Dubai: What’s behind the desert, the skyscrapers and everything in between

Note: This is the second of two posts recounting Eye on the East’s recent visit to Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The first post can be found here.

There always seems to be a certain buzz around Dubai. Whether it’s the next Guinness record it plans to break, the occasional regional political overture to supplement its financial clout or its most recent success in being chosen to host the 2020 World Expo trade convention. But little is said about what’s behind the buzz, if there is anything left to say at all. When I found myself in Dubai after all these years, I felt compelled to find out for myself whether there was something left to say at all. I felt the need to make sense of a city that has captured the world’s imagination with its grandiosity, to discover what defines it, but isn’t made of brick and mortar…a humble attempt at finding its essence.

Dubai is more than what the eye can see, although that in itself can be enough of a distraction from seeing, experiencing and thinking about anything else. Dubai amazes you in a way you must have thought it would, with the modern, the shiny and the very big. This all elicits a certain degree of energy and dynamism, a look into the future, albeit a soulless one. It is aesthetically attractive to some eyes, predictable and dependable, features that many people look for and appreciate in Dubai. But it also emits a fragile and illusory reality, as fragile as the glass that holds the buildings together and as illusory as images appear through glass, bigger or smaller, better or worse, it all depends on your perspective…


It takes some time and effort to see something different, something closer to the ground and to nature, the way a skyscraper will never be. That is what took me to a place few Dubai residents, and even fewer tourists have visited, Dubai Creek. Back when Dubai was but a humble settlement, the creek divided the city into half and played a vital role in establishing it as a commercial hub in the area. Today, going to the creek allows you to see a side of Dubai reminiscent of Beirut and Cairo in the 60s and 70s, with its faded billboards and almost Levantine art deco buildings. The creek isn’t the busy port it once was, but still active, filled with colorful boats, manned by cheap labor from southwest Asia hoping to make it big somewhere, someday. It is a flashback to what Dubai could have remained had it not set its eyes into a literally bigger and brighter future. It isn’t the nicest part of town, but it is authentic and would certainly tell more stories if only it were given the space to do so…


Less than an hour drive away from the tallest building in the world – Burj Khalifa – and you are on the edges of the Arabian desert, dauntingly low, dry, and seemingly lifeless. It is a cliché experience out of a worn-out guide-book, a drive on the desert dunes, stories of camel milk (and building the courage to drink it) and a fleeting experience of the harshness of desert life. And with it come the cliché thoughts, of how this tiny emirate managed to make a vibrant world-class metropolis out of desert sand, turning into what must have started as a mirage in the desert into something real. But this is exactly the importance of the desert, an authentic experience in the midst of the hustle and bustle, a glimpse of history, something that defines its people, with stories of clans and tribes, their conquests and struggles for power, their nomadic and later sedentary ways… a space that would certainly tell more stories than an adventurous ride if only it were given the space to do so…


When all is seen and done (and spent in the city’s ubiquitous shopping malls), something is still left to be said and thought about. It is because being in Dubai is being in an Arab country, but also not knowing where you are, for it is seldom that you encounter locals and listen to their take on the place they call home. It is because of the feeling that even a transient tourist gets about the contrast in the economic and financial freedoms this oasis provides, so overpowering as to overshadow the lack of political freedoms and of a critical mass with the courage and/or interest to fight for it. And it is also because one is faced with the results of what a one-family rule, a monarchy, a determination and vision can achieve, and whether this is to redefine what an Arab leader can or should be, even with all the caveats this sociopolitical arrangement entails.

Upon returning to Beirut, I still felt Dubai lacked the indescribable charm some cities were known for, but understood that wasn’t the reason many people decided to make it their home in the first place. It couldn’t be compared to cities that were thousands of years old and filled with history, Dubai is also young, yet it still has a history to tell, but one its rulers do not see the interest in telling, or at least not now, when structures and consumption tell the tale instead. It is hot and cold, fake and genuine, crazy and calm…Dubai means different things to different people, some swear by it, while others swear to stay away from it, there is something about it that deserves much respect and much left to be desired. One thing is for sure, it keeps everybody wondering what will come next…

5 Replies to “Dubai: What’s behind the desert, the skyscrapers and everything in between”

  1. Nicely put ..ur opinion about Dubai..for someone (like me) who haven’t visited it yet.
    But looking at their positioning and strategy, they are creating history. In 20 years, they will have historical buildings, they will have cultural places, they will have political and business history….
    I think this is what Dubai teaches me/us: History is created now.

  2. We were thinking of going to Dubai for a few days during the upcoming holidays, because my girlfriend has a daughter there. I have always had no interest in Dubai because I have an aversion to shopping malls and Disneyesque settings. I like touring when I go someplace new, and I don’t mean to department stores and fake ski slopes. That being said, is Dubai worth being seen simply to experience what the big fuss has been about? Maybe just 4-5 days? Or would it be kind of boring and sterile?

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