Trying to Find the Real Dubai
Story and photos by Debi Goodwin

After the garish ultra-luxe hotels and manufactured fun of a custom-built tourist city, then what? A visitor to Dubai tries to see what's below the sheen in this shiny city in the UAE.

Woman standing in front of an aquarium in Dubai

Dubai is a place of superlatives: the tallest building, the biggest malls, the fastest growth. Photos of the city’s futuristic skyscape, created by petrodollars and innovation, as well as talk of an open society in the Arab world, drew me in. I wanted to see all that – once – but I hoped I’d find more, a glimpse of everyday life.

Dubai Old City

Traveling for me is as much about exchanges with locals and learning how they shop, what they eat, and how they work than about the sights. I know it’s not realistic to think I can learn much about a culture in a short visit but usually I can find enough experiences to give me some insights that makes the place I’m visiting seem real. There’s a French verb I like: flaner. It translates as “to stroll,” but it suggests more in its concepts of “hanging around,” or “going for a wander.” Basically, it means to dawdle and that’s how I love to learn about any new place, by taking my time on its streets among its residents.

But on my first day in Dubai, I went directly to its shiniest attraction, the Burj Khalifa. I rode the new metro there, a superlative itself as the cleanest metro I’ve been on. I’d heard there were compartments just for female passengers which made me wonder how open the city really was if women could not stand close to men.

In the station, I stood behind a pink line where the doors to the women’s car would open. And when I stepped in the car I quickly saw evidence of another superlative about Dubai; it is one of the most diverse cities in the world, certainly in this region. The car was full of women from China, Korea and India on their ways to jobs in the city center. There were a few women in black abayas with hijabs and some with niqabs that covered their faces but they made the small minority. That car was a good sample of the demographics of Dubai where only about ten percent of the population is local.

When a tourist couple with two children entered the car at one station, women from cultures where the sexes mingle freely rolled their eyes and shamed the family off at the next station. As we pulled away a female Metro employee stopped the man and appeared to be writing him a ticket. This seemed harsh for an honest tourist mistake in a city that has decided tourism is as good for the economy as oil.

Follow the Mall to the Observation Deck Elevator

The red line took me directly to the Dubai Mall. You can’t avoid the biggest mall if you want to go up to the top of the tallest building, the Burj Khalif, a marvel of design and engineering. You will pass all the high-end American and European stores you can imagine, confectionaries, and restaurants with familiar names. There’s an aquarium and even an ice rink before you can get to the ticket office. I wondered if Dubai was a city designed like one big Ikea store, weaving you through an obligatory maze.

View from Burj Khalifa

I hadn’t booked in advance as most tourist guides suggest and was shocked at the price—about $140—to take a couple of elevator rides to the highest viewing platform in the world on the 148th floor. But I was there and already suspected I’d never be in Dubai again, so I paid. The price included Arabian coffee and cookies before the guided tour up the building and, at the top, chocolates and fresh juice. I savored each expensive bite. Through the walls of window and from the outdoor deck, the city’s skyscrapers looked like toys in a play set. As unreal as the city was beginning to feel to me.

The Burj Khalifa is not only the top attraction in Dubai, it’s a symbol of the economic shift from an uncertain future with oil to a commitment to draw visitors to the city. Visitors with lots of money.

Women on a boat

When I descended to the ground level I had to make my way through more of the mall to the other big attraction, a fountain below the looming building where the waters “dance” to music at sunset. I couldn’t believe the number of people who lined up around the small man-made lake for the short show of spot-lit spikes of water.

Keeping Out the Plebeians

The other shiny building I wanted to see in Dubai was the Burj al Arab hotel, described as the most luxurious hotel in the world. I’m not the kind of person who would think of paying $1,700 or more for a room at the Burj al Arab but I wanted to walk by it. Sitting like a modernistic sailboat in the blue waters off Dubai, it’s an eloquent example of modern architecture. However, it’s impossible to just walk into the hotel or even get close. Security guards won’t let you cross the moat to it unless you have a reservation. Conveniently, they have a reservation desk by the street where I could have booked a high tea that would have let me in, but that meant shelling out more than $100 dollars and by that point I was getting tired of paying big bucks.

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Read this article online at: Trying to Find the Real Dubai

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2018. All rights reserved.

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