Last year, Megan and I had the amazing opportunity to live in Dubai for 3 months, and we had an absolute blast. We lived in the most diverse city in the world, and it showed itself everyday in the people we met, the food we ate, the architecture, and more. We got to travel to the surrounding areas of the Arab Peninsula like Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, and Oman. I was more informed than ever about global diplomacy and causes for the divides between different Arab alliances, sects, and organizations. I regularly got to play football (soccer) with people from at least a dozen other countries, and by the end of the summer had picked up on the nuances of different nations’ playing styles. I got to make friends from different backgrounds about how they view the world, what they see as the central needs (and respective solutions) of their home societies, and what they think are the most effective ways for Westerners to give aid to poor regions of the world. It was fascinating, and I could share my takeaways for hours on end.
I also learned a thing or two about frugality. I had already considered myself to be a very frugal person, but I was totally out of my league in the Middle East. I remember one time bragging to a friend there about how I got the shirt I was wearing for only $4 dollars. His response? … “I would never pay that much for a shirt.” Haha!
I thought he was kidding. But as it turns out, despite the city’s reputation, most people are scraping by. Living conditions for most are worse than I’ve ever witnessed in a developed nation, and it’s perfectly common for someone to live off of one meal a day. People move there from surrounding nations - the best and brightest from their home villages & towns - in hopes of acquiring a low-level job, living as cheaply as possible, and sending as much money home to their families as possible. I couldn’t tell you how many people I met that had been away from their spouse and kids for over a decade! Their work ethic and pure will to succeed is unrivaled.
Now, to be clear, there is a definite contract between citizens and non-citizens. This poverty I speak of is common, but not among actual Emiratis. Citizenship, however, is a difficult thing to come by. Only a little over 10% of the population are citizens, and unless you share the same ethnicity and were born of citizens, you don’t really stand a chance.
I remember meeting someone one time who told me he was from Egypt. I replied, “That’s awesome! What city?” To my surprise, he looked at me with a blank, dumbfounded face. I rephrased the question, which seemed to help, and he responded, “I have never been to Egypt. I was born here in Dubai and have lived here my entire life. But my ancestors are from Egypt, so I am from Egypt.”
My new friend wasn’t sharing this out of pride for his heritage. He was sharing this because he knew very well that no matter what he did, he will never be considered an Emirati. In fact, many have lived in the UAE far longer than the nation has even existed, and yet are still no closer to citizenship. Trust me, it’s complicated, but the issues there are far more vast than this. Honestly, I was consistently appalled and heartbroken by the discrimination and oppression that ran rampant throughout this society, which is particularly striking considering that the UAE is more progressive in valuing freedom and equality than any other Arab nation.
Needless to say, if you spend some time there, you will leave far more thankful than you’ve ever been about how far America has come in moving beyond our social, economic, racial, and gender-based hierarchies of old. Our current systemic issues are nothing compared to the Middle East (or really anywhere in the world, for that matter), which is not to say we should be satisfied with our present reality, but simply to point out that gratefulness is in order for the progress we’ve made.
That said, it’s the top of the hierarchy in the UAE that’s generated a reputation for itself, and for good reason. Life as a local in this city-state is a drastically different one. Citizens are essentially the only ones who can buy property in the region; citizens have exclusive access to the best education and stable jobs in the region; citizens even receive random financial distributions from their government! (wouldn’t that be nice!)
When people hear that I lived in Dubai for a summer, they’re sometimes awestruck and ask, “Did you see a lot of rich people there??,” highly anticipating being blown away by the levels of prosperity I witnessed. But the truth is, the wealth of Dubai dwindles in comparison to the wealth we have in America. The wealthiest people there aren’t near as wealthy as ours are, and the average person there doesn’t make anything close to what we do in the States. I included some charts below that illustrate this, just in case you don't believe me :)
If you feel like this is different from what you’ve heard, you're exactly right, and what you’ve heard is no coincidence. See, this region’s financial well-being, and particularly their future (as they continue to deplete their oil reserves over time) is largely fueled by tourism. And to be clear, their tourism is not at all aided by California beaches, Colorado mountains, or New York City nightlife. They live in a desert. Their primary draw for tourism is their shopping, along with other man-made feats like the tallest building in the world, man-made islands, and an indoor ski slope. In other words, their success in the tourism business is driven by the perception that they are extremely wealthy. They’re highly incentivized to create and maintain a flashy image in order to woo us into experiencing it for ourselves, even though the reality is we generate more wealth in our own 9-5 jobs! Isn’t that fascinating?? So, unfortunately, the grass is not really greener on the other side of the world. At least not in this case.
Don’t get me wrong though, I’d visit again in a heartbeat. The shopping there is ridiculous. Their third best mall is more impressive than any other I’ve seen, and Dubai Mall is far and away in a league of its own. The Burj Khalifa is strikingly - dare I say frustratingly tall - as it refuses to fit within any selfie frame. People there are very friendly, too, and every day there’s a new cultural experience awaiting you. Without a doubt, it’s worth a stay!
Have you been to Dubai, or to another city in the Middle East? If so, how was your experience similar or different? Feel free to share!
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