Life in the economic center of the Arab world, Dubai, is not nearly as batshit insane as the media generally likes to portray. You may have seen articles that lead you to believe that there are camels in parking lots and thousands of Ferraris racing down the highways all the time. I’m here to tell you that Dubai is pretty much just like every other modern city in the world. There are a few exceptions, of course. However, for the most part, people in Dubai lead normal lives.
First, let’s talk a bit about Dubai. Dubai is a city in the United Arab Emirates, situated southeast of the Persian Gulf. The city started as a small trading port. A common misconception is that most of the money in Dubai comes from Oil. However, that isn’t the case; most of it comes from construction, trade, import/export, and finance. It wasn’t until the past few decades, through strategic positioning as an economic hub, that Dubai saw tremendous growth. Now, Dubai is the main business hub in the Middle East and its International Airport is the world’s busiest airport. It also has the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, which absolutely TOWERS over everything else in the city. You can see it from literally anywhere in Dubai.
Because of the enormous growth of Dubai, about 90% of the population in Dubai is composed of expatriates, most of whom have come in search of a better life. Indeed, many who I talked to have said that the life in Dubai is better than their home country. It’s clean, safe, and there are many things to do. In fact, it’s probably the most multicultural city I’ve ever been to.
Even though there are numerous tall buildings in Dubai, it is not anywhere near as dense as cities like Hong Kong or even many European cities. This means that cars are the de facto way to get around. There are two metro lines, and although they run often, there’s often a large amount of walking necessary because the scale of the city is so large. You might have to walk 10-15 minutes to even exit some of the metro stations. Most people in Dubai live in single family homes (or villas, as they’re called there), and much of the city is actually a gigantic suburban sprawl. There are really two parts of town where you’ll see groups of tall buildings.
The first part is the city center where the Burj Khalifa is, and then there’s a gigantic gap filled by villas, random businesses, and warehouses, and then the second part where the Marina and Jumeirah Beach Residences are, where you’ll find a ton of high-rise condos and hotels. In the photo below, you’ll see that the density of high rises is not even very high.
Some parts of the city are also incredibly safe. The Jumeirah Beach Residence area is so free of crime that people routinely leave their purses and wallets out in plain view on the beach for hours at a time while they swim, eat at a restaurant, or run errands, and nothing gets stolen. It’s absolutely amazing.
Although the big malls tend to close around 10pm on weekdays, some places are open later, and there is also a ton of street activity (small shops, restaurants, food stands, people walking around) in some parts of town open until midnight or later on weekdays.
Dubai is a very family oriented city, and you’ll see a ton of their families with their children everywhere you go. You may have heard of Ski Dubai, the gigantic indoor ski slope that they’ve built inside the Mall of the Emirates. It sounds crazy at first, because you may be thinking to yourself, “why would anyone build a fake ski slope in the middle of the desert?” But really, when you think about it, it’s so that the children and families of the city can experience snow when they want to without having to fly four hours to another country and take a bus into the mountains. The people of Dubai want the best for themselves and their children, and so they’ve invested heavily into providing the best that they can create. Here’s a shot through the window of Ski Dubai. It actually goes up way higher, but I didn’t go inside.
It’s best to avoid Dubai during the summer if you are going to visit. The city gets so hot that people rarely go outside. If you go any other time, you should be able to enjoy the fantastic beach and swim in the calm, refreshing water of the Persian Gulf. One of the places that I really enjoyed was the beach at The Walk near the Jumeirah Beach Residences. There were plenty of play areas for kids (and adults young at heart), as well as fantastic restaurants overlooking the water. There’s even a GIGANTIC screen for watching sports while you swim in the water.
Additionally, there are some other laws in the city that will make most Westerners cringe. For example, you are not allowed to drink alcohol in your house unless you have a liquor license, which is not easy to get. All of the bars and clubs in Dubai are inside the many hotels that dot the city. Since it’s frowned upon to for women to wear clubbing attire outdoors, people generally go to clubs directly from their homes via taxi.
Overall, Dubai is a paradise for some, while a terribly boring place for others. It really depends what you you’re looking for. By the way, there is no income tax in Dubai.