Culture Shock in Dubai


I write this from the bus in 40 degrees heat, outside the largest shopping mall (Dubai Mall) in the world, the tallest building (Burj Khalifa) in the world a mere 10 minute walk away. Coupled with having just seen marina animals behind the world’s largest acrylic window (of the Dubai Aquarium), it struck me how Dubai made an impression in many of its visitors as a city of record numbers, one that seemed to be obsessed with superlatives – the biggest, the tallest, and the best.

A quick Google search directed me to other records, such as the world’s largest dancing fountain, the world’s largest indoor ski park (even in the sweltering desert!), and strangely, the world’s largest seashell mosaic in the shape of the Dubai police force’s logo. Dubai, to many, is synonymous with affluence, redefines the ‘first world’, and is incredibly dedicated to lauding the extent of human capability, by ousting records and proclaiming itself as the best. I’m not exactly sure, but I’m guessing that Dubai wishes to present itself as the best place in the world – to visit, to live in, and especially to invest in – as its economy relies heavily on tourism. It’s kind of a new city, and perhaps it has to get people to trust in it, and by branding itself as bigger, better and best, it can inspire confidence in the city for potential expats / tourists / etc.  But I’m just speculating.

While I can’t deny Dubai’s great achievements and forays into the Guinness Book of Records, it makes me rather unsettled. Everything is done very consciously – the erection of buildings, the planting of trees / flowers / bushes / grass (albeit synthetic), and even once the presence of artificial rain to please the masses (Dubai has close to 0% chance of rain in the summer months). It seems highly artificial (like the water outside Dubai Mall), perhaps even clinical, and while I expected it, juxtaposed to the abundance of tropical nature I’m so used to, Dubai’s landscape came as a shock anyway. Yet, perhaps it was a good kind of shock, the kind that leaves you thinking, as similar to Vegas, Dubai does something with the desert, a place that most people from temperate regions may not deem ‘hospitable’, and turned it into a sprawling metropolitan area. Because most of what I could think of on long trips around the region, was “how did they do this?”

Furthermore, of you aren’t used to or familiar with the Middle Eastern and Arab culture, Dubai will leave you with the claim to a little more of some semblance to knowledge. Yet if you are familiar, the clash of cultures in the city, as Dubai borrows the best of both worlds (Levis / H&M / Starbucks of the West, and the customs of the Arabs), creates a diversity that is really cool to see. It’s a city that has so much, and has left me with more than I arrived with, in both a literal and metaphorical sense.

And what my friends from Saudi Arabia said: “as-salāmu alaykum” – (may) peace be upon you.

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