright and sparkly as the city is, there is an undercurrent of sadness and strain here, too. The local culture has been swept aside in many aspects in the name of progress. The country has brought in millions of Indians to work in horrific conditions to build all of these buildings so quickly that they aren’t always made well and there are deaths of workers that don’t seem to matter. One woman I spoke with told me that you can build anything when it’s built on the back of slaves. In the early mornings or late afternoons, you can see snakes of men down the streets near work sites, trekking home or waiting for their meager ration of food. These men and millions more here in Dubai have left their families in India and Pakistan to make more money and send it home. They often live like this for 20 years or more, seeing their families once a year and living in shared beds with others to send home as much as possible.
Another thing that caught my attention is the experience of being a woman here. It’s strange and unnerving to be a western woman in Dubai. The first day we were here I wanted to leave. It could be that we hit a travel wall after a while of going, but it also had to do with the feeling of being dressed in western clothing when you are surrounded by robed women. Travel is important to me because I learn a lot by being “the other”. The discomfort and challenge of not having my normal life situation is of great value and can really feel vulnerable too. My everyday privilege of agency and safety was checked here and I didn’t like it at all. I’ve spent time in the Middle East before, but without my daughter. Having Luna here added another layer of stress because we had conversations with her about how our lives would differ so greatly if we lived here. After seeing all the women wearing the black robes called an abaya, Luna said it looked both freeing and sad, too. She said it seemed helpful because you could wear your pjs to school. She shared that it seemed sad because you couldn’t share who you were- you were always hidden. I agree. To show some semblance of originality, your only real options are bags, sunglasses and shoes. Many women would have Gucci bags with their abaya and outrageous colorful shoes.
On this trip, I was grateful for new insights on being a woman in an Arabic country. Women here have areas where men are not permitted. As a woman I was privy to being in these separate spaces at moments, which was fascinating. These distinct places where men are unwelcome are actually illegal for them to enter. I needed to get my hair done on the road, and booked a salon way ahead of time. When I got there- I noticed it was all women and was then told by my stylist that men weren’t allowed. So, women would come in completely covered and completely disrobe in front of me. Whenever I’d been in the Middle East before, I always felt on the very outside, but seeing this unveiling, I felt as though I was able to glimpse into their secret lives of being women, just a bit. I was shocked to see sweat pants and red hair under one abaya, golden embroidered sleeves on another woman. These women were like me in some ways- I was able to see how we intersected in at least some small aspects of our lives. I was once again reminded of our differences though when one woman had to go outside to get approval from her husband for the shade of her hair.
Some strange things about Dubai:
- you can’t buy alcohol unless it’s in a restaurant that is in a “free zone”, which means attached to a hotel. It’s expensive, too- $25 for any drink, and an $8 bottle of wine is easily going to cost $100. It’s frustrating. Since only hotels can sell any kind of alcohol, many hotels are sprawling and have lots of restaurants (like 80). You must have a special license to purchase from the few local liquor stores but the process is prohibitive for tourists.
- There is no freedom of speech here. If you speak up about the government, which is run by a Sheikh and his heirs, you end up in jail. So whenever you ask anyone they say something like, “oh bless the Sheikh and all the good he does for us.”
- There are no taxes in Dubai. They have a 5% sales tax (VAT), but you pay NO income tax, no estate tax, NO tax.
- Physical affection between a man and a woman who aren’t married can result in jail time.
- You cannot marry into becoming an Emirati citizen. Your children are also not automatically Emirati citizens even if you marry an Emirati. At eighteen they will chose the citizenship of which parents country they wish to have.
- Men here can marry 4 wives, have four different families as long as they give to each one equally. Good luck with that. Often the wives/families do not know each other. Apparently they don’t even want to know each other. Supposedly the system exists so that men don’t have a need to cheat on their wife if they fall in love outside the marriage. Then the first wife can choose to remain married or not when the husband chooses a new wife. When we were told about this, the woman didn’t even think to explain a scenario where a woman fell in love outside the marriage. It appears Emirati women simply know not to ask those questions or tempt fate looking for the answers.
- You see people washing their feet in restrooms in the sinks, even at really high end places. We learned that this was because you have to have clean feet to go into a mosque, but even the restrooms at the airport have foot washing stations.
- Emirati Airlines is the best ever. They can do whatever they want because they create their own regulations. Luna was thrilled by the double decker airplane and the video games on the plane.
- The beaches here are gorgeous and pristine with water that is 90 degrees! They have to cool the pools instead of heat them.
So, all in all, we’re glad we came. We were able to peek into a fascinating culture and learn more about it and connect. We were treated with respect and kindness and appreciate the warmth of the people we met.
Carly, Josh and Luna