From my seat on the Emirates A380, I listened to male voices discuss the diversity of the Dubai workforce. “There are 175 nationalities represented here,” one said. “Working here is like working nowhere else on Earth,” said the other. That second statement wasn’t needed to make the point, but I guess they wanted to drive it home for anyone who might have been momentarily distracted. As I have been on both the giving and receiving ends of a great deal of cultural miscommunication in my time, I was immediately intrigued.
Whether sitting in my stylish condo in Singapore or living in the Brisbane bush, only the truly outlandish tales about Dubai have crossed my radar. “Did you hear about the couple that was arrested on the beach for making out in public?” Friends would ask. Which one? I wondered. The clincher, however, had to be the 2013 account of the Norwegian woman who was sentenced to sixteen months in jail after reporting her rape by a coworker. The conviction was because she had sex outside of marriage, a big no-no in Islamic culture. Her attacker received only a thirteen month sentence.
Despite those catastrophic miscarriages of the type of justice that I was used to, a spark of fascination with this place lingered. Other tales of individuals and corporations with less money than sense fanned the flames. A seven star hotel? What on earth do they do to earn those extra two stars? A shopping mall with a skating rink, twelve hundred stores, and an aquarium? You must be joking! Again, there was a clincher: vending machines that sell gold bars made by a company called Gold to Go. Who could pass up the chance to lay eyes on such a place?
As it turned out, even when the opportunity to stop in Dubai came my way, I still didn’t see it. My friends claimed it was there, this glittering homage to wealth and excess, but what I saw was a dust storm that lasted for days. No sparkling blue skies here. No Arabian nights-style tents on beaches. No tigers or cheetahs on leashes. Just dust in my contact lenses and a few centimeters thick on every exposed surface. And one more clincher: it was 43 degrees Celsius (110 degrees Fahrenheit). The “real feel” of such a temperature with heat index calculated is over 60 degrees Celsius and 140 Fahrenheit. Now it becomes clear why the city wants to build a climate-controlled city center 2.25 times larger than the area of Monaco. Seems entirely reasonable now, doesn’t it?
Though I was ecstatic to lay eyes on my 44th country, I was clueless as to what I might find there. Did I have to cover my hair? Would I be arrested for drinking the wine that is so near and dear to my heart? Is it truly overflowing with people whose wallets are bursting with cash dipped in oil? I had no idea. The internet told me it was a “sophisticated future city,” a place where dreams could come true. Whether those dreams were: viewing the city from the 124th floor of the Burj Khalifa or four-wheel dune driving in the red desert, it could happen here.
What were my dreams, you ask? Well, in places where I cannot get on or in the ocean, they mainly consist of excellent shopping and gourmet food. Dubai delivered on both counts. My friends took me to brunch at the Observatory overlooking The Palm, fifty-two floors up. This spectacular affair involved things like a rolling Mojito cart and a stunning array of seafood. We also went to the Dubai Mall, the largest in the world, to have a peek. I couldn’t fathom what kind of diversity twelve hundred shops would bring, but an entire level of storefronts with names like Burberry Children and Dolce & Gabbana Kids never entered my mind.
The more I read about Islamic law, the less ecstatic I became. Public displays of affection can get you arrested. If you are a wealthy westerner, your jail sentence may be less than if you are, for example, Southeast Asian, but it still happens. Alcohol is only served in hotels which have a license. Prefer to drink at home? Sorry! You need a license for that too. A license that must be applied for and granted through your employer. Your allotment of said alcohol is limited to a percentage of your income. The more you make, the more you are entitled to. As if boss-employee relations were not awkward enough!
Dubai is nothing if not the biggest example of duplicity in a city that one could dream up. It stylizes itself as the metropolis of the future, yet it has no mail or address system. Delivery is based on nearby landmark descriptions. The government praises the unquestionable morality of its people by making kissing in public taboo, yet completely ignores the tens of thousands of imported prostitutes that flood the city annually. It stakes claim to the most diverse workforce in the world, yet practices open racism where your passport determines your occupational value.
Regardless of the obvious cons, I am glad to have seen it. In all fairness, the trip was brief and I saw very little. Did I see enough? Absolutely. It’s a good thing because if anyone of influence were to read this article, my return would be highly unlikely. The latest story to surface was an Australian who posted a photo of a car parked across two disabled parking spots at her apartment building on Facebook. She was fined $3600 and jailed for “writing bad words on social media” despite covering the license plate and not naming the person. This took place in Abu Dhabi-less than two hours’ drive from Dubai-but I’ll steer clear. Reaching a new level of awkward conversation isn’t on my wish list.