Why The UAE Fascinates Me

In late 2012 I wrote a post entitled “Is the UAE the most depressing place in the world?” The post caused quite a bit of commentary, and it seems like I wasn’t alone in my sentiments.

Some people say that the UAE lacks any culture and is without a soul. But to me that’s precisely what makes it so fascinating and sort of depressing.

You have a culture that’s built entirely around excess.

The best hotels were so expensive to build that they don’t know how much construction cost.

Afternoon tea is a luxury for most, but why stop there? Make it seven courses. Why? Because they can!

Burj Al Arab afternoon tea

Many countries with “visible” poverty have a huge gap in standards of living, whereby you have the really rich and the really poor, without much of a middle class.

But I don’t think there’s anywhere I’ve been where it’s as apparent and depressing as in the UAE.

We travel internationally in part to see different cultures, and for me, at least, I’m typically left with a positive impression.

This is hard to explain, but when I go to India and see the poverty there, I don’t say “wow, I feel so bad for them,” but rather think “wow, it’s amazing how happy they are, despite lacking so many of the things that we consider important in the US.”

When I leave India it’s with a tremendous sense of perspective. The experiences I have there always remind me of what is really most valuable – like the importance of family and the importance of being a good person. Concepts which sometimes seem lost in pursuit of the “American dream.”

As you may recall, I took my mom to Bali last year for her “round” birthday.

It was her first time in Asia, or any “Eastern” culture for that matter, and I was fascinated to see what she noticed, and what she took away from visiting a place so far outside her previous experiences. I think the most eye opening part for her was that there were other religions and cultures based on respect for other people and the world, which in many ways even put our way of living to shame.

It made me happy to see her happy about realizing something she’d really never thought much about before.

But the Middle East (at least the United Arab Emirates) is in a completely different league than anywhere else I travel to. Some say traveling to the UAE isn’t culturally fulfilling, but to me it’s exactly the opposite — I don’t think there’s a place in the world I travel to that helps me appreciate my life as much as the UAE.

Abu Dhabi skyline

And really it doesn’t take more than a 10 minute taxi ride to fully appreciate that. From my driver yesterday:

Driver: “Where are you from?”
Me: “The United States.”
Driver: “Oh wow, do you know Chevy Chase?”
Me: “Hah, I don’t. So where are you from?”
Driver: “India.”
Me: “That’s a beautiful country. How long have you been here?”
Driver: “Two years. I don’t like it very much and miss home.”
Me: “I can imagine. Are you just starting your work day, or finishing?”
Driver: “Just starting. I drive 16 hours per day, seven days a week. I haven’t had a day off since I moved here.”
Me: “Wow. So how much longer do you plan on staying here?”
Driver: “Well I will go back to India next year to get married, and then bring my wife here.”
Me: “Have you met your wife yet?”
Driver: “Not yet, but she will come with me and live here, and I will get a good job.”

There aren’t many thing that put me deep into thought, but somehow I’m kind of left speechless every time I get out of a UAE taxi. Because even though every driver’s story is different, the way they leave me feeling is the same every time. I simultaneously feel a sense of appreciation for my life, and also great sadness for what they’re often going through.

I always say that customer service isn’t especially good in the UAE. All the customer-facing people are “imported labor,” and they’re mostly not very happy. And that’s not necessarily due to their financial situation or how much they’re working, but for almost everyone I talk to, it’s rather due to being away from family.

A couple of days ago I happened to start a conversation with a guy that worked at the hotel I’m staying at, and he couldn’t have been nicer and more professional. You know how some people just go above and beyond, and also give off genuinely good vibes? He totally fit into that category. What’s amazing is that he’s married and has kids, and only gets to fly home to see them every two years. But despite that he has an incredibly optimistic outlook on life, loves what he does, and couldn’t be happier.

I don’t really have a point to all this, other than to continue the conversation we started a few years ago.

When I travel to India, I leave feeling refreshed, with a renewed faith in humanity. When I travel to the UAE, I leave stunned and confused.

For a place so focused on bling and so void of “culture,” it sure does leave a lasting impression.

Filed Under: Travel
  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. The really scary part is that the UAE is somewhat enlightened compared to other countries in the Middle East. I love the hotels, golf courses, food, and the Dubai airport is just incredible. But I’m always glad when they stamp my passport and I depart.

  2. I think you’re doing these people a disservice by assuming you know better than they do.

    They leave their third world countries because there is no opportunity for them there. They go to the Gulf in order to work hard and save money, as well as see and experience different sights they would never see back home.

    If they didn’t like it in the Gulf, they could quit and leave anytime. Some do, but more end up staying many decades.

    There are many people all over the world who work hard and do not see their families often. International students, long haul truck drivers, the workers in remote mines and oil patches, armed forces, and the list goes on.

  3. I don’t know how different the UAE actually is from the US. For example, my local IHOP, where most of the people who work here (especially behind the kitchen wall, but not just them) are undocumented immigrants who sacrifice something to support their family. The people who wait on tables all have their own stories, too. The Chicana woman with 9 kids to support and husband who is incarcerated. The cousin of a waiter who came on a visitor’s visa… and stayed. He hasn”t seen his family in years, yet he still speaks to his mother everyday.
    Is it less OK in a young, but wealthy, nation state that tries to emulate a Euro-American way of being but applies it to local contexts? Is it it more palatable in the US because… we hide the same issues behind the wall, or behind the Home Depot, while in the UAE it’s a little more… out in the open? It seems as tho this is not considered particularly obscene, until it’s… there.
    Is it capitalism that demands not just the labor, but the movement of labor – especially for the ‘less prestigious’ jobs in order to supply the demand to consume? Should we hate the game and not the player, in this instance?
    I have no answers. All I can say is that the imbalance of power, and wealth, is everywhere. Why does it illicit an emotional response in one instance, but not the other, is a my question.

  4. I think what people may mean by no culture is that its hard to get a feel that you are really in the middle east. I know I certainly didn’t interact with any locals when I was in Abu Dhabi, only immigrant service workers. That’s very different from, say, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, or Turkey. And I’d never choose it as a destination to experience Middle Eastern culture or even historic sites.

    There’s a fair amount of blogger coverage of the UAE, and my impression is its driven by first class & luxury hotel availability. That’s fine, just not how I make my travel decisions. I’d love to see you cover another Arab country and compare the cultural differences.

  5. The max you stay at a hotel is for two days, and you generally eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner within the hotel.

    How much perspective can you really get when the only time you venture outside the hotel grounds is when you taxi to/from the airport?

  6. Lucky, I enjoy your blog and have learned a lot, but this is as shallow as you can get. To enjoy a place that is founded on a few people being lucky, born to the right family and on the right peace of land, while others, especially foreign workers are treated like total shit, well, spare me.

    I love that I can enjoy luxury in special places thanks to FT, MP and the bloggers. I know that the cultures are different and one can celebrate those differences. But this culture is totally bankrupt and solely based on an oil economy that is pure luck and allows total excess while others suffer. We should go out of our way to not legitimize these places and to make it seem like they hold the golden ring for us to aspire to. You’re better than that.

  7. Very true and very interesting, however, we have our own laborers in this country who work very long hours, live in bad housing and don’t see their families they left behind. I am talking about agricultural workers from Mexico and other countries south of the border. Their numbers are not as high in proportion to the “locals” as they are in UAE but is their situation that different?

  8. @belkiss

    They do leave! Except for the ones whose employers have their passports. And the ones who can’t afford to pay back the loans that got them there in the first places because their salaries are drastically lower than what they were promised. Oh, and except for the hundreds of construction workers that die each year, whether from physical toil or suicide. But you’re right, many of the other emigrants do leave to return home.

  9. I get your comments somewhat in regards to the UAE but I can’t disagree with you more about India. I’ve been once and will never go back. I love the food and the tourist sites in India but I can’t stand the way women are viewed/ treated. It’s disgusting (even more so than in Arabian peninsula countries – at least personal space is respected).

    I don’t know how you leave India refreshed. I left with a visceral repulsion for the place and it had nothing to do with the poverty and everything to do with the way women are viewed and treated in society.

  10. I wouldn’t call it devoid of culture. If you visit a UAE citizen who lives there and shares a glimpse of his/her life with you, your experience will be completely different.

    I suggest you visit Yemen to see what UAE or Qatar or any of these middle east countries may have looked like before the oil boom a few decades ago.

  11. @ Steven S

    I agree with some of what you said (luck being a factor), but much of what you said, especially your last two sentences, make it sound like you didn’t actually read the piece.

  12. @Stephen,
    wow I didnt realize it was that bad in the US, or is it eurpoe your talking about?

    You konw what I find most revolting about these discussions, is the huge wave of hyporcysy all those claiming to have moral ethics ride on.

    Do we really need to quote the sweatshop storeis of Apple, Nike, Walmart,….etc and the illegal workers on oil rigs, so you realize it isnt much better where you are?? in those cases, those people are slaves in their own countries.

    I travel at leeast 3-4 times a week, and I always engage the taxi drives in Dubai in conversation. They always have a sad or hard story to tell which I completely sympathize with, but here is the kicker, and try this yourselves, ask them to just go straight to their embassies tomorrow, and have them issue travel docs back to their home countries (if they dont have their passports) becuase of the misrable lifestyle, and I guaratnee you you will hear a very similar reponse everytime “leave and go home to do what? how will I live and put food on the table?”

  13. I think that UAE is more similar to USA in terms of jobs, long hours and perceived “unhappiness”. I will bet anything that given a choice between living in india / UAE for half a year, you’ll feel more at home in the UAE.

    At lot of “problem” you see is lot more localized in UAE where as in the States, these problems are at places you normally don’t visit.

    Also, let’s put it this way, UAE in terms of GDP, Human Index, and other “quality of life” measurements are way higher than what they where 20-30 years ago. So the country as a whole improved greatly (due to oil, which humanity depend on heavily). Frankly speaking, citizenships would of preferred what UAE is now versus what UAE was before, (aka, Yemen)

  14. @ Stephen

    You find the exact same thing happening in Singapore, and I’d love to see Lucky write a blog piece about that…

    “Many countries with “visible” poverty have a huge gap in standards of living, whereby you have the really rich and the really poor, without much of a middle class.”

    Sorry Lucky, but that is ridiculous. Not everyone in Dubai or the UAE is either a bling bling baller or some poor downtrodden migrant worker. There are lots of middle class people there from all over the world, and spending 2 or 3 days per visit every year or so would show you that.

  15. I don’t disagree with you regarding the disparity, but I am surprised that you haven’t found any local culture or Emerati customer-facing employees.

  16. Yeah Lucky, as others have mentioned, I think its unfair for you to judge the UAE as uncultured based on a short trip and staying in resort hotels (like the St Regis etc..) If you were to actually go into the city and souks – you would meet normal Emiratis who have a very rich heritage, its just not seen very often because most tourists prefer the shopping and beaches, but thats not really surprising. On the issue of labourers, its unfortunate that they have to endure the conditions they live in but there is a reason workers keep coming to the Middle East and Dubai in particular – because they find work and are able to support their family which for them is more important than their happiness, just shows the sacrifices these guys make. Though that sacrifice is still better than not having a job at all so in most cases the labourers understand how important Dubai is for them which balances the widely held view that Dubai is entirely reliant on foreign workers.

  17. Agree with Joey. I lived in the UAE. Outside of the 5* hotels and airport lounges, there’s plenty of local culture to experience. Did you see the grand mosque? That’s a start. There are also 5 other Emirates which are nothing like Abu Dhabi or Dubai. Even Abu Dhabi emirate outside of the city is unique. I understand the focus of your blog and how you fill a niche, but I’m hopeful this next year, when you can manage to settle in a place for a period of time, will be educational for you.

  18. I totally agree with Eric about India, enough said.. And for UAE, I’ve only been in Dubai and I loved the experience, I was there with my hot looking latina (but she dressed accordingly) and being my first time there I had a little prejudice. How wrong I was! I stayed at the Hyatt Regency and used the metro almost exclusively (you know it is used mainly by the lowest social level: workers, etc.), and walked the surrounding downtown areas, gold souk, etc. at every off hour you can imagine. So i’m pretty sure I got the real feeling of the lowest social levels. One night going to the hotel, a weekday at almost 2AM, I passed with my girl thru a group of dozens of men, playing cricket, and they were all courteous and respectful. I don’t what you really mean for the soul part, but in my part of the world, playing anything besides point n’ shoot in weekdays at 2AM.. well you get the point. And all we found in all my trip was kind people, good service and a reconforting safe feeling!. I went to a bank at 12midnight, and the “lobby” where the ATM’s are was something like the whole bank, fully open doors, no one breaking/vandalizing anything. No at single person in all my trip extending their hand requesting money for doing nothing. Hard to think in any other country without beggers!.

  19. What an interesting topic to share and to get a GOOD conversation going. From someone who just got back from the UAE this week, on his first ever visit, I find your comments a bit puzzling to say the least.

    If you feel ‘stunned’ or ‘confused’ by visiting the UAE, is that because the socio-economic disparity that you find or because of the outdatious and outlandish things that one encounters in this dessert nation reminiscent of Las Vegas?

    As many great comments that been already made such @Gwayrav or @Vu. If it is the socio-economic aspect of it, we don’t need to travel half way around the world to encounter that, a quick hop to El Salvador or Nicaragua can attest to places where men have migrated from due to poverty, in a quest for a better life for their loved ones. And if it is for the incredible modern excessive things that we see in the UAE, well it should not surprise much a world traveler like you, for again, at least to me, it seemed like a bigger version of Las Vegas to me. With a ‘Middle Eastern’ theme thrown in. A place where here at home all those ‘workers’ from Central America & Mexico aspire to come for their ‘American dream’.

    I found the UAE to be the Switzerland of the Middle East, where everything works, is all nicely manicured and very well maintained. A place that you’re glad you went to visit.

    As far as ‘culture’ is concern, I second @Joey’s comments, especially the suggestion of visiting or spending time with an emiraty citizen who comes from one the nomadic tribes that roamed the area that became part of the UAE. As an alternative, I’d suggest visiting the Sheikh Mohamed Centre For Cultural Understanding (cultures.ae). I enjoyed the lunch there but more so the candid and informative exchange that takes place. It helped put things in perspective for me (especially the disparity of the senses) on my visit.

    As far as India is concern, which I’ve also visited, I believes it merits its own discussion forum, for all the fascination & contradictions that awakens in me!

  20. Very interesting read. The comments are equally as interesting. I was in the UAE last month (my first) and was surprised how much the service workers seem to enjoy their jobs. I was also surprised by how safe I felt at all hours of the day and night.

    Does anybody know the status of the current ruler of the UAE? A taxi driver I spoke with said that his health was very poor, and said that he thought he had cancer.

    Interesting how much we learn from the taxi drivers!

  21. @Sean

    The UAE is a bit different from the other GCC countries in that the ruler of Abu Dhabi kind of rules over the other emirates, even though each emirate has it’s own ruler. The ruler of AD is the president of the UAE. The ruler of Dubai is the vice president. Not sure what titles the other rulers have…

    Even though Dubai gets most of the media attention and tourists, Abu Dhabi kind of has the most say since it is the largest emirate in terms of size, and they have the most oil…if Abu Dhabi hadn’t bailed out Dubai in 2008, Dubai would have more or less collapsed. And many people in Dubai are still a bit bitter that the Burj Dubai was named the Burj Khalifa 😉

  22. Hard to get much perspective on the UAE, India — or frankly any other country — when most of your time is spent at 5* hotels, taking pictures of rooms, lounge food or gyms, or complaining about not getting the top suite upgrade.

    Try going out to a restaurant, frequented by locals. Find a locale for working or middle class folks, rather than upscale / rich. Go shopping, and not at the hotel gift shop or tourist traps. You’ll see a different world that your ivory tower surroundings shielded you from.

  23. Sorry Ben, but I must disagree with you (exactly as I did the first two times you posted your “insights” about the UAE over the last few years).

    Your view of the UAE as an artificial culture is because you spend your entire time here living in the artificially created culture bubble of luxury hotels, shopping malls and monuments to excess.

    I invite you to come up to Ras Al Khaimah where I live on your next trip (we have a Waldorf Astoria here so you won’t have to slum it!). We can take a drive through some authentic villages and towns in the northern mountains near the Oman border. You can sit in my office at the airport and chat with various Emiratis who drop by for a coffee on their breaks. They are genuine, friendly and hospitable people – much like you find anywhere in the world.

    The UAE is much more than just the malls and luxury hotels of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Just because you limit your experience to that doesn’t mean that the entire country is like that.

  24. @Sean – Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan(President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi) suffered a stroke some months ago. Although he remains Head of State, most of his functions and duties since then have been discharged by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum who is Vice-President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai. The media does not make a big deal out of this, presumably on the request of the Nahyan family. Increasingly though, the presence of his younger brother, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces) is being seen in public roles in the expectation of him succeeding Sheikh Khalifa in due course. A similar protocol was followed when Sheikh Khalifa succeeded an increasingly bed-ridden Sheikh Zayed in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

  25. Cool commercial from Coca-Cola. Nice to know there’s so much work to do in Dubai due to all the progress, so they don’t starve to death in their home countries.

    Also nice fact that they are good, working people, earning almost FOUR times more than the average salary in my country.

  26. It’s a depressing shithole of a place. Been once (had to go with my family I was a child) never again.

  27. I’m living in Abu Dhabi now and it’s been an amazing experience. It’s very easy to get sucked into the 5 star luxury of the hotels and malls and that can clearly give you one experience. But I also enjoy just walking the streets of downtown abu dhabi and seeing the various immigrant and local cultures on display in the pulsing downtown area. It’s truly a crossroads of humanity. And there’s a lot to see and experience at all levels – from high level glamour to humble people from poor countries who are here to work and make money. I’ve only been here for two months but work in a company with by far the most culturally diverse workforce of any place I’ve ever worked before. I’d say that this place, despite the huge difference in living standards between white collar western workers such as myself and laborers, truly attracts people from all over for the opportunity it offers. It’s a place unlike any place I’ve ever lived, and there’s a lot to explore and experience, from all different cultures (local Emirati, immigrant laborers, western expats). It’s a truly amazing experience, and all you need to do is be willing to explore and keep an open mind and it’s all there to see. I’m looking forward to the 2-3 years I’ll be here.

  28. Ben – I appreciate your kind words for my country, India. I hope you continue to have good experiences even during your longer stays if they happen to be in India.

  29. Sorry, but I forgot to share the fact that I did enjoy my time in Dubai, enough so that I’ll definitely go back to visit more of the UAE!

    @Wayne – Thanks for sharing such a neat video!

    @AS – Great advice no matter where one travels and even more appropriate in this part of the world.

    @Sean M – First, thanks for clarifying the current condition of the President of the UAE & the governing structure of the country. Second, I couldn’t agree with you more on your assertion on culture in the UAE. So please note that, if Ben doesn’t take you up on the offer, I’ll love to. Ras Al Khaimah is in my list of places to visit next time around!

  30. Great photo of the Burj Al Arab. I stayed opposite in the Jumeriah Beach Hotel and it was hard to get a perspective of the size of the Burj because there are no background reference points, just blue sky and sea. That was until one morning I saw a ‘speck’ hovering around near the top. It was actually a helicopter and that put the size of the place into frame.

  31. Great observations on UAE. I’ve been fortunate have been to Dubai and Abu Dhabi twice. I enjoy reading your commentary.

  32. I always find travelers interesting. I also travel frequently, but tend to see things differently than many of the readers here. I just returned from 4 weeks in the UAE ( 2 for business, and 2 for pleasure) and I highly disliked it. Many travelers tend to criticize you after saying such things. They say you are not open enough or didn’t experience it properly. I find that answer foolish. There are some places in this world that are not enjoyable, and can be quite depressing. I understand to each their own, but sometimes you do not enjoy a country even if you experienced the different aspects of a country/culture. It’s not that you may have missed something, it’s that many places are not actually enjoyable to many people.

  33. Beautifully Written ben. I live in Canada and grew up in the Emirates. As someone of Indian origin, I knew from early on and be very careful of the things I said publicly. Since my family was better off then the labour class, I sometimes feel like we fed the beast and contributed to the exploitation simply by virtue of living there. While i’m not sure I want to spend my life here in Canada, i’m sure I never want to go back there. That makes me feel sad because I was born an raised there.

  34. I have traveled the world, and been to many remote places. However, aside from Turkey, I have not been to many strict Muslim countries. I was thinking about going to the UAE, and I have been wanting to give one of the big middle eastern 3 (EY, Qatar, and Etihad) a try, but I’m concerned with making a stop over in one of the hub cities.

    My most specific concern is I have some severe medical conditions and travel with lots of medications including codeine. I have read of stories of customs officers confiscating these “drugs,” even if prescribed by a doctor, because of strict religious laws.

    Can anyone shed light on just how strict they really are and how UAE compares with Qatar?

  35. What an interesting post and perspective. This is the first article I’ve ever read about UAE that has actually made me want to visit there to investigate for myself.

  36. Ben, have you visited the souks in either AUH or DXB? If not, you really need to go. Better yet, as someone mentioned above, go to one of the other 5 emirates. Sharjah is a very short drive from Dubai and has a very different feel to it. You should also consider going to Oman or Egypt.

  37. It is actually a requirement of all countries that you carry a copy of the prescription and/or a doctors letter if you are taking prescribed meds into any country.

    I don’t know what the meds are or what they are for (nor do I need to know) but this applies to all countires and to all prescribed meds.

    The reason for this could be that the meds you need may not be available in another country in the same dosage/formulation or just simply not available at all and it will help a medical person, especially in a life threatening or emergency situation to know what medication is required or alternatively what other medication can be combined with what a person already takes.

    Medical practioners can then prescribe similar or alternative treatments if necessary and also know what not to give a person in the event that they or their family are not able to assist by recalling the name of a drug they are taking.

    For this reason, prescribed meds should always be carried in hand luggage in original packaging and not in a suitcase that can go astray.

    So it isn’t unique to the middle east but people fuss more about it because of the perception that they may get stopped at customs and thrown into jail – highly unlikely if you are doing nothing illegal.

    The reality is that taking a copy of the prescription and/or a doctors letter together with carrying the prescribed meds in your hand luggage may safe a life

    Check this link re Codeine issue


    Hope this helps.


  38. I really like this post. Being away from home is difficult. I’m in California now, with my family in Seattle while I work. I could be miserable, focusing on what I’m missing; but I choose to focus on the positives, since I have no control over the separation beyond having made the choice (an economic one to support my family). I know you appreciate all that you have, and I love that you engage the taxi drivers, desk agents and the like. Life is about experiences and interacting with others. I love these types of experiential posts…keep them coming!

  39. Taxi drivers rank very high on the totem pole of migrant workers in the UAE. They do generally have the ability to go back home when they want and earn a wage much better than they would at home. The same is definitely not true of construction workers and other laborers. They are indeed often promised a higher wage than they actually receive, are not paid on time, live in very basic conditions, and have their passports revoked upon arrival. They could not simply walk into their country’s embassy and request the ability to leave.

  40. Hi Ben,

    Sorry for going off-topic, but previously I had commented about the formatting when you post videos on your website. When I click on the video, it opens up a separate webpage and goes to YouTube to play the video. In comment #22 in this thread, Wayne posted a video which plays right inside the video box and doesn’t open another page. I’ve noticed that it also plays within the blog page when other people have posted videos on your site as well. A new page opening only happens with videos that you post, so it appears there’s a setting that you need to change when you post videos so that it doesn’t open a separate page.


  41. I think Paul brings up a very important point – in many countries, there are companies that specialize on recruiting workers promising them something which turns out not to be true when they get to their ultimate destination; to top it off, workers may be in debt (since they paid a fee for a privilege of coming to a land of opportunity) and they get their documents taken away which further decreases their options.

  42. The same thing happens to boat people who come to Australia – all their ID documents are taken away before departing on unseaworthy junks. Not good.

  43. Ben,
    This was one of your most interesting posts. I enjoy reading about your take on travel since you go so many places.

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