Dubai Chic

Camels and Construction

Dubai Mall | Photo: A. Claessen

Ski Hall | Photo: A. Claessen

Dubai Skyline | Photo: A. Claessen

Dubai Mall | Photo: A. Claessen

Like the three wise men in the Bible, my two siblings and I were riding camels through the desert with only the stars to guide us through the darkness. Seeing my mother deeply touched, I thought there was no better way to celebrate Christmas.

After a six-hour flight from Maldives, entertaining ourselves watching one of the thirty channels offered in the Emirate plane, my family was finally in Dubai, the second largest of seven emirates of The United Arab Emirates, situated on the Persian Gulf next to Saudi Arabia, and Oman.

Half an hour wait for the shuttle from plane to airport was a surprise until I learned that the airport is one of the busiest in the Middle East, serving over 260,000 flights in 2007. We stepped outside into 25°C in December, hot and humid. What a change!

We took off for the hotel in an Audi., which was a beauty. But there were more: Mercedes, Ferraris, Porsches, Hummers… It looked like an automobile show on the highway. It’s not surprising for Dubai’s gross domestic product was US$ 46 billion in 2006, making the country one of the wealthiest on earth – ever since the price of oil soared in the 1970’s which laid the foundations for Dubai’s astonishing modern building program. The Sheikh Zayed Road, with its high-rise offices and apartment links the city of Dubai with the emirate of Abu Dhabi, and since 1979, the Jebel Ali free zone has been the Emirate’s majority sources of revenue, providing foreign companies unrestricted exports of goods and imports of labor.

We stayed at the five star Jumeirah Beach Hotel, an award-winning hotel next to the Burj Al Arab, said the tallest and most luxurious hotel in the world. We walked outside, where we stumbled upon a private beach, five swimming pools, six tennis courts, marina, sports club, diving center and even a water park next door. Not too shabby.

Ski Hall | Photo: A. Claessen

Since it was Christmas time, they had a huge tree and decorations in the lobby with a choir singing Christmas carols. Still, it didn’t feel like Christmas to me, so we tried to make up for it by going on a desert safari. Riding in jeeps through across the sand going to camel farms and then feasting on chicken, lamb, bread and dairy products on Persian carpets while watching a belly dancer. Driving from the old Dubai to the new… from camel farms to a construction site for upcoming Dubai Park, which is supposed to be bigger than Universal and Disney, it seemed like two different worlds.

“Modern Dubai came to be as a result of the Persian Gulf War in 1990,” our driver told us on our way home, and explained that when the oil prices sky-rocketed and foreign depositors made massive withdrawals from Dubai banks forced a shift to tourism and free trade. Clusters of new free zones were developed, including Dubai Media City, Maritime City and International City, and by 2006, revenues from gas and petroleum contributed less than six percent to total GDP.

One of Dubai major investments was the Mall of the Emirates, which opened in 2005 and is the country’s largest shopping mall with the first indoor ski slope in the Middle East. It was a culture change just going into the mall. I looked around, the people looked all the same, the men wore white ankle-length, loose-fitting garment, a Kandoura or Dishdasha, while the women wore black long-sleeved full-length robe, an Abayah.  Both sexes covered their heads. I was told that women in Dubai have more options than the rest of the emirates. They can wear Western-style clothes, as long as it covers them from head to foot, go to a university, drive cars, have jobs and go out without a chaperon, although many remain at homes and live a more traditional life.

Being white and in Western clothes, I became a minority, a first time experience for me.  I had never felt so different in my life, one of only 3% of the 1,422,000 people of Dubai who are Western, according to a 2006 census.

Dubai Skyline | Photo: A. Claessen

Weird sounds, like chanting, started echoing in the Mall’s speakers… “What was that?” I asked my sister, looking around for the source. It was prayer hour, broadcast live in the mall. UAE is overwhelmingly Muslim and people pray five times a day at appointed times that all seem to honor.

Fitting in was key in this highly ritualized society and we studied our guidebook carefully: No public displays of affection, was one of rules, and all clothing knee length or longer. But still, the mall was filled with old friends: like H&M and Mango Dolce&Gabbana and Burberry.

I was surprised to see how many Asians worked there. Approximately 85% of the expatriate population is Asian, 51% of that Indian. Dubai has over 250,000 foreign laborers, many living in conditions described by Human Rights Watch as “less than human,” due to a discriminatory legal system.

Despite this, everyone that I talked to, including the taxi drivers, raved about Dubai and how much was in store for the city in the future. I found it refreshing hearing someone talk about his or her region so positive. But at the same time I thought, would something happen if he didn’t?

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