Sarah Bladen, a long-term expat, says there is more to life in the UAE than the "bling bling" expat stereotype
As more expats alight on the sunny shores of the UAE, I've become aware of some lingering misconceptions about life in the urban desert. Scratch beneath the golden surface and you’ll find a thriving alternative scene – here's how to find it:
Myth 1: It’s just an adult Disneyland
Dubai certainly breathes by the mantra "bigger is better". The city is renowned for turning fantastical, far-fetched concepts into reality.
However, lurking behind the shimmering Burj Khalifa skyscraper and the ostentatious hotel lobbies is a growing community who represent the antithesis of the overindulgent Dubai – expats who shun the "brunch, beach, party and repeat" lifestyle. Beyond the sun, sea and sand, creative types are contributing to the flourishing cultural scene with contemporary art, dance and independent documentaries. Even TED talks - designed to inspire ideas and spark conversation - have come to town.
Expats are changing the landscape – only, much like the voice of the moderate Muslim, their voices are often dimmed by the maelstrom of sensational media. Ski Dubai (the first indoor ski resort in the Middle East) has hit the headlines several times but what about the budding community of eco lovers who are concerned about Dubai having one of the world’s largest environmental footprints? Action is finally being taken towards sustainability with forerunners like Greenheart Organic Farm (a local farm flowering everything from chillies to strawberries in an eco-friendly fashion) and a Dubai-based company called Agricel that uses a water efficient process to grow crops without soil.
Slowly, consumers and companies here are becoming more conscious of their eco habits. There is still a long way to go, but it’s a positive start.
Myth 2: Women are treated like second-class citizens
Some people believe that misogyny is deeply ingrained in the Gulf. But when it comes to everyday living, female expats remark upon how safe they feel living here. The city is practically crime and violence free. And in public, women enjoy several gender privileges no matter what their nationality or background. For instance, on the Dubai metro, there’s a ladies only section, meaning you avoid getting squashed in the overcrowded mixed carriages. When it comes to queuing to pay bills, ladies are ushered straight to the front – much to the annoyance of the men waiting in line. If entangled in a legal situation, sharia can be harsh for women – but it's not an easy ride for men either.
Myth 3: The crane boom is over
Along with the debt-fuelled crash, came the dissolution of ambitious projects such as The World (a man-made archipelago of 300 islands), yet the recession only temporarily halted such lofty desert dreams.
There’s been a recent revival; a whirlwind of building developments from the Jumeirah Corniche project (a 14km-long beachfront promenade) to the Dubai Opera House and Aladdin City in Old Dubai. The skyline here is in a constant state of flux. When I look out of my living room window in Downtown Dubai, eight cranes dominate the horizon. They are not so much of an eyesore as a bit of an earache, with the continual buzz of hammering and drilling that goes on late into the night.We expats are more than aware that Dubai is built off the blood, toil, tears and sweat of migrant workers from the subcontinent. We are unhappy about their limited rights and seedy living conditions. Depressingly, some hail from even more squalid slums in their home countries. While some expats turn a blind eye, others are volunteering, trying our best to implement positive change – Adopt a Camp is a charity that puts together care packages for thousands of labourers and campaigns to boost their living conditions.
Myth 4: Only Islam is celebrated
Quite the reverse. Not only does Dubai pride itself on being tolerant of other religions, it openly celebrates Christmas, Easter, Diwali and Holi (the Hindu festival of colours) and several other non-Muslim festivals. In fact, last month, my mum not only remarked upon how many giant Christmas trees were dotted around the city, she also highlighted the amount of restaurants blaring out cheesy Christmas tunes (courtesy of the overzealous Filipino staff). There are several churches in the city including two on the same street in Oud Metha – St Mary’s Church and Holy Trinity Church. There are also Hindu and Sikh temples and even rumours that a small synagogue exists somewhere in Jumeirah.
Expats are invited to celebrate Islamic festivals too – during Ramadan, the whole spirit of the city transforms, creating a sense of unity between expats and locals.
Myth 5: Dubai has no soul
How many times have you heard this accusation? Clearly if you spend most of your time maxing out credit cards in air-conditioned malls, attending fashion shows and flitting from one identikit five-star hotel bar to the next then Dubai will feel characterless and you’ll encounter shallow folk. On the other hand, if you spend time with friends in the spiritual heart of the city – the historical district of Bastakiya in Old Dubai (soon to be recognised as a Unesco World Heritage zone) or meditating at one of the full moon yoga gatherings or drumming in the desert, you’ll experience the soulful side of Dubai.
Besides book clubs, cooking clubs, wake boarding and running clubs, there are plenty of alternative activities – everything from Chakradance (a dance practice for the soul) to Holotropic Breathwork and Sunrise Nation parties – early-morning fitness get-togethers. Dubai has grown into a far more substantial city than its stereotypical ‘bling bling’ image. Scratch beneath the golden surface and you’ll find a thriving alternative scene.