Dubai, the City of Contrasts

dubai from the burj khalifa

Dubai is an interesting city of contrasts. This young city was built on the backs of hard-working and grossly underpaid expats—Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis, and Filipinos—yet it’s almost a futuristic theme park for the wealthy. When looking around, it’s hard to see what is truly authentic and what is just here for show. Though, I suppose that perhaps that’s what makes it truly Emirati—the blurred line between reality and fantasy. There is so much money in Dubai that you can almost create your ultimate fantasy life, one which includes skiing in malls; watching fountains dance twice hourly at night in front of the world’s tallest building; and walking through a tunnel surrounded by stingrays, sharks, and fish.

dubai marina uae

Before going, I’d heard mixed reviews about Dubai. I was unsure if I’d be turned off by its glittering and ostentatious fakeness, or if instead, I’d be enamored and drawn in by its charm and unique breed of the Middle East meets the hybrid of Disney and Las Vegas on crack.

jumeirah beach dubai use

What I found is that I kind of loved it there. As a (very independent) Western woman, I had reservations about going to the Middle East for the first time and what the experience would be like. Dubai was an easy city to start with because it’s a city that combines so many cultures in one dense area. There are people from every corner of the earth living there, making it multinational and easy to settle into quickly. Everyone spoke English; the transportation was wonderful and always on time; it was cleaner than almost any city I’d ever visited; and things were clearly marked and easy to get around.

burj al arab dubai uae

I was taken by how ostentatious Dubai is. And how much they love to show off their money—lavish cars and parks, palaces, world records—highest building, 7-star hotel, biggest fireworks display, gold-covered horses, a mosque modeled after the blue mosque in Turkey. It was almost as if you couldn’t go anywhere without the reminder that it’s one of the world’s wealthiest places. Even in the areas where the underpaid immigrant workers live, you’d see signs of wealth all around.

mosque in dubai

Another thing I really enjoyed about Dubai was how it combined Eastern and Western cultures. There were definitely times when I felt as though I was in the Middle East, but a lot of the time I also felt like I could’ve been in a city in Europe or North America.

market souq souk dubai uae

As far as being a woman there, I didn’t find that I had many problems. I was respectful of local customs and maintained a certain level of coverage. And when I traveled alone (most of my trip I traveled with a male friend), I loved that I had the option of taking  women-only cars in the metro and women-only cabs. I probably wouldn’t have even needed to do that, but even traveling with my friend, I noticed that I was getting a lot of stares and it sometimes made me a bit uncomfortable.

burj khalifa and fountains night dubai uae

I am working on a post about the ethics of Dubai because I don’t want those things to go unsaid, but I had a great personal experience there, and it’s a city that I’d very seriously consider moving to.. that’s how much I liked it.

me on the beach dubai uae meganotravels

17 thoughts on “Dubai, the City of Contrasts

  1. Thanks for posting this! I’m headed there in just about a week or so and as it will also be my first time in the Middle East I was curious to hear what it was like. Now I’m really excited to visit!

  2. Bustling hypermodern Dubai. It will remain to be seen how sustainable their economy is.
    It’s interesting to discover how multi-ethnic it is. And it will most likely become even more mixed as Westerners move in to buy luxury homes.
    I’m aching to see beautiful Dubai, hopefully it will happen soon :)

    • Yeah, I wonder about the sustainability, too. I think it’s already sort of diminishing over the past few years. But I’m sure it’ll still remain a pretty big market for foreigners and businesses for a long time to come.

  3. I’ve been curious how Dubai is for a while now, and as you I have a bit mixed feelings about the city, travelling there as a woman and reading about the treatment of foreign workers. Great to hear you liked it though! I am still aiming to visit and see all with my own eyes one day!

    • From what I observed–you’d need to check travel warnings at the time of your trip to be certain–there is no concern among women in Dubai. In fact, a great many of the foreign worker women there are single.

      Interestingly, Dubai even tolerates a “western-style” (read nearly naked) beach not hidden from sight in a central area. I noticed no gawkers there. It’s a sophisticated international city,

      Of course, even though you don’t have to, you might wish to show respect for tradition by dressing a bit more modestly than many adult women in other countries. I don’t mean that you should wear a burka, though!

      • Yes, Dan, you are correct. I didn’t run into any problems as a single female traveling around Dubai. In fact, I felt more comfortable there than I have in many western countries traveling alone.

        I also agree that, while you don’t have to dress in a burqa, as you pointed out, it is still common courtesy to dress conservatively in a country such as the United Arab Emirates. I put together a What to Wear guide for Dubai to give a better idea:

  4. To be honest, your opinion isn’t really well informed. Try living in Dubai.
    Dubai is only skin deep. They make tall buildings out of cheap materials, using cheap labour, then employee mindless-drones to operate those buildings.

    There is a say, Middle East, where East meets West. This is somewhat true unfortuneately there is no grey-matter between east and west making it one of the least intelligent places on this planet.

    Full of lazy Arabs who try to immetate the west but lack the understanding of quality or fine service. Mindless South Asians who are brought up in a life style where they are not trained to think for themselves, or to go that extra mile. Instead they merely do as they are told, and they do it slowly. Claiming they are hard working is a LONG stretch from the truth and when you deal with them on a daily basis you learn this quickly

    Dubai, as is all of the middle east, is ruining the planet we live in, more than any other country in the west. They keep digging for more fossil fuels which is tearing apart our planet, then feeds the greedy business man fuel that destroys our atmosphere.
    They create man-made islands, destroying coral reefs, disrupting homes of our natural sea life. They capture dolphins and put them on display in small water tanks so fat americans can go swimming with them,

    Middle East, what a wonderful place. Probably the only region on planet earth who still racially discriminates against your origin and skin colour.

    Your trip to dubai was nothing short of a lie put in place to help foreign visitors depart with their cash and make the rich even richer.

  5. Such a fascinating city. I loved it there and would have no hesitation visiting again.

    Although have experienced extremely wealthy countries such as Switzerland, with huge expat communities, I had never encountered a country where it was so difficult to interact with its citizens. Nearly everyone you meet is a foreign worker. (UAE citizens do clear you through immigration.) Even much of the armed forces has been outsourced.

    The big UAE issue to me was the other type of sustainability. I see the need for air-conditioned bus shelters, but not for turning large areas of the country into irrigated forests.

    The desalination process process needed for that must use astonishing amounts of energy. This is in a country whose oil resources do not compare to others in its region.

    In fairness, though, those of us from western countries, as well as China, are very likely guilty of far greater ecological crimes.

    Thank you for the excellent post.

    • Thank you for your comment, Don! And yes, I have had similar thoughts about Dubai’s sustainability. In fact, I read recently that tourism has been on a steady decline there since 2009, and I believe that’s their major money-maker at this point. It’ll be interesting to see what happens over the next decade or so.

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