Dubai, United Arab Emirate – The Las Vegas of the World
I am rarely completely amazed but Dubai is so far above my expectations of anywhere I have ever traveled. Dubai is one of seven independent governments or emirates. The seven emirates that choose to join together in 1972 make up the United Arab Emirates. Each emirate is named after its main town. Abu Dubai, which was the first of the emirates to discover oil was selected to be the president of the matters between the U.A.E. More than the touristic bells and whistles of the city, I was impressed with the thoughtful city planning and incredible forethought for expansion, development and economic progress.
In 1833 there were only 800 people living in Dubai. It was a land in the desert bordered by the sea. Pearls and the import/export industry drove the first economy but it was also an area with pirates on the outskirts of their waters. What absolutely amazes me a question I keep asking myself, “who is the person that envisioned such a city in the middle of the desert”. What is even more impressive is the vision of the manmade island was built in the sea. This city which started with 800 people now has a population that is over 1.9 million people, from 150 nationalities, living in its boarders. The major advances and increases in population came to Dubai with business and development decisions by it’s rulers; the first the decision to allow free trade with other countries, next would be the treaty with England, followed by drudging Dubai Creek to further develop this cities port, followed by the discovery of oil, city planning and development of the tourist industry.
Everywhere I looked, even in the desert there is a grid plan for expansion. The power and roads are there before the communities even exist. The roads have many more lanes than necessary right now but they have planned for the development that will be built. Therefore the infrastructure is ready before the people are there to build their houses and businesses. There are man made islands out on the sea that have small cities on them. Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, is in Dubai. The malls are amazing, the one I went to has a full aquarium inside and another mall has a ski hill inside its walls. From golf courses to hotels to the sports complex with multiple venues….everything will leave you with your mouth open. I wonder how the development meetings went when planning this city? I can just see each person adding a bit; One person says….”Well, what if we built a hotel on the sea?” and the next person said something like, “Why not build an entire city?” I spoke to a man at the Center for Cultural Understanding who put it this way, “Yes, I know people say, “Those crazy arabs building a ski hill inside a mall.” Then he added, “What else are we going to do?” It’s hot here. And he is right.
I found myself planning my day to miss the hottest parts of it. In Spain I took siesta because it was the custom…Here I take it to avoid heat stoke. I found I had to mentally gear up to go out and explore especially when I saw that the temperature was going to be 39 to 40 degrees Celsius which is about 100 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. However, after a few days I realized that all the bus stops have air conditioned enclosures and if I got too hot I could just step inside a bus stop for a bit.
After a week here, I have met three people who are actually from Dubai and two of the three were from the nonprofit organization for cultural understanding. No where else in the world have I traveled and met so many people from so many different nations in one spot. I have met people working here from India, the Philippines, Morocco, Egypt, Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Canada, Iran and the Czech Republic. I have also met travelers from Egypt, Sudan, Bahrain, Nigeria, Holland, Ireland, South America, Switzerland, Australia and America.
For travelers, coming to Dubai was easy. In fact, I had not really planned to come to Dubai. I was searching for the easiest connection between Lisbon and my next destination. Emirates Airline had not only the best connection but it also had everything I needed to know regarding a stop in Dubai. A stopover was not only easy but I had everything at my fingertips to plan my stay-over in the UAE. The entry visa for many countries is not only easily obtained at the border but it is free. Yes, Dubai makes it simple to have a quick vacation on layover.
For workers this is also an amazing place to be. My driving guide said to me, “People want to come to work in a place that has three things. One, it needs to be safe; two, it needs to be clean; and three, there must be opportunity.” Ali continued, “This is a safe place, if you do anything wrong you have to leave. People want to stay here so they follow the laws. This place is clean; look at the roads? Everything is clean. This is a place where you can work hard and what I earn is my money.” Dubai has no sales tax and no income tax…Yes, I said no income tax! Even late at night I always felt safe on the street. People on a work visa must be working. If they become unemployed they must return to their home country. The will get 30 days to find work if they do not find work they will have to leave. People who come into the country on visa’s must pay for education and health care but it is a token amount. It is estimated that 60% of the people on work visa’s are from India, 20% are from Asia and 20% from other countries. Most workers have their housing and their worker permit paid by their employer. Some, like Ali, have a vehicle to use paid by their employer. Other higher paid salary positions often have other benefits. However, children born to non-citizens in Dubai are not citizen’s of the U.A.E. Children will become citizens from the country their parents have citizenship if born in Dubai.
One of the things I thought was interesting is that many people seemed so young and they are young. The retired are not working so they are not here. The unemployed are not here. In fact, Dubai has the lowest unemployment rate in the world. It seems that from the shopkeeper, to the hotel staff to the entertainment performers, all are looking for opportunity and working hard. And there are a lot of young people. It seemed to me that this would be a good place to go if I was in America, Europe or another part of the world with a high youth unemployment rate. Maybe Dubai would be a good place to start that work history?
My favorite things in Dubai??? Even though Dubai has amazing malls, beaches, sporting activities and other things to “entertain you” my favorite thing to do was to go to the Dubai Museum and the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. I loved to learn new things and I really felt like these two sites assisted foreigners in learning about the people from Dubai and the United Arab Emirates. The museum was an interactive site with displays and models of traditional living. The museum is well thought out and I really walked away with an understanding of the history of this area, from industry to how to live in the desert, this place was very thought provoking. Additionally, I went on two visits with the nonprofit organization for cultural understanding which included a traditional Arabic lunch. I learned a lot about the their tradition and customs as well as engaged in frank discussions with a question and answer sessions with our hosts. Nothing was off the table. We talked about Sherifa Law and dress and what is in the Koran and what is cultural and not in the Koran. We discussed education, women’s rights, family planning, current issues in the middle east and their views on the Palestine and the Israeli situation. We spoke about the Christian sites and roots located in the Middle East. One comment that stuck with me, “Christians, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim all started out as good things. It is the people that get in the way.” They talked a lot about “peoples interpretations” and how “ego gets in the way” or people get in the way of what is good. I left with the belief that Dubai is a very western, forward thinking and imaginative community with an enterprising economy which happened to be located in the Middle East.
My favorite touristy thing to do was ride the sand dunes in a 4×4 SUV with a guide. There were times I thought, “We are going to flip!” but we never did. There is nothing quite like being at the top point on a sand dune and when you are not sure which side of the dune you are going down. After about 30 minutes the drivers let us take photos of the dunes while they literally “cool their engines” then we were off again. I also enjoyed seeing Burj Khailfa (world’s tallest building), the Dubai Fountains, the beach at Jumeria (where you can see the oil drilling wells right off the coast of the beach), the aquarium inside Dubai Mall, discovering old Dubai and the souks and a dinner cruise on the Dubai Creek.
My most memorable encounter was with a shopkeeper from Afghanistan. He was the oldest and working to send money home to his family who were still in Afghanistan. Through the conversation we spoke about the war and he told me that he had lost his brother in the war. He was a Bin Laudin supporter and was surprised when he learned that I was an American. I told him that I was sorry about his brother and we had a good conversation together. When it was time to leave I wished him peace saying the traditional goodbye in arabic I had learned years ago when traveling in Turkey which means “peace be upon you”. The shopkeeper smiled greatly and said, “You know Arabic?” I said, “No, but I know how to say hello and goodbye properly” and then I said again, “wa salam aleikum “. He replied, “wa aleikum ah salam” meaning “and also peace be upon you”. “I walked away thinking that maybe we had a little more understanding of each other. But again, isn’t that what travel is about?