Dubai is both the largest city in the United Arab Emirates as well as the most populous Emirate in the country. As they are ruled by the same person and have nearly the same boundaries (save for exclave of Hatta), the Emirate of Dubai and City of Dubai are essentially interchangeable.
Dubai was founded as a fishing village in the 1800´s and was an obscure destination of just a few thousand residents all the way up until the 1960´s. In 1968, oil was discovered in the territorial waters in the Persian Gulf. It wasn´t a lot compared to its neighbors, but it was enough to kickstart the economy. It was around this time, in 1970, that Dubai, Abu Dhabi and 4 other smaller emirates formed the United Arab Emirates.
Since then, but really since 2000, Dubai has embraced free trade and tolerance of other cultures more so than any other part of the Middle East. Unlike the rest of the Gulf, Dubai welcomes Western dress of any style, and allows alcohol consumption. This combination, combined with visionary capital projects, has infused capital and foreign labor into the city and has propelled Dubai to become the economic, tourism, and cultural epicenter of the Middle East.
The man behind all of this is Sheikh Al Maktoum, the absolute ruler of Dubai.
I decided to visit Dubai because of the World Expo. Additionally, I had several business school friends living there who I think have a high likelihood of leaving in a few years. Therefore, this seemed like the perfect window of time to visit.
My girlfriend Maisie and I stayed with my business school friend, Cezar, who works as a consultant in Dubai. He lives in Downtown Dubai and luckily has an extra bedroom in his apartment.
March 24, 2022: Jumeirah
As far as tourists are concerned, Dubai is spread out into three main districts: Old Dubai, Downtown Dubai, and The Marina/The Palm. Maisie and I decided to spend a day in each district. We did not have a car. Luckily taxis and the Metro are very easy to use and convenient.
Our first day was spent in the Marina.
We took a taxi there. Taxis are surprisingly cheap to get in Dubai. In some areas you can flag them down, but you can also summon a taxi via the app Careem (a Middle Eastern version of Uber). The 30-minute ride cost just $20.
We ended up at Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR), a collection of 40 high rise towers right on the beach. The enormous development is a project by Dubai Properties, a state-run real estate company.
The combination of high rises, international chains and tackily dressed tourists reminded me of Cancun and the chain restaurants are far more obscure (or random) than you would expect to find in the Middle East including Buffalo Wild Wings, Dickey´s BBQ, PF Chang’s, Hurricane´s (from Australia) and Tim Horton´s (from Canada). We ate at an American-style breakfast restaurant called Eggspectation. The food could have been served at any trendy/healthy breakfast restaurant in the US. I ordered a Greek omelet and fruit smoothie. It was delicious.
The beach, also part of the development, was full of lawn chairs and cabanas perfectly arranged along the coast. Reggaeton was blasting. It felt like a private resort, even though the beach appeared to be public. To be fair, a large portion of Dubai feels like a private resort.
We then took a taxi to the Palm Jumeirah. The Palm is an artificial island in the shape of a palm tree. The island is humongous. From the base of the palm (aka where it meets the coast) to the end is over 5 kilometers (3 miles). The central stem of the palm tree has hotels, a mall and apartment buildings. The fronds have fancy private homes. The palm tree is surrounded by a circular “frame” which has mostly large resorts.
The landmark resort on the Palm is Atlantis. It is a younger sibling of the famed resort in the Bahamas which I visited in 2015. There are a few differences. First, the iconic archway in Dubai has an Arabian shape. Additionally, the Aquaventure waterpark in Dubai claims to be the world´s largest (while the Bahamas Aquaventure is merely the largest waterpark in the Caribbean). Since Maisie is a self-proclaimed waterpark connoisseur, we had to go.
Even though it was midweek, the waterpark was crowded…the perfect opportunity for the ticket vendor to try to upsell me on the skip-the-line-pass for an additional $100. We declined the offer.
The waterpark stretches more than a mile long down an artificial beach. There are 3 towers of waterslides that get larger as you get further from the entrance. The first tower, the smallest tower, contains the iconic Leap of Faith slide which plunges through a shark tank.
The second tower, heavily themed contains a whole bunch of slides including Poseidon´s Revenge, where you start by standing on a trapdoor.
The final tower, the Trident Tower is by far the tallest in the park. As a result, the slides here are the longest by far.
Additionally, there are two “lazy” rivers which have real rapids. In one of the lazy rivers, which is a mile-long, you enter with a life jacket and float through the rapids.
Maisie considered Aquaventure the best waterpark she has ever visited. There were so many good slides and the theming is top-notch. Additionally, the lines were not too bad, especially further back in the park. The staff, mostly from Africa, was very friendly and put up with a lot of nonsense from the customers.
For dinner, we headed back to Downtown Dubai, which is a single gigantic $20 billion real estate project that surrounds an artificial lake. The anchor of Downtown Dubai is the Burj Khalifa, the world´s tallest building. The whole area was HOPPING on a Thursday night. Many tourists were lined up to see the famed fountain show, a biggest and better version of Las Vegas´s Bellagio fountains called The Dubai Fountain (the fountain shows were reportedly done by the same people).
At the TimeOut Market, I met up with my IESE friends Dino, Gaurav and Tanvi who live in Dubai as well as my friend Jordan who lives in London but is on his way to Socotra Island, Yemen (oooooh!).
TimeOut Market is a small global chain of upscale food halls. There is a location in NYC, that is moderately popular. The Dubai location on the other hand was packed. The food options were numerous. I ordered a Thai papaya salad and Emirati biriyani, while Maisie ordered two extravagant baos.
From our table, we watched the fountain show and the light show on the Burj itself. What a sight! What a spectacle!
I also enjoyed learning about my friends´ lives in Dubai. Dubai seems to be a work-hard-play-hard city. My friends make a lot of money and pay no taxes (the government doesn´t need tax revenue to support itself). However, they work very long hours. Some companies are better than others, but a typical consultant works from 8:00 or 9:00 until 22:00-24:00. One friend worked on an easier project and was usually done by 20:00-21:00, but someone else worked until 02:00 nearly every night. The workload seems unsustainable, and I believe that the consultants hold on as long as they can because the money is far better than nearly any salary in Europe. It seems like they spend the weekends catching up on the lost sleep from the workweek.
The Emirates recently changed their weekend. The original weekend was Friday-Saturday, but it changed to Saturday-Sunday to align with the rest of the world. Friday is the Islamic holy day so all government workers will now work a half-day Friday and then get Saturday and Sunday off. Seems like a great deal!
Most private companies have also aligned their workweek accordingly. However, most of my consulting friends actually work in Saudi Arabia, which did not change their workweek. That makes it difficult for my friends to stay in touch. I kept hearing how Saudi Arabia is a place that is changing very fast. Someone told me his friend was just hired as a sommelier in Riyadh, which sounds outlandish given that women couldn´t even drive 4 years ago.
Dino seems to live a quite different life from my business school friends. He does not work in consulting, and therefore, has a more normal work-life balance. He also has lived in Dubai for 15 years and lives near his family close to the water.
It seems like most of my friends are happy to be living in the Dubai despite the long hours.
After walking home from dinner, we went to sleep. Cezar was still at work.
March 25, 2022: Downtown Dubai
Today, we booked tickets to ascend the Burj Khalifa, the world´s tallest building. The Burj is 829 meters (2,722 feet) tall. This is approximately twice as tall as the Empire State Building in New York. It is dizzying to even look up to the top of the Burj.
The Burj Khalifa opened in 2010. It is named for the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, archrival of Dubai. The original name of the building was Burj Dubai, but the builders ran out of money during the 2008 financial crisis. Abu Dhabi bailed them out on the condition that the building be renamed for them, a little glimpse into the culture of pettiness here. It seems like everyone is trying to outdo each other. One funny example of this is the license plates. In the Emirates, the license plates are all numbers. It has been decided that low numbers are cool. When someone sells their car, the plate goes up for a public auction. Some of the single-digit numbers have sold for millions of dollars. In 2016, the number 5 sold for $9 million. Every luxury car seems to have at most a 4-digit plate. Maisie and I played a game where we tried to find the lowest plate. We saw 162 and it was a white Rolls Royce.
Anyways, back to the Burj. The building has all sorts of uses: offices, apartments and even an Armani hotel. There are also a multiple observation decks: on floors 124/125, 148, and 152-154. Based on the advice of friends, we opted for the lowest observation deck on 124/125. It was less than half the price of the level 148 deck (and less than 1/3 the price of 152-154). Since 125 floors up is already higher than any other building in the area, there is apparently no difference in the view vs the higher floors.
The entrance to the Burj Khalifa observation deck is actually in the adjacent Dubai Mall. We arrived right when they opened at 10:00 and the place was empty. We walked through the long entranceway and museum and eventually reached the world´s fastest elevator. After a shockingly short ride, we made it to the top.
The views were incredible, as we were higher up than any other building in Dubai. We could see all of Dubai, the Persian Gulf and deep into the Arabian desert. Dubai feels like a humongous city from the ground, but from the top, it is not as sprawling as I thought. There is still plenty of room for more development. Maisie commented that the city looks like one of those children´s carpets with cars and roads.
Back at sea level, Maisie and I explored the Dubai Mall, the other main attraction in Downtown Dubai. The mall is more than 500,000 square meters (5.4 million square feet) making it the largest mall in the UAE. It is the most visited mall on Earth and, in 2011, was the most visited building on Earth. There are 1,200 stores in the Dubai Mall.
The mall is extravagant. Every luxury brand has a outpost. But there were also cheaper sections of the mall covering every price point. The highlight of the mall was an aquarium featuring a giant tank with a walk-through tunnel.
Around 13:00, we took a taxi to a neighborhood called Barsha Heights. There, we met with my friend and MBA teammate Al-Mahdi. Interestingly enough, there are no street addresses in Dubai. The city developed so quickly that the authorities never implemented the system. Instead, addresses are building names. Al Mahdi´s building is called Al-Hawai. His neighborhood felt much more Islamic than Downtown Dubai. While in downtown Dubai, you were hard-pressed to find a non-Western person, Barsha Heights had plenty of traditionally-dressed people.
Al Mahdi is from Morocco and lives with his wife, Kawtar, and newborn daughter. He used to live in Paris and was the first person I met at the MBA. Al Mahdi is now a consultant, but, unlike all the other IESE consultants in Dubai, works near Barsha Heights (everyone else works Downtown Dubai). Al Mahdi´s office is just a 15-minute walk from his apartment.
Kawtar has been a bit of a mystery to my team since she was in medical school in Turkey during the MBA. But, here in Dubai, I was able to confirm that she is in fact real and she is lovely.
Kawtar and her mother (in town to see the baby) made a Moroccan couscous. Then Al Mahdi poured tea in the Moroccan style. It was so nice to catch up with my friend!
Next, Maisie and I took a taxi over to the Mall of the Emirates. This is another enormous shopping mall. This mall is famous for indoor skiing. I tried to go skiing, but the check-in line was too long. But we got a glimpse of it. I can´t say the skiing is top notch, but there is indeed snow and a chairlift in the middle of the desert.
For dinner, we got a 22:00 dinner with Cezar, who was finally done with work for the week.
March 26, 2022: Old Dubai and a Boat Cruise
This was our final day in the United Arab Emirates. We started the day by meeting with my business school friend Antonio. Antonio is also a consultant, but apparently has better hours since his project is in Abu Dhabi and not in Saudi Arabia.
Antonio took us via taxi to Old Dubai, the historic center of the town. Unlike everywhere else in Dubai, Old Dubai felt like the Middle East. The streets were narrow, crowded, and windy. Robed men chatted in the shadows.
Above the shops are apartments. I have been told that this is where many of the service workers Dubai live.
The main activity in Old Dubai is the souk (Arabic for market). The maze of a market had hundreds of stalls, selling everything from fabrics to spices to gold jewelry. Shopkeepers stand outside the stalls hawking you. “Hello, my friend”. “Where are you from?” Unlike in Egypt, the vendors here were very polite and actually accepted No as an answer. All the items in the souk were imported, as the UAE produces almost nothing, so I didn´t buy anything. Still, the energy in the souk is palpable.
Old Dubai is split into two by the saltwater Dubai Creek. To cross the creek, the easiest way is by boat. Ferries cost just 1 dirham making it the best bargain in the entire country. The ride takes 5 minutes.
On the other side, we visited more souks before getting lunch at an Arabic-Italian fusion restaurant. The district also has a bunch of museums, but we did not have time to visit them. I think that Old Dubai is my favorite part of the city and can easily take up a half-day if you want to see the museums.
Next, we took a taxi to Dubai´s newest attraction, the Dubai Frame. The Dubai Frame is a gigantic golden frame with an observation deck at the top. It is basically a more square-shaped St. Louis Arch or an enormous edition of National Geographic. Take your pick.
In the line to go up to the top of the Frame, you walk through an exhibit about the history of Dubai. The first panel is a picture of the sheikh and a quote that says “Competition always makes you stronger. It is feared only by the weak.”
It was then, I realized that this quote defines Dubai. Dubai is a competitive city. If you are willing to work the long hours, then you can be successful here and make more money than you could at home – no matter your nationality or background. If you want to chill, then you can vacation here, but you can´t stay. Dubai is the all-comers land of opportunity that United States used to be.
Have they created a perfect society? No. But they are willing to constantly change and improve their society to match the needs of tomorrow. While most societies are backwards-facing, relying on their traditions and heritage to create a collective identity and unity, Dubai is a forward-facing society. The sheikh incessantly talks about the future and because he is an absolute monarch, he can make things happen without obstacles – sometimes drastically like changing the weekend, allowing unmarried couples to share hotel rooms, or restoring diplomatic ties with Israel. He is willing and able to change and is bringing in like-minded people from all over the world to help him.
Compare this to my country, the United States, where judges base decisions on the intentions of the authors of our nearly unchangeable 18th century constitution, where politicians preach about the “exceptionalism” of our culture, and where one of the main political party´s slogan is to Make America Great Again (which implies that the country´s best days are rooted in the past).
When comparing the two, it seems that the Emirates are almost destined for future greatness, while the United States is staying stagnant.
The views from the Frame reflect this. From left windows, you look onto Old Dubai. The past. From the right windows, you can see New Dubai and the sea of skyscrapers. The future. The view from the top is nowhere near as good as from the Burj Khalifa, so I wouldn´t recommend paying the money to go up. But the symbolism is there, and the statement was made.
For the afternoon, Maisie and I took a taxi back to the Marina to meet up with my college friends Ben and Becky. Unlike my business school friends, they are not strategy consultants. Ben works as a tech implementation consultant and Becky is an architect. While they work a lot, it appears that they have (slightly) more reasonable hours and are more ingrained into the local society.
Today was Becky´s birthday and Ben arranged for an old expat tradition: the party boat. We boarded the boat and immediately the booze started to flow. We sailed out of the marina and anchored just a few hundred meters off the JBR beach.
Besides Maisie, Ben, Becky and I were about 20 of their friends. Their friends were from all over the world and worked in a variety of jobs such as teaching, auto importing, aviation and computer programing. Ben and Becky´s friends gave a more holistic picture of the expat life – as my business school friends really only worked in a very niche industry. Many expect to stay in Dubai for a long time. Ben mentioned that the UAE is a far better country to raise a family than the US. He cited lower costs of schooling and childcare, expenses which can be crippling for working families. One of Becky´s friends is a teacher and makes more than double what she could in the US and gives her a housing stipend. She feels fortunate to live in a society that places more value on educators.
Ben and Becky said they received backlash from friends and family who though they were crazy for choosing to move to the Middle East, a region that the US media portrays as backwards, anti-woman and dangerous. Their experience in the Emirates, corroborated by their friends, is that those comments could not be further from the truth. Women can do whatever they please and the Emirates are probably the safest country in the world.
After a lovely afternoon of sliding down the water slide and playing drinking games such as “mmmm water”, it was time to head back. We pulled back into the marina and then headed off the boat.
For our final evening, Maisie and I met my business school friends Gaurav and Tanvi for a blowout final meal. We ate Indian food that was prepared so creatively. For example, one dish was served on a bicycle. I had never had a meal with such showmanship. Then, I headed to the airport for my flight back to New York.
Dubai is a complicated city. On the surface, it appears to be an Arabian Las Vegas without gambling. And to a large extent that is true. The developments built are the flashiest and most extravagant you have ever seen. People spend money on the most outrageous things. Everyone tries to one-up each other to create something ever so slightly bigger and better or to have a license plate that is one digit less.
But there is so much more than that. Dubai could have rested on its laurels and lived off oil money like its neighbors. But the rulers chose a different path. They decided to invite the world in and build something far greater than oil could ever buy. And it took a lot of work! While Dubai lost its Arabian culture, it has become the world´s most global city in a miniscule time frame and continues to push to build an even better society. The diversity here in unparalleled.
Dubai seems like a wonderful place to live. The society is tolerant and diverse. You can get everything you could possibly want and can live a better lifestyle than you can in nearly any place on earth. The biggest issue seems to be the work-life balance.
While unbelievably impressed by Dubai, I did not fall in love the city like so many others do. I like culture, history, and walkability– something that other travelers might call “soul”. Dubai had none of that, save for Old Dubai. Dubai is a city of luxury, something that I do not care too much about.
That said, I think Dubai is a worthy destination for any type of traveler! Three full days is the right amount of time to see Dubai. We were able to see all the highlights and didn´t feel like I was missing anything big except for some of the museums in Old Dubai. I would have no qualms going back, as the city will probably be completely different by that time. Hopefully on my next trip to the Emirates, I can visit Abu Dhabi.