Dubai. It’s a city that conjures up images of Vegas-like glitz (minus the gambling and drinking). Before visiting last month, my friends painted a picture of a city hot, filled with malls and expensive stores, restaurants, lots of expats, and a bit soulless. “It’s artificial and fake like vegas and doesn’t demand more than a day or two,” they told me.

But when people tell me to zig, I always love to zag, so I decided to spend five days there, determined to find something redeeming about the city. (I picked an excellent time to visit too: an English friend had just moved to the city, so I had a place to stay and a tour guide!)

Since the work week in the Arab world runs from Sunday to Thursday, I decided to split my trip into two: the first three days would be with my friend seeing the new, international Dubai, followed by two days exploring old Dubai while she worked.

Given that Dubai is a Middle Eastern city with strict laws about vice, I didn’t imagine there’d be too much “craziness” there. My trip would be mellow, spent by the pool and in low key hotel bars and international restaurants.

I was very wrong!

“New” Dubai shocked me by how lubricated with alcohol it was. From the ritual of Friday brunch (more on that later) to the fall-down drunks in bars, the 2-for-1 specials, and endless happy hours, I was surprised at how much partying there was in a city that only allowed alcohol in very limited forms.1 Everywhere you went, drinking — and drinking to excess — was common.2

In a way, Dubai reminded me of most expat-heavy places in the world. It seems whenever cities attract a lot of foreigners from various nations around the world, they in large part tend to live in a little alcohol-fueled bubble — going to a small selection of restaurants, bars, and neighborhoods, often with scant interaction with locals. They live a pseudo-Western lifestyle. I saw it Bangkok, Taipei, and Hong Kong.

I was seeing it now in Dubai too.

I think this has a lot to do with the fact that you’re in a culture you will always have outsider status in, that most of your new friends are met via work and will probably leave in a few years, and because there’s a sense that it is all temporary and fake. It’s not real life. It’s this little world we live in right now — a bubble — so why not have fun?

Take brunch, for example. In most of the world, it’s a late breakfast with some mimosas or Bloody Marys. Sure, it’s a chance to cut a bit loose on the weekend, but it’s a controlled event. In Dubai, it’s an all-day, all-you-can-eat-and-drink bender. More than that, it is a ritual. A tradition. “Have you experienced brunch?” people would ask. “You can’t come to Dubai and not brunch. It’s part of the city’s culture!” (By that I think they meant expat culture!)

It’s not cheap (250-700 AED, or $68-190 USD), so they make the most out of it. I’ve rarely seen people drink so much in so few hours. By the time we arrived at the bars later in the evening, I saw grown adults barely keeping themselves from falling down in a way that would make even the most ardent spring breakers cringe.

“New” Dubai was like an alternative reality that existed inside the hotels and bars. The local conservative culture didn’t apply there. Seemingly no rules did.

So, when Sunday rolled around and my friend went off to work, I was excited to explore “old” Dubai, set on the Dubai river, and get a peek at local life. In this part of town, there weren’t any skyscrapers, expats, or Western stores — just mosques, markets, small restaurants, and shops. The glitz and hotel bars and malls seemed a world away. I could take a dhow across the river, eat cheap food, mix with the locals, and get a sense of the day-to-day pace of the city.

Exploring the Dubai Museum, the gold markets, and the Jumeirah Mosque; haggling at local stalls; and marveling at the somewhat monolithically brown architecture, I felt more like I was in the Middle East. After three days, it was the first time I felt like I was some place foreign.

Yet, while I enjoyed seeing “old” Dubai, the city as a whole didn’t really thrill me.

But I’m not ready to write off Dubai yet. There’s still more of Dubai to see and explore. I didn’t make it into the desert, missed a number of attractions, and the oppressive August heat made it hard to wander the city’s streets and alleys.

Dubai is still a mystery to me. I can’t wrap my head around it and am determined to return, turn over more stones, and get under this city’s skin.

But one thing is for certain – this city is more than a stopover destination!

 

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