What I do and don’t miss about Dubai

By | Category: Travel destinations

It’s been 10 years since I left Dubai and it’s time to reminisce about the desert kingdom that I loved to hate and loathed to love…



The buzz

A favourite local saying in the UAE (of which Dubai is one of seven emirates) has long been: “Miss a week and you’ll miss something major” and certainly it’s true that in Dubai’s desire to take its place on the world stage, change is the only constant. Dubai reinvents itself more times than Madonna and, in the 10 years since I left, has had face lift on a scale that even Cher would balk at.
The Burj Khalifa – aka the world’s tallest building- was still being built during my Dubai days. Today it stands 828m high and offers dizzying views of Dubai’s skyline, but plans are already in place to top it. Enter the Dubai Creek Tower which will become the highest in the land, standing at 928m upon completion in 2020.
Dubai is also gearing up to welcome the world’s largest Ferris wheel. Situated on Bluewaters Island (bluewatersduabi.ae), the Ferris wheel will boast 48 air-conditioned capsules when it opens in 2018.
Not that anyone should be surprised by by the scale of Dubai’s ambitions…. In the words of the emirate’s charismatic ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, himself: “Becoming number one is not impossible – the word impossible doesn’t exist in our dictionary.”

24/7 sunshine

As recently as two decades ago few Brits had heard of, yet alone been to, Dubai. Now the emirate is a permanent fixture on the winter sun scene thanks to its promise of guaranteed rays, without the need to fly halfway around the globe. For while in Britain the sky is the colour of porridge, the leaves are falling and everyone is succumbing to flu, in Dubai it’s baking-in-a-bikini-hot – making a few years in the desert, a tempting prospect to warm weather starved Brits like myself.
I spent three consecutive Christmases in Dubai and I loved every single one of them. Don’t believe me? I’m willing to bet that when you’re lying horizontal on sand as white as a dentist’s chair, the Queen’s Speech, Eastenders omnibus and over-cooked Brussel sprouts will soon lose their festive appeal.


The land of bling (not for nothing is it described as the ‘Las Vegas of the Middle East’) may extend a welcome as warm as the weather to footballers and reality TV stars who delight in holidaying in the emirate’s hip hotels, but its residents are a much more diverse bunch.
Make no mistake: living in the UAE means you get to mingle with a melting pot of cultures that make up modern day Dubai. Case in point? I used to reside with an Aussie, an Egyptian and a Filipino and be taken, by a Bangladeshi born taxi driver, to work – where I would be greeted by colleagues from Lebanon, South Africa, Syria, Jordan, Canada and more.
On any given day, I was able to learn a little about their cultures  – not exactly something you can do in a homogenous suburb in Middle England. Very few places on the planet open its arms to so many.

Traditional Dubai

People, perhaps understandably given the emirate’s penchant for publicising its outlandish projects, have the wrong idea about Dubai – believing it to be all about  malls and modernity.
However scratch beneath the shiny surface and you’ll find another side to the ‘city of gold’. Alongside the skyscrapers like the Burj Al Arab (the self proclaimed seven star hotel, shaped like the sail of a dhow) and the Emirates Towers on Sheikh Zayed Road, sit historical sites such as Bastakia and the creek – arguably the heart beat of Dubai. Here you can watch abras and dhows (traditional Arab sailing boats) weave their way across the water, as they have done for centuries.
I also enjoyed sauntering through the souks (traditional Arab market places) browsing and bartering for everything from curly Aladdin-esque slippers and jewellery to pashminas (a necessity given the Arctic air conditioning levels that you’ll find in Dubai’s myriad malls), batteries, bananas, spices and Indian sweets. All are sold out of large open sacks, making for sensory overload.


The living is easy

Let’s face facts: life in London (my former and current base) can be a grind. There comes a point when you grow weary of being squashed up against a stranger’s armpit on a packed Central line tube during rush hour. Of wearing ear plugs every night to block out the sound (walls in London are paper thin) of your neighbours snoring, or worse, having sex. Of the nightmare that is the night bus home (expect urination, violence and vomiting) at the end of an evening out.
By contrast in the sand pit (as we expats affectionately termed Dubai), the living is positively easy. Friendly petrol pump attendants fill up up your car (with dirt cheap gasoline), while supermarket assistants  bag your shopping with a smile. Instead of watching drunken people fight on the night bus, you can hop in a cab for peanuts prices after a night out on the town.
Hungry? Panic not: the cafe/restaurant/shop you live next door to will happily deliver your order – even if it’s only a bar of chocolate – to the communal rooftop pool in your apartment block where you can spend weekends toasting on a sun lounger… Yes Dubai is an incredibly convenient destination – not that most expats realise this until they return to their Motherland.
Or in the words of the Chinese writer, Lin Yutang: “No one realises how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow.”


The dark side of Dubai

While Dubai excels in many areas, it doesn’t do well ecologically. Worryingly the UAE has one of the largest ecological footprints (signifying a lifestyle that wastes resources) in the world, second only to the USA.
Carbon footprint concerns aside, I was horrified by how many of the migrant workers who helped transform Dubai from a sleepy fishing village into a futuristic city were treated. A large percentage typically arrived in the UAE deep in debt – having paid recruiters in their homeland large fees for visas, jobs and plane tickets –
 only to have their passports confiscated (despite the fact that the confiscation of passports is illegal).
Forced to work long hours, in searing heat, by their employers for a low pay cheque, these migrant workers from the sub continent had little choice but to live in cramped, labour camps on the outside of town.
Bottom line? Next time you visit Dubai and stay in a swanky hotel on the Palm, don’t forget how it was built and by whom…

Mad, bad, driving

The Dubai metro – the world’s longest (but of course!) self driving metro system – has helped ease road congestion in the emirate, no end. However back in my day there was no metro system – car was king – and, subsequently, traffic in Dubai was as aggressive and chaotic as anything you’d find in India. Little wonder then that Sheikh Zayed Road – the highway that links Dubai with its sibling Abu Dhabi – earned the moniker Death Side Road owing to reckless drivers weaving in and out of traffic at breakneck speed in huge SUVs.
During my spell in the emirate driving was a necessity rather than choice due to limited public transport, but it still remains the most dangerous thing I ever did in Dubai.

The strict morality laws

Unless you have been living under a rock, you’ll know that it’s a punishable offence to drink, or to be under the influence of alcohol, in public in the UAE.
However not everyone knows that the UAE  deem homosexual acts unlawful. Even seemingly innocuous films such as the Adam Sandler vehicle I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry were banned by censors (censorship is alive and well) while I was living in the UAE. My message? It’s not great – something a couple of my former Time Out Dubai colleagues can attest to – for gays living in the Middle East.
For while Dubai may look like any other western city, in reality it’s a strict Muslim state. Although it’s more liberal than its neighbour Saudi Arabia, all displays of public affection between the sexes are banned as Michelle Palmer and Vince Accors – the two Brits who were accused of having sex on Jumeirah Beach in Dubai – discovered. The pair were jailed, although their sentence was later suspended.

Words and pictures: Kaye Holland

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