Dubai definitely is not what I expected it to be. The common conception of Dubai is that it is an oasis of wealth and technology located in the otherwise “developing” Middle East. However, instead of functioning as an actual city, Dubai is simply of hub of information. It possesses no history, culture, or opportunities for socialization. I came to this conclusion after a weekend of wandering the city, seeing the sights, and listening to the opinions of our couchsurfing host, Joanna.
We arrived at the Dubai International Airport at 2am on Thursday in a state of exhaustion. Still sleep deprived from our adventures in Tel Aviv and Istanbul, we were eager to find Joanna’s apartment and sleep for a mere 3 hours before our appointment at 7:30am to see the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Upon landing, we were awestruck by the towering skyscrapers, neon lights, and cleanliness of Dubai. Allison kept repeating the same adjective to describe it all – “stunning.”
Joanna lives in the Jumierah Lake Towers complex. It is a subdivision of skyscrapers. The neighborhood has 26 “clusters” with three skyscrapers in each cluster. Around the base of each tower are restaurants and laundromats. Joanna welcomed us and led us to our bedroom where the three of us (Me, Allison, and Caroline) would be sharing a double bed. As if this isn’t uncomfortable enough, Dubai is infamous for its heat and humidity. Even though we arrived at 2am, it was already 80 degrees outside. Each day reached almost 95 degrees with humidity worse than in Kentucky. Sharing a double bed with my two friends while trying not to sweat was not an enjoyable experience!
We woke up and attempted to navigate the metro system to get to the Burj. Dubai is built, literally, in a rectangle that parallels the coastline. Therefore, the metro consists of one long line with several stops. Unlike most cities with metro lines that resemble webs, Dubai’s is a simple string. Once we reached the Burj, we effortlessly walked through the empty queues to the viewing platform, which is actually only half the height of the building.
My favorite activity on the platform of the burj was the “before/after” camera, which allowed you to aim the periscope-type camera at any point in the city and it showed what it looked like 30 years ago. Most of the city was desert! It is incredible to think that one of the most advanced cities in the world has earned that reputation in three decades. For any of my readers that know my brother, when he was born in 1982, Dubai’s economy was mainly supported by pearl diving by Bedouins!
After the Burj, we walked around the attached Dubai Mall. It houses an indoor ice rink, a two-story waterfall, the world’s largest single-piece aquarium window, and the famous Dubai Fountain. We also visited another famous mall in Dubai, the Mall of the Emirates, which has an indoor skiing mountain complete with ski lift! An interesting fact about the malls is that they enforce a strict dress code of modesty. Several CIEE students who had visited Dubai before warned us that they were asked to leave the malls for showing their shoulders and knees. We, stupidly, thought this meant modesty was required in the entire city, so we only packed long sleeves. After several hours of sweating, we removed our sweaters and spent the day in tank tops.
To complete our tour of extravagance, we saw the Burj Al-Arab, which is the picturesque building located on the coast of Dubai. In retrospect, we should have brought our bathing suits and went swimming on the public beach next to the Burj Al-Arab, especially since it was so hot out. Instead, we went on a wild goose chase for the elusive “cultural” area of Dubai. After several trips on the Metro going the wrong way, we found the gold souk and spice souk.
That night, Joanna offered to show us the “nightlife.” The drinking age in Dubai is 21 and I explicitly told her that I am only 20, but she convinced us that places never card. After about a two-mile walk to the hotel bar, we discovered that they do card. Disappointed and fearful that my shoes would start filling with blood, I was more than eager to simply return to the apartment and go to sleep.
Our second day in Dubai was spent in the truly cultural area of the textile souk. Because it was Friday, most Muslims were praying, leaving only the Indian and Asian populations to be seen in the streets. Dubai really is a diverse city. Only 5% of the population in the city is composed of Emiratis. The rest are immigrant workers. This is why most Middle Easterners view Dubai as being built on the backs of poorly treated workers to only benefit the outside companies and few wealthy Emiratis. Joanna told us that the visa process for living in the UAE is difficult. If you don’t have a steady job in the country, you cannot stay. They also reject residency visas for anyone over the age of 65, making the city very young compared to most.
Seeing Dubai was extremely rewarding in the aspect that it made me realize how false my ideas of the city were. While it is beautifully modern, it is just a shell of a city. The “citizens” are transient, there is no culture or national identity, and there isn’t even a “downtown” area, a crucial factor to most cities. The city is formed mostly by clusters of skyscrapers. If you want to travel from one cluster to another, you must travel through several miles of sand and slums. Nothing is walkable, shown by the prevalence of white Land Rovers on the expressways.
Before this trip, if I had gotten a job offer in Dubai, I would have blindly accepted it, figuring the city would live up to all of its hype. However, after visiting, I would certainly reject the offer. While the idea of living in Dubai carries a reputation of success and wealth, it isn’t worth the corporate-drone type of life I would have to adopt, as there is no social outlet available in the city. Even the bar we briefly saw was nearly empty on the best night of the week!
Our anticipation of returning to Amman was cut short when we feared we might not make it back to Jordan. While we were in the Dubai airport, waiting to board the plane, Allison and I noticed a very suspicious looking man. Allison’s mom was a flight attendant, so Allison knows all of the “warning” sings. This guy was well dressed and quite attractive, but he kept looking around, nervously, instead of standing forward in line like the rest of us. At one point, he asked us to watch his bag because he had to “go somewhere.” When we refused, he took it with him, but insisted we save his spot in line. He eventually returned, but we weren’t sure why he left in the first place.
Then, the gate agents were checking oversized luggage and offered to check his for free. He immediately declined the offer, a bit hostilely. The agents insisted and he begrudgingly agreed. Once we had boarded the bus that would take us to the plane, he was staring intently out of the window at all of the luggage. He then jumped off of the bus and ran to retrieve a glasses case from his bag. He continued to stare at the airport once he reboarded the bus and began muttering to himself. He looked very nervous and anxious about something. This culminated when we were boarding the plane and he said to the flight attendant, “Is it possible for me to change my seat to an exit row seat? As you can see, I’m tall, and I forgot to ask before….” The flight attendant said she would consider it after take-off. Apparently she forgot, as he simply showed himself to a seat in the exit row after take-off. Allison and I were on edge the entire flight due to his behavior, but we made it out alive!
This experience did raise the interesting question of what the acceptable thing to do in that situation would have been. Should we have trusted our guts and booked a later flight? Should we have told a flight attendant and looked like the silly Americans fearful of Arabs? We felt foolish doing nothing, but luckily he was harmless.
Today I am spent my last full day in Amman by going downtown with Caroline and Allison and going shopping and getting lunch in the city’s most bustling area. Tonight, we are going to drink our duty-free wine and read my blog from the beginning and reminisce about all of the amazing times we have had together. The semester has flown by and, unlike my classmates who are eager to go home, I could stand to spend another six months in this beautiful city!