Dubai Primer

Dubai needs a primer for many of us … certainly for the Stines.  New Zealand and Australia were easy because they have so much in common with the US.  But, with Dubai, everything is different.  Religion, history, economics and geography are all very different and it is hard for many of us to make sense of it.  Fortunately, Nat and Michele have been here for a while and they are good teachers.  They helped us make sense of what we saw and to be sensitive to at least some parts of it.

Dubai is name to both a city and an emirate; one of seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates or UAE.  No one knows how old, but Dubai city is very old.  It is situated at the mouth of Dubai Creek which runs about 10 km into the desert.  It has long served as a harbor for trade, fishing and pearl diving.  The oldest part of the modern city is called Deira and it’s oldest surviving building dates back only to the late 1800s.  Deira sits to the north of the creek and, today, is home to the old shopping districts or souks, the harbor for coastal freighters and lots and lots of people.  On the south shore of the creek is Bur Dubai where much of the recent development has focused.  Today, the city’s population might be somewhere around 300,000 depending on who’s counting.

As recently as 1950 Dubai “city” was a collection of several hundred small, mostly one-story, buildings bordering the creek. Now, new construction is EVERYWHERE, by labor intensive means, creating glitz out of the desert. One day, approaching Dubai City from the south, we easily identified about 35 beautiful new, colored glass and steel high rise buildings over fifteen stories along the road where Nat and Michele live.  They back onto raw desert.  NONE of those buildings existed five years ago, not even the road.  There are places like University City, a literal city of brand new universities that we saw on one of our day trips.  Less prominent are the plethora of palaces (literally) under construction for sheiks.  Don’t forget the multitude of mere mansions for more ordinary nationals.  And then there are the vivacious villas going up for wealthy expatriates who can’t own property and must rent.  Finally, this is not only Dubai, but Sharjah and Ajman just to the north and all over the UAE with just a bit less intensity.  Of course, there are also the necessary roads, hotels and shopping centers to support and amuse residents and encourage tourism.  It is mind boggling and mind numbing.  It is Dubai and the UAE.

The emirates, especially Abu Dhabi and Dubai, are rich with oil money.  The wealth makes for an interesting society.  Most Dubai nationals work for the government with, perhaps, a bit less vigor than the average government worker around the world.  And they are better paid!  Nationals also get interest-free loans for housing.  They get government bonuses for doing things in the national interest, like getting married and owning (and racing) camels.  They get free medical care.  They work deals with companies from other nations to “sponsor” them so that they may do business in Dubai.  The list goes on.  Not surprisingly, they don’t do much manual or low level work.  That prize goes to expatriates.

And what a prize it is!  About eighty percent of the inhabitants of Dubai are expatriates.  They come from everywhere with the largest numbers from India and Pakistan.  They come to nurse the ill.  They keep store.  They come to teach, like Nathaniel who teaches English at a university.  But the largest numbers come to labor in construction.  They cannot own real estate.  They cannot vote.  But they are paid well, pay no taxes and get good medical care.  And they come in droves.  Now, consider the following.  How would you feel as a national, trying to maintain your national identity when you are a distinct minority in your own country?  Think about the potential for dissatisfaction of the expats.  Expats who came voluntarily and who might not always want to be expats.

This society is very conservative and very private.  Men are out and about during the day, but women are usually at home with the kids and the maid/nanny who does the housework and cares for the kids.  When dad goes home, usually early in the afternoon for lunch and a siesta or in the evening he spends his time there, with the family.  Because of the extreme heat during most of the year it is largely an indoor society, too.  Of course, one of the things we tourists want to do is to see and interact with the people who’s country this is. So, if they’re so private, where do you see or interact with them?  To SEE them, try the upscale shopping centers!  They have the money and the time.  Nat and Michele clued us in and we believe.  In the evenings they go in droves, men dressed in their dishdashas (loose white garment) and women in their abayas (black over-dresses that may cover the latest Paris fashion) and sheilas (black head/face cover), with all the kids in tow.  Interacting with them is tough.  Some operate shops and stores and some contact the public through tourism.  Overall, though, it’s not easy.

So, how long will this economy last?  Will the oil dry up?  Will the expats push for change?  Who knows?  But the UEA is getting ready just in case.  For now, Abu Dhabi has, by far, the most oil and, by far, the most money to spread around.  And, surprise, surprise, their top sheik is the top, top sheik.  It’s a sort of benevolent dictatorship that the people seem to love.  Large portraits of Sheik Zayed are everywhere.  But Dubai is widely regarded to have the best commerce smarts and it shows in all the development.

Someday, maybe soon, the UAE will need a new base for their economy.  So they’re trying to develop it fast.  It leads to some interesting acts of faith in development … a sort of “Build it and they will come,” approach.  That’s why there is an emphasis on international trade, tourism and gold plated hotels on the beautiful beaches.  And that’s why there is a University City, a just opened Media City and a just-starting-development Internet City, etc., etc.  How will this all turn out?  No one knows.

Dubai and the UAE … it’s an interesting place; one well worth exploring.