Standing in the airport upon arrival in the desert, I watched a woman in a full, veiled burka walk arm in arm with a robed Arab wearing a trucker hat. Caught off guard, I watched the next group of women more carefully. After some Aussie’s in cutoffs and tank tops, I saw more burkas, but this time with Fendi handbags slung over their shoulders and Prada loafers peeking out from beneath the robes. As I understood burkas to be a symbol of modesty with the purpose of not drawing attention to oneself, these flashy designer fashion statements didn’t make sense. I realized then that Dubai would not be the ‘Middle Eastern Mecca’ I expected. It was a place far more diverse — and completely unique — in its inhabitants, cultural identity, and societal expectations.
The city was a fascinating juxtaposition of East and West, which had me determined to understand what was at its core. I spent an afternoon getting myself lost in the markets and back streets, searching for qualities that would help me knit together my understanding of what defined Duabi’s culture. While slurping mango juice to stay cool, I learned how to string figs, stumbled through a shark auction and talked to people from countries I didn’t even know existed. Quickly, I realized that the only unifier of Duabi’s culture was that every person, culture, language and belief structure contributing to it, was different.
Since over 85% of the approximately 2 million people who call Dubai home are anything but Emirati, it’s the Pakistanis, Indians, Sri Lankans, South Africans, Jews, Christians, Muslims (and more) that fill the streets, open shops and cook dishes from their homelands. Their imported traditions are what are felt, smelled and heard, creating a cultural melting pot large enough to live up to Dubai’s reputation of grandeur. The entire week I was there, I never talked to a native.
The notable absence of a unifying local undercurrent increased my curiosity about what I would find in the newer parts of the city, so I traveled into its heart to compare. Crossing “The Creek” cost only 1 Durham — just 27 cents! A lone bargain in a city where cocktails can cost $60 USD. Diera crumbled with charm on one side of the creek while Dubai gleamed, shiny and new, on the other. It was the ultimate physical representation of the divide sensed throughout the entire city.
Once arriving on the other side, the contrast was most evidenced by looking up. Rome might not have been built in a day, but Dubai built 400 skyscrapers, the world’s tallest building, most populated aquarium and finest hotel in just 20 short years. With all of the fantastical architecture and landmarks, it’s hard to know where to look, and then, what you’re even looking at. The architecture in some cities tells a story, but these cities are past their formational twenties. While it has shot up some impressive towers, Dubai’s story, and sense of self, are still under construction. It may have celebrity chefs, man-made island communities and an indoor ski hill but it hasn’t yet arrived at how to tie it all together.
Even though Dubai lacked its own version of Parisian street cafes or Bernini sculptures in graffitied alleyways, it has developed an interesting formula for bringing a super-city from the sand dunes to the sky. Dubai catalyzes its economy by enticing the expats that comprise a large majority of its population with tax-free salaries. They will never (yes, never) be granted citizenship, but they are paid well and given freedoms that many would never dream of at home. While these foreigners keep the gears turning, the native Emirati enjoy incredible benefits. Each are given land, money to build a house, free electricity and water, and money for each child, helping to grow the native population.
Contrived, artificial and calculated as much of it seemed, the sheer extravagance also forced me to stop and marvel. The way the sail silhouette of the Burj Al Arab framed the sinking sun was undeniably beautiful, even with a giant wall separating the peasants (myself ) from the “7-star hotel” guests. And viewing the dancing fountains, choreographed to “Thriller”(of course), from the top of the Burj Khalifa was nothing short of spectacular.
So as I sat on the beach with bathwater waves lapping at my legs, I also marveled at how much ground Dubai has covered (figuratively AND literally) in 20 short years. As the current fastest growing city in the world, one can’t help but wonder what will happen there throughout the next 20. A clash of cultures and an ever-expanding playground, Dubai will no-doubt continue to carve out its place in the world’s list of super-cities. I sincerely look forward to returning a few decades from now and getting to know the more mature and self-assured version of a city I was lucky enough to get to know in its youth.