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?”
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.