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Dubai (Part 1 of 7): Initial Impressions of Dubai & Why I Think There Is No Culture There

This post is part of a series of posts based on our recent visit to Dubai.  While we saw many of the highlights, this series includes:

Part 1 of 7: Initial Impressions of Dubai & Why I Think There Is No Culture There

Part 2 of 7: Afternoon Tea At Dubai’s Burj Al Arab Skyview Bar

Part 3 of 7: Should You Do A Day Trip From Dubai To Abu Dhabi?

Part 4 of 7: See It Or Skip It: The World’s Tallest Building, Burj Kalifa’s “At The Top” Experience

Part 5 of 7: Dubai Mall: A Peek Inside The World’s Largest Mall

Part 6 of 7: How To See Ski Dubai If You Don’t Want To Ski

Part 7 of 7: Dining “Undersea” At Al Mahara

*     *     *

We arrived in Dubai at 2:30AM – an odd time for a scheduled landing but apparently, not for Dubai. There were plenty of other passengers arriving in the wee hours as well.

I expected the airport to be grander than it really was after hearing stories about their selling cars in the airport, but it looked like any other airport.

Since we arrived so late (or early, depending on your frame of reference) we caught a shuttle to a nearby airport hotel so that we could catch some shut eye before we started our day.  The older we’ve grown, the less we’ve been able to handle red-eyes and late arrivals so it’s been well worth it to pay for an extra night to sleep in while we recuperate from the flight.

We woke up around noon and made our way to our actual hotel by the Dubai Marina, which took about a 20-30 min car ride. Since this was our first chance at seeing the city in daylight, we immediately realized this city was unlike any others we’ve been.

Our first impressions of Dubai was that it looked so futuristic.  All the buildings look different.  It was as if the builders had to one-up each other and add their own personal twist to every project.


Speaking of twist, someone obviously decided to put their own twist on this building – literally:

(A building that looks like it twists - there

(A building that looks like it twists – there’s a first!)

Everything in Dubai has to be “fancy” – even the freeway pylons had intricately carved designs built into them.

Dubai has the world’s longest unmanned metro at about 46 miles long and the metro stations look like little sci-fi pods against the freeway.

(The Dubai metro is at the bottom of the picture)

(The Dubai metro is at the bottom of the picture)

The city is also extremely new having started being built/revamped only 10-15 years ago but still.  Even the souks reminded me of the indoor shopping malls in Vegas!  When we strolled through Al Bastakiya, the “old town”, we weren’t even sure if we were in the right place because it was the nicest looking “old town” we’ve ever seen.

(Al Bastakiya, Dubai)

(Al Bastakiya, Dubai)

The whole place reminded us of a theme park pretending to show you what the heritage is like instead of an authentic “old town”, which is a shame because we felt like we traveled half way around the world only to find ourselves in a place that reminded us of attractions (Las Vegas and Disneyland) near where we live!

The city is also extremely spread out and we grossly underestimated how big this city is.  Just to get from the Marina to the “old town”, would take about 20-30 minutes to drive when there’s no traffic.  Despite their new metro system, we did not see people roaming the streets either.  After visiting a while, we realized that the metro just wasn’t a very good option for travelers because you’d still likely have to walk a mile just to get to your hotel (or wherever you’re headed) from the metro.  And that walk may entail crossing a big expressway.  Nope, Dubai is made for cars.

The next thing we noticed is that Dubai is crazy proud of hosting the 2020 World Expo as there are banners everywhere reminding you of that.  At the airport, there were literally three World Expo banners hanging in the SAME space; so you know, if you turned your head and didn’t catch it the first time, you’d be sure to catch it the second time.  Or the third.

Now about the people who live here.  80% of Dubai’s population consists of immigrants from all over the world.  The city was not only built on the backs of immigrants, it runs on the backs of immigrants.  In fact, I’m not sure if I met one Emirate the whole time I was there.  Immigrants come here for the opportunity to work, make money (tax free), and send it back home to their loved ones, but the sad reality is that even if they love living and working in Dubai, they will never be able to get citizenship since that’s reserved for the other 20%.  The only way around it is if an immigrant woman marries an Emirate man and they have children but it doesn’t work if an immigrant man marries an Emirate woman; the citizenship follows the man.  It is a shame that an immigrant could be living and working for ten years in Dubai and never ever be offered the opportunity to be a real citizen of the UAE (real citizens get perks like free villas if you’re below an income threshold!).

And lastly, I can’t really end my observations about Dubai without mentioning the culture or lack thereof.  Coming back from the trip, I was so tempted to write an entire post dedicated to why I think Dubai has no culture which was a really frustrating reality for me since part of the reason I love traveling is to see the culture.  Unfortunately, of all the 60+ countries I’ve been to now and of all the 300+ cities I’ve seen, Dubai has the least culture I’ve ever seen.  I know they are the first to manufacture islands and the world’s biggest and tallest everything, but must everything feel so man-made – even their lame attempts at showing their heritage in their “old town”? If you can’t find culture in the “old town”, where can you find it?!  Sigh.  If I wanted man-made, super-sized, caricatures of real places, I could just go to Las Vegas or Disneyland.

The only semblance of culture I could find was in their strict dress code (which my hotel did not hesitate to remind guests of) or the Muslim call to prayers that rang at the malls and in the hotel TV’s.


There were also woman dressed in abiyas although I only ever saw them at the malls.  Women do a good job otherwise hiding from plain sight when they are out in the open.  The men, however, were often seen in dishdashas – the classic white “robes” – with their red checkered  scarfs draped over their head and topped off with a black agal.  But not everyone dressed like this.  Tourists often wore whatever it is they’d wear at home (probably to the dismay of the conservative folks living in Dubai) and immigrants also wore whatever it is they’d normally wear which was a lot more “covered” than the tourists: long pants and long sleeve shirts or blouses.  But aside from the occasional abiyas and dishdashas and the call to prayers, there was nothing distinctly Arab about Dubai (I couldn’t even find it in the food.  In fact, Dubai is so diverse that you could have a buffet of international dishes for every meal if you wanted to.). I’m sure others who have spent more time there could argue against my observation, and I’m sure if I dug around more, I could have find small bits of culture here and there, but I’ve never had to work that hard to find culture anywhere else around the globe so I wasn’t about to start in Dubai!

If you’re planning a visit:

  • There are plenty of food options in Dubai including every international chain you can think of.  Also, if you’re going thinking that you’ll get to eat Arab food everyday, you might actually have a hard time finding an Arab restaurant.
  • Please respect their dress code.  A lot of tourists don’t and wear skimpy bikinis and shorts but that’s just disrespectful especially given how conservative their dress is over there.
  • If you don’t know where to stay in Dubai, keep in mind that the distances between sites are far.  My advice is to stay in an area based on what you hope to see/do the most.  For instance, consider if you want spend most of your time in their “old town”, lounge by the beach, or live it up at a 5 star (or 7 star resort) and find accommodations in those neighborhoods.
  • Taxis are fairly inexpensive given the distances they are traveling.  To give you an idea, a taxi ride from one end of the city to the other (Marina to the harbor where the old town is) is about $20USD.  If you’d rather not exercise your calves (and who can blame you) taking the metro, a taxi is a great alternative.
  • Yes, they do accept tips in Dubai.  However, if 10% was already added as a service charge to the bill, I did not tip.
  • ATM’s are available and safe to use.  I’d recommend using an ATM over exchanging money since you usually get a better rate.
  • Speaking of safety, Dubai has one of the lowest crime rates anywhere (perhaps because of the high penalties you pay if you’re convicted of a crime), which is refreshing fact for a tourist.

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Fly Guy - February 4, 2014 - 2:19 am

Hi there!

Just reading over your review here. Sorry you missed the chance to see real Dubai. One of the great things about Dubai is it doesn’t show its real side in plane sight so that which is real is often overlooked and not overrun with tourist. The sparkles and gold often blind visitors to what’s real and what’s fake. You have to dig a bit and then it’s worth what you find. You forget that in less than 42 years this city has achieved more than some cities have in hundreds. Egypt and Morocco have that history you were in search of, yet you don’t see them topping the list of the most visited and sought after tourist destinations. Dubai is doing what it needs to ensure it lasts long after their oil money runs out and it’s working. So credit must be given. They’ve managed to draw millions to a land that years ago most would never have thought to come. The beauty of Dubai is it’s building its history now. No doubt many said the same thing as you are saying now when they went to NYC during its boom. Consider yourself lucky to have seen one of the greatest cities in its adolescent stages. Dubai was built by desert dwellers, so a lot of customs and real life would be in the desert. If you ever come back to Dubai spend a little less time in the city center and get out to the mountains where life runs as it did 60 years ago. If you ever need any tips would be glad to offer!

P.S. Which airline did you fly to Dubai?

JustWanderlust - February 5, 2014 - 9:43 am

Hi Fly Guy – Thanks for taking the time to respond! I respect your opinions about Dubai and I was sure someone out there would like it a lot more than I did. 🙂 But, in giving my thoughts of the city as a visitor, my opinion is still the same – the city feels like the “Donald Trump” of cities: built just “for show” with no real substance underneath it all. I did go to the desert while I was there and it was OK as far as desert outings go. I’ve certainly experienced much more “authentic” outings in other countries so I guess the desert outing in Dubai was consistent with my other observations about the city. That said, you are right that Dubai has managed to draw in millions to a land that others would not have thought to come so I will give them credit for that. I just think that in the end, it disappointingly, didn’t live up to the hype…I’d love to find substance without having to have a local show it to me. 🙂 PS – we flew on Turkish Air.

Muna Easa Al Gurg - August 5, 2014 - 1:35 am

I tend to agree with Fly Guy.
Before visiting a country I do a great deal of research on what is available in terms of food/culture/hidden gems. Dubai is and has always been a melting pot of different nationalities. Historically, even decades ago, Indians, Pakistanis, Zanzibaris and Iranians flocked the city for trade reasons and hence the city was filled with non-Emiratis (you would love the nooks and crannies of some the streets where these nationalities still congregate).
If you did want to explore the cultural side of the UAE you could have visited Hatta (where families still live in mud houses and women still wear the local Burqa), or even Fujeirah that has the oldest mosque and fort in the UAE dating back to hundreds of years ago. As the UAE isn’t a huge country, these could have been day trips for you to explore.
The people of the UAE were essentially Bedouin nomads, so that is why you tend to see that they are a minority in a city like Dubai which has opened its doors for economic prosperity. Dubai is clear on this agenda as New York was many years ago.
The UAE is definitely a country beyond Dubai (people sometimes forget!).Please do get in touch next time you are in town, I will certainly give you tips on the hidden gems that exist in our lovely country 🙂

Reader - November 30, 2014 - 2:23 am

What intrigues me is that when one visits a place as a tourist, they are in a state of astonishment, capturing frames of places that situate them in a state of cultural shock. They are still withdrawn from the mindset of the domestic people. They leave taking their memories and experiences with them. With these moments left to remember, they draw their own judgment, which they then share with family and friends. Whom then choose to either take it as an opinion or a consideration in which helps them shape their viewpoint of the country.

The UAE is a Muslim country, for that reason the citizens have been living a conservative, private life. To understand more about the culture and heritage, you have to see it through the individuals.

As for your perspective on citizenship, the UAE has a minimum number of citizens who they are keen on perserving. Why give citizenship to foreigners who don’t appreciate the culture; is it only for the privileges they would gain? Aren’t they receiving enough privileges even without the citizenship? With that being said, outsiders who have helped build the city through trade centuries ago have actually gained citizenship and are among the richest citizens in the emirates.

Starlet - February 12, 2015 - 2:43 am

Hi, interested to read your blog and the responses. I am going to Dubai precisely to see the modern building marvels. I guess to an American, these skyscrapers are merely bigger and better versions of what you have at home, but in Australia we do not have these extravaganzas. I have chosen to see them in Dubai rather than the Las Vegas fantasy lands which holds little appeal for me. I have seen NYC and didn’t much like it. Did find a bit of culture and authenticity out in Queens but that was it. What you get from a city very much depends on expectations. But I appreciate you thoughts as it has tempered by expectations of the Deira area and attracted a couple of interesting responses. I had thought to go see the mountain area and the oldest Mosque and the old fort and now that it has been recommended by Ms Muna I will certainly go. If anyone else can recommend things for an older female traveller on a limited budget to do, I would welcome your thoughts.

Maria - March 16, 2018 - 10:07 am

I also disagree with your view that culture doesn’t work exist. You were in the UAE. Dubai is only one part of that – as you say, perhaps the Future Wirld of Disneyland. But it is only one part. It is like going to San Francisco and saying the USA is fairly Mexican and most people in the country are of Mexican heritage, because that is what I saw in SF. Dubai is one of 7 emirates, four of which I visited, and the most western in nature. I also did day trips to Abu Dhabi, Fujairah and Sharjah and the culture emerged more and more in intensity in the order listed. But like cosmopolitan NYC, LA etc Vs Tucson for old west culture – or should the whole country have retained their original Wild West heritage? Cutlture in first world countries generally becomes more generic with time as evidenced throughout western countries. Unfair to expect people to continue in third world conditions so that tourists can experience ‘culture’. Sometimes culture is hard to retain in the face of providing a good standard of living for the inhabitants- particularly a culture that was very nomadic in nature.

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