Living in Dubai is not wonderful and glamorous, as many would have you believe. Forget about what you’ve read, seen, and heard; those shiny buildings and manmade islands are all just smoke and mirrors. There are so many things wrong with this place that I have decided to compile a list, a must read if you are considering a potential move to Dubai.
1. There is no standard address system making mail-to-the door delivery impossible. In fact, it makes anything nearly impossible. The taxi driver, here for only two days, and having learned English from old Beatles albums has no clue where your house is. He won’t tell you that of course, he’ll just keep calling and saying, “Okay, okay. Yeah, yeah.” When you purchase something that requires delivery they do not have an address line, but a box where you are expected to draw a map. Not able to draw a map? Explain like this: I live on the street after the airport road, but before the roundabout. Go past the mosque and make a U-turn.
2. The government blocks all web sites that it deems “offensive” to the “religious, moral, and cultural values” of the UAE. That’s hard to swallow for a freedom loving American, but I get it. I do not understand, however, why all VOIP access and related web sites are blocked. I guess the government also takes offense to people inexpensively contacting their families back home. You’re welcome to call using the analog service provided by the government-owned telephone monopoly, but it will cost you a whole lot more. So much so, in fact, your frequency of calls will be greatly diminished if you can afford them at all. The government says VOIP is blocked for security reasons, yet even the residents of communist China and North Korea have access to these inexpensive calls.
3. It is really hot outside. Not Florida in July hot; Hot as if you were locked in a car in Florida in July with sufficient humidity to make it feel as though you are drowning. Hot as in 120 degrees with nearly 100% humidity. Do not look to the wind for relief. This is the equivalent of pointing a hairdryer on full blast directly at your face. Pour fine moon dust-like sand over your head as you do this and you get the picture.
4. There are too few trees, plants, and grass – or living things aside from us crazy humans, for that matter. Ever see a bird pant? I have. In my opinion, human beings were not meant to live in such a place. If we were, there would be sufficient water and shade. The only greenery around are the roadside gardens planted by the government, who waters the hell out of them in the middle of the day. Thanks a lot! Didn’t you say we should cut down on our water consumption because you are unable to keep up with the demand? I have an idea: let’s all move someplace where it’s not 120 degrees outside.
5. This country prides itself so much on its glitz and glamour that it put a picture of its 7-star hotel on the license plate. Yet, the public toilets in the king-of-bling Gold Souk district are holes in the ground with no toilet paper or soap. Hoses to rinse your nether regions, however, are provided. This results in a mass of water on the floor that you must stand in to pee. Try squatting without touching anything and keeping your pants from touching anything either. Oh yeah. It’s 120 degrees in there too.
6. This country encourages businesses to hire people from other poor countries to come here and work. They have them sign contracts that are a decade long and then take their passports. Even though taking passports is supposedly illegal, the government knows it happens and does nothing to enforce the law. These poor people are promised a certain pay, but the companies neglect to tell them they will be deducting their cost of living from their paychecks, leaving them virtually penniless – that is, if they choose to pay them. Companies hold back paychecks for months at a time. When the workers strike as a result, they are jailed. Protesting is illegal, you see (apparently this law IS enforced). These people will never make enough to buy a ticket home and even if they do, they do not have their passports. They live crammed in portables with tons of others, in highly unsanitary conditions. The kicker: they are building hotels that cost more to stay in for one night than they will make in an entire year. Things are so bad that a number of laborers are willing to throw themselves in front of cars because their death would bring their family affluence in the form of diya, blood money paid to the victim’s family as mandated by the government.
7. Things are not cheaper here. I’m sick of people saying that. I read the letters to the editor page of the paper and people say to those who complain about the cost of living rising here, “Well, it’s cheaper than your home country or you wouldn’t be here.” The only thing cheaper here is labor. Yes, you can have a maid – but a bag of washed lettuce will cost you almost $10.
8. There are traffic cameras everywhere. I consider this cheating. Where are the damn cops? I drove around this city for weeks before I ever even saw a cop. Trust me, they need traffic cops here. People drive like idiots. It’s perfectly okay to turn left from the far right lane, but speeding even just a couple of kilometers over will get you fined. These cameras are placed strategically as you come down hills, or just as the speed limit changes. Before you know it…BAM! Fined. Forget to pay the bill and your car will be impounded.
9. The clothing some of these women wear makes no sense to me. I understand that as part of your religion you are required to dress in a particular way, but a black robe over your jeans and turtleneck and cover your head when it is 120 degrees outside? In the gym some women wear five layers of clothing…sweatpants and t-shits over sweaters with headscarves. Yet the men’s clothing makes absolute sense: white, airy, and nothing underneath but their skivvies.
10. People stare at you. I am sick of being stared at. I’m stared at by men who have never seen a fair-skinned blue-eyed woman before, or who have and think we are all prostitutes so it’s okay to stare. They stare at me when I am fully covered or with my husband, and even follow me around. It’s beyond creepy and has brought me to tears on more than one occasion. The staring is not limited to men, either. I’m stared at angrily by female prostitutes who think I am running in on their territory by having a few drinks with my husband at the bar.
11. Prostitutes? Oh hell yes, there are prostitutes. Tons of them. So, let me get this straight, I can’t look at a naked picture of a person on the Internet in the privacy of my home, but it is okay to go out in public and buy a few for the night?
12. Alcohol can only be sold in hotels and a handful of private clubs. A person must own a liquor license to consume in the privacy of their own home. To obtain a liquor license you must get signed approval from your boss, prove a certain level of salary that determines how much you are allowed to buy, and then submit several mug shots (aka passport photos) for approval. Pay the fee and the additional 30% tax on every purchase and you may drink at home. Then again, you can just pick up a few bottles in the airport duty free on your way in to the country, but two is the max. Why not just drive out to Ajman where it’s a free-for-all and load up the SUV? It’s easy enough, but crossing the Emirates with alcohol is illegal – particularly in the dry emirate of Sharjah, which just happens to lie between Dubai and Ajman. Go figure.
13. Not only do you have to get your boss’s approval to obtain a liquor license, but you must also get the company’s approval to rent property, have a telephone, or get satellite TV.
14. Back to the craziness on the roads: If I see one more kid standing up and waving to me out the back window while flying down the road at 160 kph…whatever happened to seatbelts?
15. When is the weekend again? Let me get this straight: the weekend used to be Thursday and Friday, but no one took off all of Thursday, just a half day really. Now the government says Friday and Saturday are the weekend, but some people only take off Friday, others still take a half day on Thursday, but some might just take a half day on Saturday instead. Anyway you slice it, Sundays are workdays and little business can be accomplished Thursday through Saturday.
16. There are few satellite television operators:. The movie channels play movies that are old and outdated. Many of them went straight to video back in the States. Every sitcom that failed in the US has been purchased and is played here. Old episodes of Knight Rider are advertised like it is the coolest thing since sliced bread. The TV commercials are repeated so often that I am determined NOT to buy anything I see advertised on television here just for thee principle of it. When I say repeated often, I mean every commercial break – sometimes more than once.
17. The roads are horribly designed. Driving ten minutes out of the way to make a U-turn is not uncommon. People are not able to give directions most of the time (remember reason #1), and the maps are little help because most have few road names on them, if any. Where is interchange four? You just have to hope you got on the freeway in the right place and start counting because they are not numbered. Miss it and you’ll likely end up on the other side of town before you are able to turn around and go back.
18. Taxi drivers are dangerous and smell. Taxi drivers work very hard here to earn a living because travel by taxi is still relatively inexpensive, even though the cost of living is not (see reason #7). Because of this you may have a driver who has had little sleep or the opportunity to shower for several days. Many of these drivers have just as much difficulty finding their way around as you do, but add to this a third-world country driving style and extreme exhaustion and, well, remember to buckle up for safety.
19. Speeding is an Emirati sport and Emirates Road is just an extension of the Dubai Autodrome. I know I keep mentioning the roads, but really, much of this city’s issues are encompassed by the erratic and irrational behavior displayed on its streets. Visions of flashing lights on even flashier, limo-tinted SUVs haunt me as I merge on to the highway. Local nationals are somehow able to get the sun-protecting dark window tint denied to us lowly expats and use it to hide their faces as they tailgate you incessantly at unbelievably high speeds, their lights flickering on and off and horn blaring repeatedly. It doesn’t matter that you can’t get over, or if doing so would be particularly dangerous, they will run you off the road to get in front of you. Don’t even think about giving someone the finger; the offense could land you in jail. Tailgating is, unbelievably, legal.
20. Dubai is far from environmentally friendly. Ever wonder how much damage those manmade islands are doing to the delicate ocean ecosystem? Coral reefs, sea grasses, and oyster beds that were once part of protected marine lands lie choked under a barrage of dredged up sea sand. Consider the waste that occurs from erecting buildings on top of these sand monsters and from the people that occupy them coupled with the lack of an effective recycling program and you have an environmental disaster on your hands. Add to this more gas guzzling SUVs than fuel-efficient cars on the road and the need for 24-hour powerful air-conditioning and its evident that the environment is not high on the priority list of the UAE.
So while I’m sure there are benefits to living in Dubai, tax breaks, multi-cultural environments, and beautiful buildings aside, reconsider your plans to move here if any of the above mentioned reasons strikes a chord within you. Dubai is a city caught in an identity crisis. Struggling somewhere between its desire to be a playground for the rich and its adherence to traditional Islamic roots, rests a city that lacks sufficient infrastructure to support its delusions of grandeur. Visit if you must, but leave quickly before you are sucked into its calamitous void.
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Originally published in our Escape From America Magazine, Issue 94. August 2007.