[This is a guest post by Matt Faherty, a senior history major at the University of Chicago.]
During my third quarter of my junior year at the University of Chicago, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Istanbul. While there is plenty to say about Turkey, the most memorable part of the trip was my excursion to the United Arab Emirates. I spent four days in Abu Dhabi (the capital) and five days in Dubai. Pretty much everyone has heard of Dubai and knows a little bit about it, but nothing can compare to a firsthand experience. Here I will share my thoughts about the country’s peculiarities, and why it was the most interesting place I’ve ever been to.
I flew into Dubai and immediately took an hour and a half shuttle to Abu Dhabi, which was later repeated in the opposite direction to fly out of Dubai again (for the sake of saving money with a roundtrip flight). The first thing I noticed about the cities were the roads. I assume this is a common occurrence in all wealthy, oil-flushed, Middle Eastern cities, but the country is filled with a lot of very large roads. Dubai has six and eight lane highways running right through the center of the city while Abu Dhabi has a grid structure filled with wide, two lane roads throughout. Undoubtedly, with cheap oil prices most people in these cities drive everywhere all the time. And despite seeing plenty of cars on the road, the abundance of lanes and routes seems to chronically keep both cities free from traffic jams.
The downside to this infrastructure obsession is that it makes both cities massive and sprawling. I was used to traveling to cities where all of the interesting attractions were in walking distance from each other (Prague, Belgrade, at least a chunk of Istanbul), but it took me a day in each city to realize that it wasn’t feasible to explore the cities of the UAE on foot. It didn’t help that it was between 95 and 110 degrees every day without a cloud in the sky.
My solution was to take taxis to areas where I could walk between a small clusters of objectives. Taxis were extremely cheap as it cost only about $10 to $12 (in UAE Dirhams) to travel all the way across Abu Dhabi. Most rides I took only cost between $4 and $7.
Both Abu Dhabi and Dubai are unrecognizable from what they were ten years ago. Both have the appearance of being randomly built in the middle of the desert. Abu Dhabi looks kind of like a sea-side resort city (complete with beautiful beaches) with a lot of tall finance buildings thrown in. When I went to the top of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, it really did look like someone had randomly plopped a modern city into the middle of the desert. There are not suburbs or shorter buildings that trail off, just massive skyscrapers, shorter buildings in between them, and an old town. Beyond that there is only pure desert with a few housing developments in the distance.
Both cities have by far more skyscrapers that any cities I have seen outside of the US (or specifically New York and Chicago). The UAE is well known for its bizarre architecture and I was not disappointed. The Burj Khalifa is currently the tallest building in the world and utterly dominates the skyline of Dubai, looking like an alien pillar sticking out of the ground (it might actually be cooler if it had cloud cover to obscure the top). I spent a good deal of the trip stopping to gawk at the crazy designs. My favorites include:
- A (presumed) office building next to my hotel which was completely dark red due to its tinted windows
- A Chinese/Japanese Pagoda looking thing (I think a hotel)
- The Jumeirah at Etihad Towers Hotel – a cluster of four tall, twisty towers
- The Hotel Emirates Palace – quite literally a palace
- The Infinity Tower – which looks like God grabbed a normal skyscraper and twisted it around
Country as Country Club
If I had to sum up the UAE as succinctly as possible, I would say: “country club.” Much of both cities (but especially Dubai) was constructed for the sole purpose of serving tourists and it shows. An army of blue jumpsuit-clad, male immigrant workers roam the cities doing maintenance and construction work in sweltering heat. Everything from the roads to the sky scrapers to the ubiquitous gardens is remarkably well-maintained. Dubai and Abu Dhabi have notoriously lax building codes and zoning laws, but they certainly make an effort to keep everything looking immaculately clean.
The feeling is also pervasive due to its immense, high quality shopping network which is forever over-seen by a legion of ultra-polite and helpful customer service workers. It is not an exaggeration to say that the commercial store workers and random cashiers are of the highest discipline and quality I have ever seen. All of them speak multiple languages (usually three or four, if not more) and manage to be extremely helpful but never annoying. It dawned on me that the quality of these workers probably comes from the intense competition for these jobs. Like the blue jumpsuit street workers, they are all immigrants, but far better paid and have a far higher quality job.
Everything you have ever heard about the money in Dubai and the UAE is true. There is a level of wealth and extravagance there unlike anything I have ever seen before.
I am fairly well traveled, having been throughout Western and Central Europe (minus Iberia and Scandinavia) as well as Serbia, Turkey, and Canada. Something which has always stuck with me during my travels is how much poorer the rest of the world is compared to America. This is not a comparison between the impoverished in these countries and the relatively affluent people I live amongst, but a comparison between the basic life styles of Americans and other people in the Western world.
Americans have bigger cars, bigger homes, cheaper gas, cheaper everything, more stuff, and especially more commercial variety. It is rare to see anything like a Walmart or big-chain grocery stores outside of a few concentrated locations in Europe. Gas stations are a great point of comparison; I used to be excited when I was younger to walk into a gas station to be confronted by an overwhelming variety of snacks, candy, and drinks. Elsewhere in the world, the selections are far smaller with mostly local brands sitting beside a few international products.
The UAE is the first country I have been to where it feels like much of its people are just as wealthy as Americans. Granted, I was in the country’s two wealthiest cities, and I hit many tourist locations, but the vast majority of people in these cities were immigrants (which I’ll expand upon below), and most of them appeared to possess both a standard of living and level of extravagance unrivaled outside the US.
What is the basis for my comparison? The cars on the road were nearly all very large with plenty of SUVs. Gas was about $1.25 per gallon (which a cab driver complained to me about because it’s more expensive than in Qatar or Saudi Arabia). The only homes to be seen were nice apartment buildings, suburban-style houses within the cities (where the poor immigrants lived), and mansions outside of the cities. There were more shopping malls than I could count (including the Mall of Dubai, the largest mall on earth) with a selection of stores to rival even America’s largest malls. Portion sizes were also comparable to the US.
Then there’s the luxury, which far surpasses even the US. In the absence of ruins or old culture, my primary tourist activities consisted of seeking out the greatest extravagance that I could. I saw an indoor ski mountain, I walked on an artificial island which ended with a massive luxury resort with its own private aquarium, I rode on the fastest roller coaster on earth at Ferrari World (a Ferrari amusement park), I saw an ATM which only pays in gold, I walked the biggest malls, saw the Lamborghini car dealerships, and saw the absurdly expensive tourist products that couldn’t have been made for more than a few dozen people on earth. Highlights include:
- A selection of prayer beads made with materials of questionable legality, including rhino horn ($20,000), “mammoth tusk” ($6,000), whale bones ($6,000), ivory ($4,000), and walrus tusk ($4,000)
- Gold plated iphones, ipads, and Black Berries (I didn’t see a price tag and was too afraid to ask)
- $600 entrees at a restaurant
- $10,000 to $20,000 cell phone cases
- A $36,500 Ferrari coffee table book
The UAE is still the middle of transitioning to modernity. By my very rough estimates, about 25% of the people I saw wore traditional Islamic clothes. That means all black for women, including a face cover, and all white for men with a head scarf thing. Rough one third women and 75% of men wore ordinary modern clothing, and then rest of the women wore something in between the traditional and the modern. What was most interesting is that there didn’t seem to be any behavioral difference between the groups. It was strange seeing women dressed in ultra-traditional Islamic garb going to the movies and shopping in Ikea. Men and women wore normal bathing suits and bikinis at the beach.
Through my interactions with other people and conversations with tour guides and cab drivers I was able to get a pretty good handle on the social structure of the place. Only 12% of the UAE’s population is native while the rest are immigrants. The racial/ethnic lines seem close to nonexistent in terms of general interactions on the street, but in employment and economic terms, there are sharp divides. Here are the groups:
– The Natives – At first I thought the wealthy Arab guys walking around in traditional garb were natives, but one of my tour guides corrected me. Apparently very few Natives live in the cities, but rather prefer to live in mega mansions in the desert to be close to their roots. While the UAE is basically very capitalistic, the Natives live in a perpetual state of very well-funded socialism. They get extremely high quality, state-provided housing, healthcare, education, and jobs. Most either don’t work or get high-up, cushy office jobs in the oil, finance, or government sectors. Because they barely interact with the rest of the immigrants, the Natives are basically neither seen nor heard (aside from the government).
– Non-Native Arabs – These were the wealthy guys I saw walking around in tradition garb. They immigrate from Saudi Arabia, Syria, or one of the other wealthier Arab countries and tend to do quite well in the UAE. They are the most socially conservative and seem to be the only ones I ever saw praying. They run businesses, work in finance or oil, or get fairly high-up government jobs. According to my tour guide, nearly the entire police force is Non-Native Arab
– East Asians (mostly Chinese) – East Asians are extremely common. A lot of tourists are Japanese and many immigrants are Chinese. By my assessment, the East Asian immigrants constitute most of the middle class in the UAE. Stores in malls are employed almost exclusively by Asian women (though owned by Arab men), while Asian men often work behind the counter. Some of the cheaper stores are owned by Asians as well.
– Indians/Pakistanis/Nepalians/Bhutanians – These guys do most of the grunt work. They wear the blue jumpsuits to do landscaping and construction work and they also drive all of the taxis. Nearly all of the personal conversations I had in the UAE were with these guys (taxi drivers and tour guides). The taxi drivers were very eager to talk about home and describe their immigration processes. All of them I talked to described the UAE as infinitely better than wherever they came from. Some had family back home who they were hoping to bring to the UAE after a few years.
There is none. I asked two taxi drivers in Abu Dhabi where I could get local food, and they both directed me to a mall food court. As far as I could tell, everyone eats fast food all the time, of which there is a huge selection of American and international chains. Oddly enough I saw multiple Hardy’s, which is a burger chain popular in the Southeastern United States which I hadn’t eaten at in years. I try to eat at least one nice meal in every foreign country I go to but there didn’t seem to be any options between fast food and outrageously expensive tourist cuisine.
Having just spent seven weeks in (Muslim) Turkey, I thought I might get a chance to eat some ham in the touristy UAE. Subway restaurants are very common in the UAE, but instead of ham, they serve turkey ham, which is literally identical in appearance and taste to me.
The UAE loves ice cream. Maybe it’s the heat, but there are an absurd amount of Cold Stones (in the wealthier areas) and Baskin Robbins (in the less wealthy areas). The ice cream prices are about equivalent to American prices, but quite expensive for the UAE.
- I saw a Green Bay Packers head set in a mall. Are there Green Bay Packers fans in Dubai?
- I saw a lot of men holding hands. Maybe an Arab custom?
- Everything outside of the malls shuts down between 10AM and 2PM due to the heat. This is very annoying for tourists.
- While the store owners were always extremely polite, the traditional souk salesman were far more aggressive than their equivalents in Istanbul. They marked me for a tourist immediately. On two instances my arm was grabbed and I was forcefully pulled over to a stall. In another instance an old man physically blocked my way through an alley until I bought something.
- In a super fancy hotel I saw a fat Arab guy in traditional garb surrounded by four gorgeous women.
- The UAE has extremely high speed limits but draconian penalties for violations. For every 5 kilometers per hour over the speed limit, a fine is levied of $150. At a certain point it becomes a felony and jail time is pretty much automatic. Driving with any level of drug or alcohol intoxication is also a felony and pretty much guarantees jail time.
- The UAE seems to have little concern for its own history. I went to two historical monuments and both were extremely underwhelming:
- The first was a tiny “Williamsburg, Virginia”-esque town set up to mimic old style towns built by the nomadic Natives. All of the stalls and display areas were vacant, and I only found one employee in the whole place. He let me hold a falcon and then told me afterwards that it costs 10 Dirham.
- The second was an old fort with a history of the UAE detailed by text and artifacts. It was better than the village but still pretty weak by UAE standards. The most interesting part was that the presented description of the UAE over the past fifteen years was enormously positive. It is probably a form of state propaganda, but the text gives the impression that things really have gotten a lot better since modernity took place and elevated the UAE out of cultural and economic backwardness.