I used to live on a small grayish compound on the southernmost end of Dubai, right on the border between the last residential area in the city and the gigantic, uninhabited construction site that stretched for miles southward. Technically, the compound was in the district of Jumeirah, home to some of Dubai’s most iconic structures, such as the Burj al Arab hotel and one of the three Palm Islands. But surrounded as it was by reinforced concrete skeletons on three sides, and by the rather drab Hard Rock Café Dubai on the other, it didn’t seem quite like a tourist’s nirvana. And in a city that banks its reputation on glamour and luxury, the last thing you expect to think is, “that’s it?”.
Dubai unabashedly markets itself as a consumerist fantasy, designed around either disgorging one’s bank account on luxury hotels, jewelry, and high fashion, or gawking at the one-of-a-kinds—tallest, largest, best, only—scattered throughout the coastline and cityscape. Whereas its neighbors are known for rockets, IEDs, and weapons-grade fissile material (imaginary or not), Dubai is a shining beacon of sanitized, all-embracing capitalism, a metaphorical island of recognizable chains and brands and even American Top 40 with Ryan Seacrest every weekend.
However generic it might be, it’s certainly non-threatening—no small accomplishment for a Middle Eastern city. But the city’s commercial sector seems to go out of its way to project a white, Western image. Its billboards and department store advertisements feature models whose complexions never get beyond a Mediterranean olive color, and there are more German and Irish restaurants than Thai or Mexican ones. Really, all it took to overcome Westerners’ propensity for mild to moderate xenophobia was to replicate the shopping experience of Rodeo Drive in another sub-tropical, arid zone, halfway across the world.
In its rush to reintroduce itself on the world stage, Dubai quietly swept its cultural heritage off to the side. The emirate’s Culture and Arts Authority maintains its history with two sadly underpatronized institutions in Bur Dubai, its old city center and historic district: a fort-turned-city museum, which dedicates a few exhibits to Dubai’s early history of stick dancing, pearl diving, and British Imperialism, and the Sheikh Saeed al Maktoum House, a showcase for traditional Emirati architecture.
The city, meanwhile, outgrew its core a long time ago. Driven by a taste for bigger, better, and newer things, it’s shrinking both metaphorically and geographically away from Bur Dubai and its own past, and instead stretching inexorably southward, planting its 21st-century roots along Sheikh Zayed Road, toward a glittering future of glass, steel, and expense accounts.
While the city relies on the reputation of its southerly districts, Bur Dubai and Deira are left to the immigrants who make up the vast majority of its population—the people without their own houses, SUVs, and domestic staff. Just over 70% of Dubai’s inhabitants are immigrants from South and Southeast Asia, and they keep alive that part of the city largely ignored by the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing.
Downtown, the open-air markets are hot, noisy, and crowded, prices are negotiable, and the only brand names you’ll find are actually cheap knock-offs. Ethnic and class distinctions, so palpable in the rest of the city, fade into the background; Lebanese and Persian restaurants exist side by side, and the best shawarma stand in the city (in my opinion) is actually in the heart of the Russian area. By no means is the city center an exemplar of multicultural harmony, but at least it’s not surrounded by the sort of conspicuous opulence designed purely to make you feel poor and envious. It’s not so thoroughly and self-consciously Westernized that it seems to have rejected its history and regional culture altogether. It’s one of the few places in the city where, five times a day, you are guaranteed to hear the call to prayer.
According to a few journalists with a gift for hyperbole, Dubai is the city of the future. After all, it embodies the sorts of things that a properly globalized commercial paradise ought to be: clean, expensive, and scrubbed of all traces of uniqueness, save for the lavishness of its tourist facilities. But it also implies that history and culture need only be paid lip service, that the immigrants who underpin entire industries can be more or less ignored, and that the only thing worth promoting is consumerism. If we idolize a city that has literally been built from the ground up since the 1990s, does that mean we agree with everything it stands for?