The One Reason I Love The Vibe Of Dubai

Filed Under: Travel

We all have our favorite places. In some cases it’s easy to explain why a place is our favorite, while in other cases it’s not quite so easy.

For example, Queenstown, New Zealand, is one of my favorite places… do I really need to explain why?


But Dubai is also a city I really like, and that’s a bit tougher to explain (I’m going to use Dubai for the purpose of this example, though I feel similarly about Abu Dhabi). I’ve written in the past about what first timers should do in Dubai, and also about how safe it is to travel to the UAE.

When I go to Dubai with people for the first time, I’m always interested to see their reaction. People have very different reactions, and that’s understandable, since we’re all looking for different things when we travel.

I remember when I took Ford to Dubai for the first time, and was excited to show him a city I really like. But as I started showing him around, I realized I had a hard time expressing why I love Dubai, and was doing a pretty crappy sales job.

“Look, it’s an indoor ski slope… in the desert!”

“Look, it’s the world’s biggest Cheesecake Factory!”

“Look, it’s a mall that’s make to look like a souk!”

“Look, it’s the world’s tallest building.”


His reaction was probably similar to what you’d expect. He didn’t hate Dubai, but was confused about why I loved it so much. It’s not that I physically love Dubai, but rather I love the vibe of it… but why?

Well, I was in Dubai this past week briefly, and as I sat at dinner, it came to me. This isn’t incredibly profound, or anything, but rather it’s the most succinct realization I’ve ever come to regarding how I feel about Dubai.

What makes me like Dubai so much? That it’s a city full of outsiders. There’s not a place in the world where the people interest me as much as in Dubai.

Let’s start with that first point. Dubai is a transient city. Some people live there for a few months. Others for a few years. Others for a few decades. But except the very few Emiratis (who you rarely interact with outside of immigration), everyone else is an outsider.

I’ve always felt like an outsider in life. I’ve never really fit in regarding what I was “supposed” to be, and also easily get bored staying in one place for too long. That’s what I love Dubai, because it’s one place I feel like I fit in. When you’re non-Emirati and hanging out in Dubai, the assumption isn’t automatically “where are you visiting from?” but rather “do you live here?” There aren’t many cities which are similarly non-presumptuous in that way.

Similarly, the people you interact with in Dubai are from every single corner of the world. That’s true of many cities, but not to the same intensity. Sure, New York has people from all over the world as well, but it doesn’t feel quite as consistently diverse as Dubai does.

I find myself so engaged with people in Dubai, because every time I interact with someone I wonder to myself where they’re from, how long they’ve been there, what their story is, etc.


Bottom line

The UAE has its fair share of problems (I don’t want to dismiss those for a second, though I’ve written about them in the past). It’s far from a perfect society. But it’s a place where I feel like I “belong,” even though I always think of myself as an outsider. There aren’t many places where that’s the case, and it also explains why most people have a hard time relating to how I feel about Dubai.

  1. Try holding hands with Ford in the Dubai Mall or kiss him in public and still tell me you will love Dubai when the two of you are in jail. Add to that the mistreatment of the 3rd country nationals. I lived there for two years and I am glad I’m gone!

  2. @SteveK: if all countries were the same the world would be a boring place. Agree or not with the local rules or culture I believe we have to respect. We are all free to make our own choices to go or not to a country.

  3. I feel like its just a Vanity Laced cesspool of horrible people who exploit people and value objects instead of humans. I’m pretty sure Falcons are treated better than the construction workers.

  4. Went to Dubai for the first time a few weeks ago. It was up there with one of my least favorite cities. It feels like a theme park where half the rides are under construction. I could see heading there for a weekend if you lived somewhere within no more than 5 hour flight but from the West Coast of the US there is very little Dubai offers that isn’t done much better somewhere closer.

  5. Dubai is nice. It was cool to see the main attractions once. I enjoy the afternoon tea at the Skybar in the Burj Al Arab. However, I’d rather just stay in the EK F lounge in DXB while I’m there. The city just doesn’t do anything for me. It’s like the Vegas of the Middle East to me in that if I never visited again I wouldn’t care.

  6. Lucky – You’ve basically been using Tampa and Los Angeles as sort of a “home base” (that’s my assumption anyway) but would you ever consider using Dubai as sort of a base as well, given your feelings about it expressed in this article?

  7. @Mike: that’s exactly my thought. It is Las Vegas in the ME without the cassinos. Both cities are artificial.

  8. Its essentially Vegas in the Middle East, except with no gambling or alcohol. I visited there last summer and the whole time I didnt hear one word of Arabic or see any sort of Middle Eastern culture. There is nothing authentic about the city, its all you can eat, all you can spend, all you can build.

  9. @mike @santastico
    Las Vegas is actually not as artificial as you may think, if you care to venture out and explore what it has to offer beyond the strip. It is actually a great base for outdoorsy people. Hiking in Red Rock, Mt Charleston, Lake Mead area. Kayaking down the Colorado, climbing, canyoneering, etc. Skying. Weather is fairly mild for 2/3 of the year. Short drive to Zion National Park, Death Valley and Grand Canyon. A few hours to southern California, Phoenix, Utah, etc. And finally, short flights to L.A. area, San Diego and San Francisco.

    Overall, it is actually a fairly good place to have as a base since it offers yearlong high quality entertainment, dining and events, but also offers lots of options for an active lifestyle.

  10. Not being an outsider is just another word for being part of some community. Membership requires a sustained commitment of time and attention. A fly-by life is full of solo selfies. Pretty, but lacking in depth.

  11. Totally agree with you Ben,one of my favourite city,i ve lived in Brussels/Paris/Amsterdam and now in London and wouldnt hesitate a moment to move there.
    For thise criticising the gay life well ip till today 2 guys kissing each other draws attention even disgust in cities like London/Paris/Berlin,every country have its culture,respect it and as for the workers i wonder how many of you have given a tip to a toilet cleaner??taxi driver??hotel porter or restaurant waiter???

  12. To several previous commenters: pretty sure homophobic and misogynistic laws aren’t deserving of “respect.” They’re not colorful cultural quirks. They’re human rights violations.

  13. @Mohamed : “every country have its culture,respect it”

    So if a country jails people with medieval laws and a mentality from the biblical era for being just exactly who they are, that’s called “culture” and we’re supposed to “respect” it ?

  14. Went there with our our kids this past summer (5 and 7), it was there favorite vacation yet and they want to go back every year. (Flying in Etihad First and Buinesss didnt hurt with the transit)There is always something to do no matter what your age. While they want to go back this year, we told them to wait until after their new tallest building in the world is built (after Saudi builds theirs first…)
    I dont think i would want to live there, but i could definitely spend a few separate weeks each year there.

  15. Same feeling here. Ben, great written, this one! I think there are many issues which they (and the people living there) face and where the difference between their world and the Western world would be obvious…But the feeling is exactly like u described it. Flying to AUH tonight from DUS…And so looking forward to it.

  16. Appreciated your thoughts! As I was reading it I was thinking to myself…hope he is not forgetting about all the ‘issues’ in the UAE…and then I saw your closing paragraph….I agree that it’s far from perfect…but a good ‘temporary getaway’ spot from reality.

  17. Personally I’ve never understood the Dubai hype. The Vegas of the Middle East without the charm (and at least as Olivier noted, there’s actually a lot of cool stuff around Vegas if you leave the Strip). When I worked in India, I used to describe it to American expats as the place to go if you want a generic Western city experience but didn’t have time to go back home, and I think that’s pretty apt. If I want a cultureless, flavorless experience, I can sit at home on the couch, rather than waste a bunch of points and money to go to Dubai.

  18. @Santastico @Mohamed

    I didn’t get the impression SteveK was being disrespectful of their traditions, but merely stating their reality.

    It was a valid question to ask whether he would still have the same opinion if he had faced the consequences of holding hands of kissing his partner in public.

    Lastly, there might be some in London/Paris/Berlin (and in these days of empowered/entitled trump deplorables, increasingly here in the US) that will show disgust, but people still won’t go to jail, so not really a valid comparison.

  19. Glad to have visited the UAE, but don’t enjoy it as much as you. Wonder how much the airlines influence your views? But more importantly, hope as the US. changes you feel more like you do fit in. You are certainly a star in the travel blogging world and your posts have helped me a great deal. Thanks!

  20. Over 3 million people in nyc are foreign born immigrants and I believe it has the largest foreign born population of any city in the world. So i really don’t get how you feel nyc is not as diverse. Over 37% of the people in nyc were born in another country. Maybe its not as transient as dubai but still to suggest nyc lacks in diversity by comparison is somewhat of joke.

  21. @Stevek why do U think it’s right for anyone to kiss in public ? That is your belief and you can believe that – in a society that shares your same beliefs. But don’t criticize those that don’t share those same beliefs. For those that live in middle America where your surrounded by lifelong neighbors with little turnover, u will not appreciate or understand living in a community of outsiders and still feel like your home. NY is the greatest city in my opinion because it says has a slice or more of every corner of the globe. No other city in he world can say that

  22. @Henry LAX I get your point that some people’s mentalitys are very backwards but you don’t have to go to the Middle East to find people like this. We have those people right here at home in the USA. Just look at the country right now.

    And I agree with @SteveK that it’s sad that you love a city so much yet the city doesn’t love you back simply because of who you love.

  23. In Up in the Air, George Clooney’s character’s sister says to him “You’re awfully isolated the way you live.” He replies, “Isolated? I’m surrounded” as he walks through an airport packed with people coming or going somewhere but that he isn’t fully connecting with.

    That’s what I thought of when I read your explanation.

  24. I’m with Kate in that I also wonder how much airlines influence your views. I’ve been following your blog for a coupe of years now and It’s obvious that you’re very into flying lavish F/J cabins and that is what EK (and the ME3 in general) offer. Moreover, it’s obvious you enjoy staying at lavish hotels and that’s exactly what Dubai offers. So I think the fact that you travel in style to get there and you’re sleeping in style while you’re there is definitely influencing your views on DXB.

    fyi, I’m not saying this to degrade you or what not. to each their own when it comes to travel. I personally like Dubai but I would not spend miles/cash to just fly there and make it my final destination. The two times I’ve been to Dubai have been as 3-4 day layovers on my way to SE Asia. And I would stay there again if I have to fly through DXB to get to my destination.

  25. @BlinseyLohan
    Did you visit the right places? I’ve had zero issues acquiring alcohol wherever I went.

    @henry LAX
    Um, yeah. You do. I met PLENTY of backwards, biblical era thinking white trash in Chicago on my last holiday. However, that doesn’t stop me from respecting and observing their beliefs. It’s called respect and acclimation.

  26. Lucky, you may be parading around with Emirates flight attendants from around the world, but that doesn’t make Dubai any more cosmopolitan or “diverse”.

    Your head may be in the sand for this one.

    Try asking “Do you live here?” to the millions of South Asians (and their children) who have lived and worked in Dubai for their entire lives, but who will never be able to get citizenship, and can get kicked out of the country at any notice.

    While there is no doubt that you are hanging around with non-Emirati’s in Dubai, I highly doubt you were hanging around with the obvious segregated lower-class of migrant workers. The British are especially obnoxious here: the “FILTH” (Failed in London, Try Hong Kong) expat-types running around in European upper management of Dubai state-owned firms. And of course, these folks don’t even have to look after themselves as the company provides a car and accommodation allowance, and many even hire private servants at home since they can’t even clean after themselves.

    The facade is that even (white) non-Emiratis can live the life of a sheik in this city.

    And I haven’t even touched on democracy, human rights, LGBT rights, and everything else that seems so minor.

    That you say New York is less diverse than Dubai is kind of insulting.

  27. Dubai is not the Las Vegas of the GCC. Vegas is a lot of fun and can be quite exciting. Yes, I’m in the minority here but I love Vegas. When I’m home in the US, I love nothing more than a Vegas weekend of craps and skydiving. Dubai is very dull by comparison. It’s ok. I don’t give it much thought one way or another; though, I am excited about attending Art Dubai in another couple of weeks.

    As for being openly gay and visiting Dubai: no problems. I’ve shared a bed with my partner. We’ve flirted across a dinner table. We’ve been invited to parties as a couple. A member of O&O Royal Mirage’s management even mentioned how lovely we looked together. No problems.

    Would there be a problem if he and I kissed in the middle of the Mall of the Emirates? Undoubtedly yes! Just as heterosexual couples have gotten into lots of trouble for inappropriate displays of public affection. It is a matter of cultural sensitivity.

  28. Truly one of the most repulsive places on earth. No culture, no class, no style, no vibe. Full of second rate expats unable to succeed at home but who act as though they are God’s gift. Serves Mammon and will likely be reclaimed by the desert at some point in the future…no great loss.

  29. I relate to your feelings here. My biggest complaint with Dubai is that it is not a walking city. In fact, walking is what makes a city a city. In fact, easier to walk in LA or LAS.

  30. Returned to Dubai after a absence of 20 years years. It came across as a totally soulless city, trying hard to outdo the rest of the world with its tall buildings, shopping malls and theme park type constructions, all of which fail miserably in my opinion to impress. I have to consider it is catering to a a specific group of people, who they are without stirring I have to leave to your own imagination. One thing to note, there are far better 5 star + plus hotels through the Americas, Europe and Asia in far better surroundings. Keep the reviews coming!!

  31. Lucky,
    I’m in Dubai / Abu Dhabi at least twice a year. I too enjoy the UAE. No country, repeat no country is perfect. I agree with your view of what makes the UAE an intriguing destination.

    Mark R.

  32. I LOVE Dubai! I completely agree with you, no country is perfect, so putting the issues aside, the UAE and Dubai specifically is an amazing place. Incredibly diverse, you have many options of things to do for fun, great beaches, world class food & shopping, their middle eastern culture…just AMAZING. Those who don’t like Dubai either just don’t like the vibe or haven’t even been there. My brother lived in Abu Dhabi for 6 years and loved it! I cant wait to go back to visit again.

  33. Dubai is the only city in the world I pray I never have to return to.

    A cultural, intellectual and political wasteland, where most outsiders (read: those from Southeast Asia) are treated worse than dogs.

    This post reads like a trendy neo-colonialist blog: “look Ford, we can ski indoors in Dubai! I feel so at home here among all the other rich white European outsiders. Heaven.”

  34. I also love Dubai. I love that you can come to Dubai and try to make it. I love the mix of people. I love the progress.

    Yes it has its problems however it is a safe and peaceful place wherein you can try to make it in business no matter where you are from.

  35. Lucky,
    I like your explanation. Nobody has ever put it that way. Very well put.
    I would love to go there someday and also to Abu Dhabi and mingle w/ people.

  36. I am a very fair (for Indian standards) skinned Indian, living in London, and for me, whilst with its issues, Dubai is one of the nicest places to be for me.
    I suppose being a light skinned Indian I look Arab. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been spoke to in Arabic in a Dubai, and I don’t speak a word.
    I’ve even had Indian/Pakistani/Nepalese drivers who would not accept that I am Indian and said they thought I was “local”. Speaking in Hindi did little to help because many Emiratis know basic Hindi. Only after asking them to play some Bollywood music did I get anywhere…
    A lot of people say that South Asians in Dubai are treated badly, well let me be very clear, they’re always upgrading from the life they had in India or other countries. Yes, if they can get a visa in the U.K. it would be a much bigger upgrade for them, but the UK isn’t exactly giving visas to these kinds of people. The UAE is.
    The great things about Dubai are:
    – Convienece
    Everything and anything can be done with ease and be brought to your doorstep and the cost of having it brought to you or done is a fraction of the West. Examples include, a driver, laundry delivery, cleaners, food delivery of amazing variety from every corner of the world, house mantainance. Etc etc You really have to live it to understand how much more convienent this place is than the west.
    Whilst I love Asia for the vibrancy and Europe for the style. Neither place can compete with Dubai for the quality of the roads, the cleanliness in almost all public areas and the progressive modern amenities. Stopping in Dubai after coming back to London from Asia is always a sigh of relief to be in a place that is cleaner than both home and away.
    – Lesisure/Tourisim
    Do you like shopping at high end brands and having some of the best variety in the world?
    Do you like eating at restaurants run by some of the best chefs in the world?
    Do you like amazing weather (Oct-Feb) where you can sit outside at cafes and have the sun shining.
    Do you like some fantastic views e.g. Downtown Burj area, The Palm.
    If you don’t like these things I can understand you may not like Dubai.

    As for culture, if you’re not coming across Emirates you don’t know the place well enough yet. Go to the new City Walk development on an early Thursday evening. Last time I was there I did not see a single non local. Or go to one of the many Shisha cafes in Jumeirah a bit later on a Thursday or Friday night.
    Yes you’re unlikely to see many of them in the hotels and resorts, just like you’re not going to see many Londoners in the Dorchester or Selfridges.

    What do I not like about Dubai?
    Well I can’t walk around like in London and just explore.
    Expats as others have mentioned are stuck up even though they are more than likely here because they couldn’t make it in London.
    The summer heat.
    And yes it doesn’t have the vibrancy of HK or Tokyo but that’s why we travel, everywhere has its own benefits. I’m not so “accepted” in the Far East as I am in Dubai. I know that’s a result of how I look but for me it adds a lot to the place. I suppose if I didn’t look local I might not be treated the same way there.

  37. Just returned from 10 days in Dubai. In that time I had a the best meal with a group of Emiratis, learned a few words of Arabic, was invited to an Emirati wedding, dined on the best Lebanese and Persian food, got out of the city and spent time on a desert retreat, and had coffee with locals. Oh, and I also got drunk everyday.

    Dubai is what you make of it, and I was glad to see more than just the tallest buildings and latest shops.

  38. I’ve lived here for 10 years (with stops in Doha and Abu Dhabi). Yes, Dubai has its problems, but overall I am thankful for the friends, travel, and opportunities it’s provided year after year. It’s been amazing to witness the change from when I arrived in 2007. Is it for everyone? Of course not. Am I leaving anytime soon? No way!

    Once you get past all the tall buildings and bling, most people are just trying to make a living, raise their kids, and get on with their day. Honestly, I love when friends and family come to visit and I get to share this city.

  39. I went to Dubai and Abu Dhabi last year for a trip. I enjoyed the trip a lot, but the city didn’t feel like Vegas in that people with no money go to Vegas all the time and can enjoy themselves. The area feels like a city for the rich built by the rich. I feel like your income really plays a role. Surely U.S. readers who visited the city had the money to enjoy theirselves, but I couldn’t imagine making the money I do today and enjoying myself in Dubai for an extended period of time.

  40. You should stick to your Trip Reports – Seriously!

    Today is my dad’s 70th birthday. After losing mom less than a year ago it hurts to be living half way across the world. I hope my kids never know what it feels to be an outsider – a transient.

  41. Every place is different and unique in its own way, and everyone experiences a place differently, colored by their own preferences. Dubai does nothing for me, and that’s ok. I was riding a Tuk-tuk around ‘greater’ Siem Reap the other day, and thought how much I enjoy just watching people go about their authentic lives. The smiles, the horns, the fluid dynamics of people making their way though their quotidian lives. This is why I have my own preference for destinations where seemingly chaos reigns to my Western eyes, but in fact, I’m observing a strong cultural foundation built on norms and mores that are novel and refreshing to me.

    This is the beauty of travel – it’s all in the eye of the beholder; and, I don’t mean this pejoratively, but there’s no accounting for taste – each of us appreciates different things.

  42. I’m in Dubai. Dubai is the best place for Vacations and relax your mind. You can easily interact with different nationalities. I Love Dubai 🙂

  43. Whether you like it or not, Dubai is one of the world capitals of slavery where some 50% of the population live in condition so appalling it is scarcely comprehensible. If you spend your money in places like this you are de facto supporting a regime which keeps people enslaved. Enjoy your luxury while others live in slavery and your dollars ensure they will stay that way

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