Dubai attracts millions (15.8m in 2017) of visitors every year. It is famous for its fancy cars, shiny skyscrapers and vast malls which give the impression of a vibrant and futuristic city where everybody is happy, wealthy and healthy. Kristina and I decided to stop in Dubai for a short while so that we can find out what this city has to offer for ourselves. This is what we experienced in our short two-day stay.
We’ve read a lot about Dubai before going so we were naturally very curious to find out about the cultural differences and see how social norms accepted in the emirates compare to those which are more traditional to us (and the western world). The first impression was that in Dubai people are relatively relaxed about the dos and don’ts we have read about before going. The particular don’ts that come to mind are:
- Don’t act disrespectfully (especially under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs)
- Don’t take photos of other people (especially locals)
- Don’t wear clothes that are too revealing
- Don’t show affection in public (including holding hands, kissing for couples)
- Don’t drink alcohol in public places (you need a licence for having alcohol on your person)
- Don’t show the middle finger (apparently this is a big one so it is probably best to avoid any hand gestures that can be interpreted as offensive)
Even though we found visitors aren’t necessarily reported and imprisoned for breaking some of the things mentioned above, such acts would still be considered disrespectful and can easily put you into a lot of trouble. All I can say is that we’ve seen couples (including locals) holding hands, both men and women wearing revealing clothes in public places like streets and malls and people drinking alcohol and smoking in bars or on nights out. We were not too keen to test the boundaries so my advice to travellers would be to keep these couple of things in mind when visiting Dubai. Locals respect their traditions and in my opinion so should their guests. I am sure you won’t be getting out of your way too much by dressing modestly and acting like a decent human being!
Despite the above, one thing that stood out were the inequalities between men and women and in particular these situational preferential treatments to either men or women. Now, while I respect nations will have their cultural differences, in my mind it still does not make it okay to treat a person in a particular way based on his or her sex. I don’t want to go into too much detail, but to me personally, cultural norms are simply widely accepted beliefs. What are beliefs? Beliefs are nothing more than habits (or views) once again, accepted by a critical mass of people in a specific population. And what are habits? Habits are repetitive actions of individuals who are part of this specific population. In that case, if cultural norms stem from repeated acts of individuals it is not beyond the realms of possibility that these norms can be changed. It appears Dubai is where this change is originating from and that the reason for it is that Dubai has an expatriate population of 85% (2016 data). As a matter of fact, in 2016, 51% of the population were Indian. There is no point in arguing that there are other, more complex factors which play a part here as well which have been overlooked, but I can definitely see expats having contributed to making Dubai a city that we have today.
By now, you might be asking what are those situational preferential treatments I am on about… Examples of these would be “women friendly” or “family friendly” areas in trains* or restaurants**, or ladies nights/days in bars where women would be served drinks free of charge. We actually went to a private beach where this was the case. Kristina was given a free drink while I had to fork out £5 for a bottle of water. I appreciate selling drinks is how bars make their money but with +39 degrees Celsius outside that felt a bit harsh.
I am not going to go into a lot more details about the inequality in UAE as I think it is already widely known positions of power here are mainly held by males, and that women are a lot more restricted about how it is considered acceptable for them to express themselves. Women still have to overcome the many hurdles that men never have to concern themselves about. And obviously, no amount of free drinks will ever tip the scales back to equal…
Sexual inequality is a vastly complex topic which is a lot more universal and Dubai is definitely not the only place where it is prevalent. My two cents on the topic is that inequality between men and women here is being readjusted by compensating women in these slightly obscure ways. But then again, who am I to judge?
*Some parts, usually front of trains, were marked as “Women and Family Zones” which means only women and children are allowed to enter those areas. It is okay for women to be anywhere on a train, but men are not allowed in these special areas.
**Tables where single women or mothers with children should sit if they come without their husband
The metro is squeaky clean and is extremely cheap and efficient, especially for getting from one side (DXB airport) of the city to the other (distance of 40km+ for around £2). For comparison, we paid 128AED or around £27 to our UBER driver to get back to the airport. Also, there are only two metro lines at the moment (green and red) and signage is pretty much everywhere in both Arabic and English so the system is not particularly difficult to crack.
The interesting thing is that the metro is only mainly used by Dubai’s workforce who are mostly expats from counties like India and Philippines. Others and especially locals (native residents form only 15% of population in Dubai) own big shiny cars and drive everywhere. And I am not surprised – it’s scorching hot most of the time. We were told temperatures tend to become more bearable this time of the year but it was still just under 40degrees during the day and above 30degrees during the night.
Other than the expensive UBER to the airport we (2 people) spent around £15 in 2 days. We used both buses and trains extensively on both days when we were out and about.
I was always under the impression staying in Dubai must be really expensive but that does not seem to be the case. At the time of writing there is a wide variety of hotel rooms available in various locations (excluding beachfront and the palms) all at less than £40 per night for 2 people. It might be worth keeping in mind unmarried couples might be asked to stay in different rooms due to cultural reasons so it might be worth checking before booking anything!
In our case, we stayed in Dubai for free, because Kristina has been able to find a bed for us on a platform called couchsurfing. You won’t necessarily have the same privacy as you would in a hotel, but that’s the compromise we were willing to make to save money. As I said before, for us every little helps!
Local food is not something we’ve been able to experience extensively as we have not had too many opportunities to eat out (and even when we did we tried to avoid splurging out on expensive meals). Having said that, we popped into a local shop once for a meal after exploring the local market in old town (Al Ras). We had a kebab type of meal which we shared and a couple of fresh fruit smoothies. We paid around £10 and were both very happy with both food and drink.
It seems prices in mid-range places are comparable to those in the UK.
It is difficult to describe Dubai in a few simple words. Dubai is a modern, even futuristic looking business-centred city which is nice to visit for a few days. However, I would not want to live in this concrete jungle of skyscrapers and shopping malls. To us it not only felt superficial but also incomplete or at the very least unpolished. We found places where the way infrastructure is laid out does make a lot of sense or is face down counterintuitive. Some places have been difficult to access and means of getting there were limited.
On the other side of the spectrum, you can be picked up by an UBER chopper if you have enough cash – that’ll help you get places! I mean the chopper, not cash.
An interesting thing that came out of a conversation with our host was that there is a feeling of a looming decline and that the economic/property boom for Dubai is over which in the next couple of decades might change the scene completely once again. We were told the buildings we see today are half empty and even though trade and construction (something like 25% of worlds cranes still operate in Dubai) of new properties is still taking place, relatively few people are actually moving in to live here to make it sustainable. I guess we will have to wait to find out.
All in all, we are really happy we visited Dubai though and I think it is likely we will visit Dubai and/or other emirates again at some point in the future. Two days is simply not enough time to experience a place this size. But now it’s time to pack our backpacks and catch another flight. We’ll see you in a bit!
Next stop – Kathmandu, Nepal.