What the Middle East is actually like: Dubai

Is that a city from the not too distant future? Oh no, wait, that’s Dubai.
 

 Dubai Marina, sunset

Dubai Marina, sunset

With the Islamophobia, foreigner-phobia, and just overall holy-shit-tell-me-this-is-just-a-bad-dream-hysteria happening in the United States right now, I got to thinking. How many Americans know what the Middle East is actually like?

So, I decided I would show them.

My goal: show Americans what the Middle East is actually like, from the perspective of a goofy, white, American man.

Also, because I’ll be using the Sandwich Project as a base, I’m obligated to share a sandwich from the region as well.

And, because I’m living in Dubai for the next few months, I figured this would be a great place to start.

Basic facts about Dubai

Dubai is a city located in the Middle East, here:

 You know, right there

You know, right there

It’s part of the United Arab Emirates, which, pretty much everywhere else in the world, was once a colony of Great Britain. Then it broke away and formed seven city-states, one of which was Dubai.

In the 1950’s, they didn’t have electricity in their homes. And it looked like this.

 Vintage

Vintage

But, thanks to their location as the gateway to the Arabian Sea and the oil discovered by their fellow Emirate, Abu Dhabi, they now look like this.   

 Future

Future

Yes, their buildings are better than our buildings. In fact, they have the tallest building in the world. And an indoor ski slope. With snow penguins. Seriously, it’s ridiculous.

Women generally don’t wrap their heads in anything here (although some do). In fact, here’s a picture I took of a camel on the beach. You can see what people are wearing. It’s the opposite of conservative.

 That is a real camel

That is a real camel

And yes, you can drink. In fact, sometimes too much. That’s why they make sure to punish anyone caught drinking and driving with jail time. No exceptions.

 

Why people think they’re scary

Dubai has some seriously negative press around it. Most of it can be summed up into three categories.

  • Unfair treatment of immigrants

  • Unfair treatment of women

  • Unfair advantages for the rich

Now, we can all agree these things are bad. But given what is going on in the United States right now, there’s a saying about pots and kettles that is very applicable here.

It is also sometimes accused of being radically Muslim. Quite the opposite is true. In fact, it’s against the law here to say anything bad about religion. And no, not just Islam, but Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, even Scientology.

I’m all for freedom of speech, but you’ve gotta admit, that’s pretty nice.

Basically, it’s easy to demonize it until you see what it’s like. It’s not without problems, but things are getting better. Which is more than I can say for my home country.

Why they’re not scary

Dubai often gets called the Vegas of the Middle East (despite the fact that gambling is illegal here), or the Switzerland of the Middle East (because it’s a neutral country). But, at the end of the day, they’re really just like the less cool New York of the Middle East.

Why?

  1. It's a super international city: The locals (the Emiratis) only make up 17% of the population. The rest (83%) is Indian, Pakistani, Filipino, European, American…the list goes on.

  2. It's annoying safe: There are cameras everywhere. On the highways. In every store. In every building. It’s very, very hard to get away with doing something wrong here.

  3. It's all malls: The city is consumer heaven (or my version of hell). They have the largest malls in the world and, like a kid in middle school, their idea of a cool afternoon is walking around the mall.   

The sandwich: halloumi sandwich with za’atar

Have you ever had halloumi before?

It’s pretty special.

 Shown here: deliciousness

Shown here: deliciousness

It’s a semi-hard cheese, usually a mix of goat’s and sheep’s milk, but it tastes kind of like a mozzarella with a different texture and consistency. It goes great in a sandwich, especially when it’s fried.

Mix it with za’atar, a spread of tangy Middle Eastern spices, and you have what is more or less a Middle Eastern grilled cheese. I don’t have a special place yet that does it “the best”, but I have yet to meet a halloumi I didn’t like.

If you can find it where you are right now, I would recommend buying it. And then eating it.

Endnotes

The more I travel, the more I realize that everywhere is pretty much the same. We’re all people, trying to live our lives, eat sandwiches, and figure out what we were put on this earth to do.

Long story short: don’t fear the foreigner. Everyone’s been pretty good to me everywhere I’ve ever gone. I’d like to hope my country would extend the same courtesy to those who travel there.