United Arab Emirates

UAE: Dubai, City of Dreams

Sidewalks like a baby’s skin: clean and unmarked from the ravages of time and age. Buildings made of glass and steel rising from the literal sand. Scores of cranes dot the unimaginably long skyline. Ribbons of highway snaking through purpose-built under development mini-cities, that are the size of most cities’ “downtowns.” This is Dubai.

Some have likened Dubai to Las Vegas, but without the gambling, or where the gold is real. But in reality, Dubai is more like an adult Disneyland. Where Disney has Frontier Land, Dubai has Internet City. There is a Downtown Dubai, just like Downtown Disney, where there is a nightly water and laser light show.

No graffiti. No homeless. No garbage on the streets. In a city with 3.3M people – about half a million less than Los Angeles – this is astonishing. It is surreal, or maybe better put, unreal. There is a level of artificiality that pervades, much like Disneyland. Even in Old Town Dubai, a shopping district was built five years ago to look a century old, one feels like you’ve just stepped into an amusement park or a film set. Complete with Happiness Street and Tolerance Bridge.

If you cross Dubai Creek into Deira, the original commercial center of Dubai, the veneer starts to wear off. Merchants compete for attention against the sounds of car horns, calls to prayer over loudspeakers and sea gull cries. This neighborhood and labor camps further outside the city center are where the people who build the vertical palaces to wealth live.

At dawn and dusk they are bused to and from construction sites. Each site can have a dozen buses filled with men, largely from India or Pakistan, all wearing the tell-tale worker uniform: blue long-sleeve shirt and matching pants. They toil six days a week for meager earnings, most of which is sent back home to help their families.

This epitomizes the dichotomy of Dubai: extreme wealth, where you can buy a vest of made of pure gold coupled with an extremely large impoverished workforce. Yet, this has been the norm throughout human history and the development of civilization. It is just rare today to see a city/civilization be built from nothing.

However, Dubai is different than most. Unlike most of its neighbors, Dubai is not oil rich. In fact, it does not have an industry beyond investment and tourism. All that fuels Dubai growth is dreams. And that attracts dreamers.

Dubai’s population is 80% expatriate coming from over 100 different countries. Construction workers, nannies, tour guides, aestheticians, doctors, bankers and CEOs have all come to Dubai to chase their dream of a different and – hopefully – better life. The dreamers and their ambition create an energy and culture of extreme accomplishment. Almost everything is described as “biggest, tallest, longest, highest, most.” This coupled with Arabian abundant hospitality creates a very warm and welcoming environment for visitors. While exploring and experiencing Dubai, it is easy to get seduced by the grandeur and desire to chase your own dreams.