Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE): A Paradox of Decadence and Austerity

Hannah lived in Dubai when she was younger while her family lived and worked overseas. Her father had returned several years before our visit and described it as “something out of the Jetsons”. I found his description fitting and appropriate, Dubai truly seems to epitomize “modern” and almost appears space-age.

Dubai held a tense austerity to it. A bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey cost $220 USD, whereas the same bottle was $15-20 in the duty-free store on the cruise ship. Signs on the door of a nearby conference center warned that “Personal Display of Affection” was not allowed. Hannah and I tend to be affectionate and hold hands or exchange a kiss on the forehead or cheek from time to time, but knew better than to test the stringent laws in the UAE. In Dubai’s train carriages, women and children had their own special compartment where men were fined for entering. Hannah utilized it once or twice in rush hour when the other train cars were packed like sardines.

For its reputation of being so traditional, there seemed to be signs of new developments. I spotted handfuls of expats and courageous women wore short skirts, deep v-neck shirts, or shorts. The train ticket kiosk advertised a “Year of Tolerance” in Dubai. Yet, for all of its conservative policies and orderly rules that some view as oppressive, I did not hear a single siren on its massive highways. I rarely felt uncomfortable or unsafe while walking around markets or public transport either. But there were still western customs that were met with surprise. At a souq, I told a young man at his shop that I needed to get money from my wife. He was full of disbelief and his incredulous response was, “WHAT! Your wife is the bank!? She holds the money?!” I proceeded to introduce him to the President of the First Bank of Hannah’s Purse. For us, it is a matter of practicality, we never want to explore with all our cards or cash with us lest we were targets of robbery.

The infrastructure, public transport, and amenities in Dubai were opulent and impressive. Traffic flowed freely, the trains ran on time and frequently, and the intermittent clumps of massive glass skyscrapers left us ogling and open mouthed. The Burj Khalifa, the world’s current tallest building” rose like a multi-tiered pyramid into the stratosphere. Its famous fountain show trumped Las Vegas’ show 5 fold. We crowded onto the balcony of the Apple store in the Dubai mall and watched as the perfectly choreographed lights and water coordinated in time with the vaguely Pop/Middle-Eastern music.

The malls of Dubai are decadent and next level. From the train stop to the Dubai Mall, moving sidewalks transport shoppers the mile or so walk into the complex. Stores from all over the world inhabit the massive sprawling retail spaces. In the Mall of the Emirates, an indoor ski-slope with artificial snow allows skiing, tubing, and sledding. A small crowd surrounded a fenced pen where real penguins were brought out for tricks. The Mall of Dubai contained a skating rink, huge multi-story aquarium, and indoor waterfall.After all of the contemporary, we enjoyed a throw-back hour or two in the “Museum of Dubai” near the historic district. It espoused several interesting facts, including that much of Dubai’s water supply comes from ocean desalination. With an impending global water shortage, Hannah and I had previously discussed the viability of such an endeavor and Dubai appears to be the example of a solution.


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