Can you build a sail-shaped structure surrounded by the ocean? Sure, as the iconic Burj Al Arab luxury hotel proves. How about the world’s largest shopping mall? Stop by the Dubai Mall with over 1,000 shops, aquarium, ice rink, 30-acre lake and the world’s largest dancing fountain. The tallest structure in the world? Burj Khalifa, 800+ meters tall skyscraper that opened last year will leave you rubbing your eyes in disbelief. Want to go skiing indoors when it’s 30C outside? No problem, Mall of the Emirates invites you to its 400 meter-long ski slope. Man-made island? Why not – check out the palm-shaped artificial archipelagos off Jumeirah Beach built on sand dredged from the bottom of the Persian Gulf.
Dubai is a city of dreams. But it’s also a city of nightmares on which many of those dreams are built. The discovery of oil brought a massive wave of foreign workers, mostly from India and Pakistan, whose sweat and labor fueled the country’s economic boom. Today, those migrant workers by far outnumber native Emirati. Dubai’s population is about 1.7 million people and only 17% of them are UAE nationals. The media occasionally expose the ugly underbelly of that demographic make-up through reports of workers living in overcrowded quarters and toiling in deplorable conditions with no rights or legal recourse. Sometimes they don’t see their families and remain stranded for years because they can’t afford flights back or their passports were taken away by unethical recruitment agents. In 2006, their anger boiled over when 2,500 workers at the construction site of Burj Khalifa rioted, fed up with laboring 12-hour days 6 days a week for as little as $4 per day (strikes and unions are illegal in UAE).
A cab driver who takes me to Al Bastakiya historic center of Dubai is one of those people. He’s an OFW – Overseas Filipino Worker – and his countrymen make up over 4% of UAE’s population. He tells me that he lives in a compound outside of the city with six other guys and sends as much as he can to his family every month. “But a job is a job, right?” When he drops me off he recommends I stop by for a snack at Basta Art Cafe in the courtyard of an old Dubai house. I tip him handsomely and head out with a feeling of vague tourist guilt.
If you’re looking for a true taste of the Middle East or admire historic Islamic architecture, Dubai may not be the best place to do it given that this city is about coming up with the next biggest thing, not its past. But Bastakiya has plenty of old charming houses with signature wind towers and hidden courtyards shaded by lush narra trees. And the Dubai Museum – formerly Al Fahidi Fort dating back to 1787 – shows a glimpse of what this place used to be like. Looking at this photo from the 1960s it’s clear that not that long ago there wasn’t that much around this impressive structure. Today it’s in the center of a bustling urban area.
Dubai is a dream in the desert. Not surprisingly, a body of water defined its existence in the past and remains at the core of the city today. Dubai Creek, or Khor Dubai, divides the western side, Bur Dubai, from the historic city center of Deira. And, amazingly, although the Creek is lined with ultra modern glass-and-steel buildings, the most convenient way of getting from one side to the other is the same as it has been for centuries: on an abra – a traditional wooden boat. A short ride up and down the Creek before crossing over is well worth it – the view is magnificent on either side. A few worthy destinations on the Deira side: Spice Souk, Gold Souk and… Baskin Robbins.
Dubai is a dream in the desert. Literally. It takes just a short drive outside the urban center to see that. After a few days in the city, the desert is a welcome escape from the weird unreality of Dubai’s gleaming hotels, business towers, construction cranes, and six-lane highways. The desert is so close but feels centuries away – and just like in centuries past it’s best explored on a camel. I’m loving this trek. The sand silently radiates the heat it soaked up during the day. Golden dunes stretch to the horizon and our caravan paints them with ever-longer shadows as the evening grows near. My camera is loving it a little less: tiny sand particles got into the lens that now makes an unhappy grinding sound every time I try to get a close-up. When we pause to rest, I naively ask my guide if he’s from around here. He chuckles “No Emirati would ever do this work! I’m from Afghanistan.” Duh. As the sun sets over the desert and the dusty air gets cooler, Dubai seems like a distant dream. A dream of wealth. A dream of success. Or simply a dream of better life in a foreign land. Dreaming on…