You Never Imagined A City Like This
Having Fun In Dubai ~ By Scott Sutton
What is it like
for an American like me to live in this new and unique city here in the
Middle-East, a geographic region which most of you probably envision as
being highly volatile? First of all, it’s safe. Thus far, there have
been no repercussions from the war that is exploding only a few hundred
train of camels ambles lazily beneath the sun, fiery red and ready to set
behind the great dunes for the coming night. Following the traveling
queue of beasts is a young bearded man wearing a dishdash, the traditional
white ankle-length gown with accompanying head covering. I wait for
Lawrence of Arabia to appear on the horizon, the scene so perfect. This
is the land of Arabs, Islam and desert.
Okay, so I
didn’t see that, really. If you want images of Dubai, try this: mini-skirted
Russian girls shopping in chic shopping centers that make Crossroads seem
like its flirting with bankruptcy. Leather-clad Harley guys and gals of
all nationalities roaring down super highways surrounded by forty-story
glass and chrome skyscrapers, and young gorgeous Iranian women at supercharged
nightclubs hanging on the arms of their American, British or Syrian boyfriends.
the backdrop of sand and sea is a remarkable city. Dubai, once little more
than a sleepy backwater town, has sprung magically out of this desert wilderness
in the last thirty or so years to become a modern, cosmopolitan city whose
inhabitants have arrived from the four corners of the globe to embrace
a liberalism not enjoyed anywhere else in the Middle East. This odd
hybrid of Baghdad, Bombay and Phoenix is the new Mecca for a host of nationalities:
Arabs, Indians, Filipinos, Iranians, Russians, Europeans and Americans.
1958, Dubai was a collection of buildings built alongside the “creek”,
a natural sea inlet winding through the heart of the city. The settlement,
visited by British trade ships on the way to India, earned money primarily
through fishing and pearl diving. Throughout the Twentieth Century, because
of the liberal attitudes of Dubai’s rulers, Dubai prospered as a leading
center of trade.
black gold was discovered and the leaders here decided wisely to pump billions
into infrastructure instead of lining their own pockets. The United Arab
Emirates came into being in 1971 when the British pulled out of the region
and several small “states” joined into a federation under the able leadership
of one man, His Highness Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan. He’s a good
guy, having been a solid friend to America.
A rich tapestry
of interwoven cultures, beliefs and peoples dominates Dubai, a vibrant
city of approximately 900,000. You can still sit in cafes in which
Arab men drink strong, black coffee and smoke water pipes, or wander the
narrow alleys of the old souq. But we expats, including thousands of Americans,
have so much more to choose from. By day, there are shops, souqs, sun &
surf, all manner of sports, safaris or spas. By night, there are world-class
restaurants and nightclubs with fabulous entertainment. We’ve also got
the largest water theme park outside of North America. It puts Oceans of
Fun to shame. Oh, and there are at least fifty monstrous fireworks show
a year, many of which are on par with those at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha
The city is
quickly gaining a reputation as the financial and sporting capital of the
Middle East. There’s a burgeoning stock market and the city plays host
to the Dubai Tennis Open and the Dubai Desert Classic. Tiger Woods has
been here a couple of times, not to mention Tom Jones. Not that you’re
envious over that, I’m sure.
al-Arab hotel in Dubai is the tallest hotel in the world. The hotel has
given a 7-star rating and all rooms come with a personel butler.
the day, I teach English to the covered women at a university whose students
are solely female. By night I meet up with friends at Starbucks or Coco’s
or at the Hard Rock Café. A Thursday evening (the weekend is Thursday/Friday)
may find me encircled by my fellow Yankees as well as Russians, Iranians,
Syrians and Brits. We spend a lot of time discussing the war, as you may
Mostly we enjoy
living in this delightfully absurd city. I’ll bet none of you have ever
seen Santa Clause arriving at the mall via a jet ski screaming across the
sea, and then listened to an Indian children’s choir singing Christmas
Carols while kids of all nationalities stood in line to chat with Santa.
An oddity: “snow” coming down inside the mall, once an hour for ten minutes,
after which tiny Pakistani janitors armed with huge brooms sweep it up
in tandem. No real snow here. It rained once the year I arrived in 1997.
The lobby of the Burg
incongruencies in this Middle Eastern Twilight Zone: tractors puttering
along on major highways, camping in the dunes, goats in the back of Toyota
pickups, seawater with temps like a hot tub, men holding hands in public,
stores open until midnight, palaces, camel races, marbled gas stations
where a gallon of gas will cost you 90cents. And a British chap on the
radio advertising cross-dressing night at the most fashionable nightclub.
Yep, it’s fun in Dubai.
It’s been an
education living and working among the transients of this multi-cultural
city. The odd thing about Dubai, the obvious factor which differentiates
it from nearly every other city is that the indigenous nationals—refered
to as “locals”—make up only 20% of the city. The other 80% are residents,
temporarily infused into a fast-paced society which has needed the brains
and brawn of the world to build its structure and unique lifestyle. Of
the 80%, about half are from India and Pakistan. About 30% are from
either the Philippines or other Arab countries; the remaining 10% are we
poor westerners. So I have something in common with the locals: I’m a minority
of locals live in villas and work in fairly cush jobs, in the government,
in banking, and in business. You’ll never see a local waiting on
tables at a Pizza Hut. That’s for the Filipinos and Indians. A small
number of locals, in fact, don’t even have to work since the government
provides each national family with a certain amount of dirhams annually—courtesy
of the President, Sheik Zayed. How much depends on family status
and size. That said, there is a high unemployment rate for locals. We ‘foreigners’
are taking all the jobs. You can’t blame us. The average American coming
to work here can expect nothing less than a tax-free income, free accomodation,
and annual airline tickets home. It’s pretty cool.
Back to the
locals. You see them on TV as the men decked out in white flowing robes,
the dish-dasha, as we call it, a contrast to the girls in ebony. My friend
Khalid wears the dish-dasha because it’s comfortable, but just as often
he slips into levis and sports a baseball cap. Backwards of course. The
women don’t have the luxury of altering their appearance. It’s basic black
once out in public. Most of the girls here, especially at my university,
do not veil, unlike in Saudi, but are otherwise covered. They don’t seem
to mind. When I ask students if they mind shrouding in dark material, they
shrug my question off with nonchalance. “It’s no problem,” some say. “It’s
fashionable.” At first I was unsettled by the locals’ manner of dress.
At night, out in the dimly-lit parking lot, the men-in-white were like
phantoms gliding across the pavement toward their BMW’s. The women
were barely discernable, the blackness of their abayas merging with the
darkness of night.
And now for
a negative: the drivers. For the most part, they are worse than Nebraskans
(unless you’re Nebraskan, in which case they are worse than Iowans).
Indeed, Nebraska motorists could take lessons in offensive driving from
nearly any resident of Dubai. On Omaha’s interstates, the left lane
signifies the fast lane. Here, it signifies warp speed. I’ve had to be
alert. On more than one occasion, going a dangerously slow 80mph in the
left lane has resulted in a heavy-duty four-wheel-drive monster suddenly
appearing on my tail, headlights flashing maniacally. Translation: move
over fast! No one honks here, while driving; they flash. Are there speed
limits? Yes, of course. Are they followed? Don’t be ridiculous. Half of
the residents have come from developing countries that don’t enforce friendly
are other negatives. For instance, the bureaucracy. Just to
transfer my Nebraska license to a UAE license was an exercise in massive
I had entered
the Department of Motor Vehicles at 8:00a.m. on a July morning when the
temperature was a sweltering, joy-killing 117 degrees. The starkly
plain and dingy waiting area was empty except for three benches and dozens
of sweat-drenched Indian men. I had seemingly left the comforts of
modern, everything-is-air-conditioned Dubai and stepped into the past.
I stood in a loosely formed line (Indians seem to detest lines and therefore
form “pools”) for thirty minutes, only to discover once I reached the counter
that I first needed an eye exam. Crossing the room, I sat for another thirty
minutes with several indigent-looking Indians and Pakistanis, a couple
Arabs, and a portly ruddy-faced Englishman. When I walked into a diminutive
office containing one small desk, a middle-aged local took me through the
eye test. Simple. Then on to another line to have my Nebraska license
said a swarthy character. “You have to have it translated into Arabic first.
And you need the original, not this copy.”
“But it is
the original. This is what a Nebraska license looks like,” I insisted.
“It can’t be,”
he cried, looking it over suspiciously.
“It is,” I
stated. “You have to accept this!”
I’d asked to ravish his sister by the look he gave me. Mr. Geniality
instructed me to go to the American Consulate—just down the street—and
get a stamp of authentication. So I went for the stamp.
happened to be closed for regular business that day, but one helpful official
on duty managed to get me the required stamp. This was unusual. Most consular
officials take lessons in inefficiency. After I returned to the Department
of Motor Vehicles, I got to stand in another line. The before-mentioned
bureaucrat did a heavy stamping of my paperwork and pointed to another
line where I could pay my fee. In the meantime, he walked away with my
I said with relief. Next line, next wait. I paid amid some minor
confusion as to who was actually on duty. “Where’s my license?” I asked.
“You have to
have your photo taken,” a non-descript man in his thirties told me.
“In line over
there,” replied the man, pointing not without sympathy to another line
outside of a small studio. Eventually I was beckoned into the room for
the photo. The photographer, looking at a computer monitor, had trouble
making my head look acceptable for a license. When the chore was finished,
I went out into the main room to wait for the coveted finished product.
By the time I was handed my license, I’d spent several hours doing something
that would have taken ten minutes back home.
forays into a third-world bureaucracy, nothing will alter my opinion that
a first-world Dubai is a wonderful city in which to live, another world
for this Nebraskan to explore.
How do young
people here in Dubai feel about America and Americans? After all, there
is certainly a facade of western idealism here: young people wear American
clothing fashions and eat fast food; Five English-language radio stations
belt out the American and British top forty, even playing the Country Music
Countdown on Friday nights; and everything everywhere is in English. Right
now, most of the residents of Dubai are irritated (to put it mildly) with
the Bush Administration. It’s not that they appreciate Saddam Hussein’s
gifts; in fact, they wish someone would take the dog out and shoot him.
What they object to is the heavy-handed way the Bush administration has
handled the whole thing. The complaint of our allies, as well. For the
most part, though, my Iranian friends think the States is cool. While it’s
not true that everyone wants to go live in America, it’s a fact that many
can appreciate the culture and values of the United States.
Dubai is pretty
liberal when it comes to Christian churches. Whereas in Saudi Arabia worship
is strictly prohibited, the leaders of the UAE have decided the best approach
is open acceptance. The result: churches abound. Catholic and protestant.
Lots of protestants: Emirates Baptist, United Christian Church of Dubai,
Holy Trinity, Dubai Seventh-Day Adventist, and a host of others. In fact,
the other day, a Korean minister claiming to be a healer visited Dubai,
and in front of European and Arab TV camera crews, healed several in the
congregation, something verified by doctors who put the healed through
a series of tests. Yep, no matter if you are Catholic or a holy roller,
Dubai has a church for you.
The TV listings
are worth a browse. You'll find a variety of programming. Natually there
is full cable should you want it, with all the rubbish from Britain and
America. Local station Dubai 33 has an interesting mix of shows seemingly
incongruently put together. For example, Wednesday evening's 6:30pm presentation
is "Hadith, Sayings of the Prophet”, followed by The Bold and the Beautiful.
Islam followed by musical beds? Hmmm. Discover Islam is followed by The
New Adventures of Lois & Clark.
Most of us
don’t have time for too much TV. There’s too much to do here in this fast-paced,
often frenetic city. Any evening after work, I can jump in my Mitsubishi
Colt and head off down the highway to meet friends at the A &
W Rootbeer hangout and listen to Dubai FM’s Country Music Countdown,
or I can drive out of the city to the dunes and watch the sun disappear
behind those ever-changing hills of reddish sand, across which trains of
camels still amble, being guided by bearded men whose ancestors could never
have imagined a city like Dubai. To see more photos of Dubai Click