After my four-month-long journey through Southeast Asia, I spent one final week in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It wasn’t a destination I was super keen on visiting per se, but this way I could break up one very long gruesome flight into two shorter manageable ones. So I booked my ticket with 6 nights to spare between landing at and taking off from Abu Dhabi airport.
Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah
In this week I managed to visit three of the seven Emirates: Sharjah, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi. Of the three, Sharjah is by far the most traditional and conservative. Long white robes for men and completely covering black dresses for women are the norm here, and there aren’t that many Westerners out and about (although for some reason the emirate seems popular with Russian tourists… a strange thing, given that alcohol is completely prohibited here). Sharjah also does a pretty good job in making its Arab-Islamic heritage accessible to visitors, with a ‘heritage area’ and some decent museums.Dubai exists at the other end of the spectrum. It’s a cosmopolitan metropolis with awe-inspiring skyscrapers, a vibrant hi-so atmosphere, and a generally fast pace of life. The city still seems to be growing fast, with construction sites everywhere. This is a place where it happens. Arabs make up only a minority of the population, and were it not for quirks like women-only-metro-coaches, this could have been London or New York. While alcohol is allowed in bars, it is heavily taxed, so that you shouldn’t be surprised to pay $15 for a beer.
Abu Dhabi sits somewhere in the middle. The emirate is more liberal than Sharjah, but doesn’t have Dubai’s super-fast pace. Abu Dhabi is a well-planned, nice-looking and spacious city, with lots of green and wide boulevards (primarily aimed at cars). It doesn’t have the glitz of Dubai, but it feels more stately. There is plenty of Emirati culture to be seen on the streets, but the emirate also has a significant influx of expats (both Western and Asian), striking a nice balance between tradition and modernism.
In all of the emirates some things really stood out to me.
One striking feature of all the emirates I visited is that poverty seems to be non-existent. Prices are generally high, and rental prices insane, but no one seems to have any trouble paying them. I didn’t notice a single beggar on the streets. Upon inquiry with one of the locals I met, I learned that it is illegal to be homeless in the UAE. You are only allowed to stay in the country while you have a paid job, and you need to have a registered address. Anyone who can’t meet this standard is deported or thrown into jail.Hence there is no visible poverty: anyone too poor to make it in the UAE is simply removed from the streets by the government. There is some invisible poverty, though. To pay for the sky-high rental prices, many people share an apartment. In some cases this means that four Indian shift workers will share a single room. They get shuttled to and from their work site in their company’s labour bus, work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, and take turns sleeping in the room. Their predicament remains invisible to the casual observer. (The people living under these conditions are typically still better off in the UAE than in their home country, and manage to save up some money to take home after their contract ends).
Another salient part of UAE culture is its consumerism. Especially in Dubai, but also in the other emirates, shopping malls abound and are one of the favourite places for locals to spend their free time (and money). The malls are open from early in the morning until as late as 1.00 am., and sometimes even 24 hours a day. You can find any of the world’s top brands in the shopping malls, as long as you are willing to pay the premium prices asked. And most do. I was amazed to see how good business seemed to be at high-end electronics, fashion and luxury goods stores.
The conversations between UAE denizens (at least the ones in English that I could overhear or take part of) are often about material things. Where do you live? How much rent are you paying? How much do you make at your job? Did you see that new … (fill in the blank) on sale? I’m going to buy … next week. Etcetera. It made me wonder if all the advertising and display of wealth brings out the rabid consumer in people, or if this place simply attracts people with a proclivity towards materialism. At least the Arabs are known for their love of luxury goods and displays of wealth.
American style infrastructureA final point that stood out to me, was how much the country’s infrastructure resembles that of the United States. It’s nigh impossible to get around anywhere on foot (you’ll have to play live Frogger across ten-lane highways), and the country seems built for cars. The people who live in the UAE all get around by private car, driving from one airconditioned building to the other. And if you’re driving, conditions are pretty good: the country is paved with wide, well-maintained highways, that make most places accessible.
Outside of the high-rise residential and commercial centers, the UAE has very much a strip mall layout: an endless sprawl of buildings, housing various shops and restaurants. Since you have to drive to get somewhere anyway, and it doesn’t really matter how far you drive (petrol costs next to nothing), businesses can afford to be far away from the population centers… as long as they are easily accessible by car. One evening spent with my hosts in Abu Dhabi, I ended up driving quite a distance between three different venues for starters, mains, and dessert; an experience I had only ever had in the USA before.
End of the line
While I enjoyed my stay in the UAE and found it an interesting experience, I know that this is not the place for me. Its material culture doesn’t resonate with me. I also don’t like that cars seem to be the primary life forms for which this country has been built. I love to walk around in the fresh air, which is definitely a challenge here. I am very happy to have seen the modern wonder that is the UAE, though. It is very impressive how this small pre-industrial country managed to transform itself into a clean, modern, and world-renowned tourist and living destination in less than 100 years.
In two days I’ll be flying back to Amsterdam. I’ll lay low for a couple of weeks, recovering from my travels, meeting up with some friends whom I haven’t seen in a while, and figuring out where to move next. If you want to find out, keep reading this blog. Or follow me on Twitter, to get the latest updates.