Dubai, UAE - A city with many sides
Making sense of my time in Dubai has been hard. I really wanted to write about how much I hated it, how it was all about consumer greed, excess, ego and pretension. And indeed it is all of those things. But to only write about that would not tell the full story of the six days I spent there, meeting lovely, humble and down to earth people who showed me that there is more to Dubai than the city I arrived wanting to hate.
Perhaps the reason for this was that I was lucky enough to be staying with a good friend who had grown up in Dubai, her parents had moved out there in the 70s before there was really a city at all. At that time the oil had just started pumping and nobody could envisage that a mere 3 decades later, Dubai would be a city famous the world over for its architecture, feats of engineering and glamorous excess.
And make no mistake, that excess is visible everywhere, from the super cars storming down the highways to the yachts that litter the coastline, to the private helicopters hovering overhead; Dubai is every bit the rich-man's playground you thought it was. And at times it is every bit as unconfortable as you expect it to be, particularly when you meet those in Dubai who are not here to enjoy themselves or even live a 'normal' working life, but to earn what little they can to send back to their families in the developing countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines.
These people form the workforce that do the more menial jobs: the taxi drivers, the construction workers and the maids. The taxi drivers for example, are granted 2 year visas to work for the state taxi company, earning commission from their fares. But because there is no minimum wage in the country, commission targets can be set to such a level that results in every driver I spoke to working 12 hours a day 7 days a week to meet them.
And, as recent documentaries have shown, they are the lucky ones. Many construction workers live and work in almost inhuman conditions. You see them lying by the road on their break, taking shade under a palm tree, or packed half asleep onto minibuses with windows wide open, air conditioning more of a cost than their employer thinks them worthy of. Add a Ferrari sweeping past in the fast lane and you get a sense of just how defined the line between the haves and have-nots is in Dubai.
Perhaps most unsettling about this divide, is the way in which the UAE government prevents these people from stepping outside of their narrow role and gaining a real stake in the country. Until recently foreigners could not purchase property and even now it is limited to a select few luxury developments. There is no welfare system to speak of, nor any public healthcare. And this not only affects those from less fortunate backgrounds but also the countless expats who have lived here for decades helping to create what Dubai is today and are still unable to own the home they may have lived in for 30 years, or entitled to any sort of state support in future. To me, it shows the worst of humanity when the powers that be are happy to use people to enrich themselves, yet are unwilling to allow those people a true stake in those riches.
All of this is why a part of me hates the place. And I wanted this hate to validate my preconceived ideas and allow me to be self righteous in my condemnation. I wanted to write about how difficult and stressful it is to get around, despite the brand new infrastructure. I wanted to write about how soulless the streets, shopping malls and megastructures feel. And I wanted to write about how many of the laws are sexist, backwards and darn right medievil. But these things have been written about countless times before and they only tell one side of the Dubai story. Because underneath all of this negativity, is a city full of down to earth, hard working people, modestly getting on with their lives, searching for happiness in a foreign land. It’s this side of the city that is ignored when Dubai is presented to the world, because it fits neither into the marketers story of riches and glamor, nor the journalist's story of suffering and inequality.
For me, it is these people that make Dubai a city that even I, a self confessed pretension hater, could thoroughly enjoy. Because whether you are dancing with them on the sand at a relaxed, unpretentious beach bar, or filled with adrenaline racing against them on a professional go karting track, or sharing a day in a 4x4 driving through the desert, over dunes and through dried river beds listening to stories of how Dubai has changed in the past 30 years, the wider thoughts of how comfortable you are with what Dubai stands for, or how it is governed, are irrelevant.
And that's the thing about Dubai and the wider UAE, there is a whole lot to do to keep yourself entertained. The food is superb pretty much everywhere, petrol heads can get their fill at the F1 track, nature lovers can get out into the desert and explore the stunning scenery across all the Emirates, sports fans can practice pretty much any sport they like in world class facilities while beach lovers can find a relaxing spot on the near limitless sands. Whatever you are into you can find somewhere to enjoy it here. You can even go skiing in the "the worlds largest real snow indoor ski slope". Madness? Yes. Fun? Almost certainly.
Ultimately Dubai is not the city for me. But, what I will take away from my time there is that, in the place that stands for everything I am trying to look beyond on my travels, I found experiences and people that I could not only learn from, but also take heart from. And this simply serves to reinforce something that, since losing my mum, has been at the forefront of my mind: life is about the people you spend it with and the experiences you share with them, wherever you are and whatever you are doing.
Life Lesson (Clice alert!)
You can enjoy your time almost anywhere as long as you are surrounded by good people.