Thoughts on the United Arab Emirates (Dubai)

Posted by Arlo on Jan 20, 2012 under Postcard Valet, Thoughts On..., Travel

At the end of September, we went through a huge fiasco with Orbitz that completely changed our travel plans.  Months before, we had purchased tickets to fly from Moscow to Bangkok by way of Sri Lanka.  The day before our flight, we learned that it had been rescheduled and we’d already missed it.  Fortunately, we managed to iron everything out with Orbitz, but not before we had to purchase a second set of airline tickets at the last minute.  Our new flight plan included a 17-hour layover in Dubai.

I never expected to travel to the United Arab Emirates and the only thing I knew about Dubai was that it was the most “Westernized” of the cities in the Middle East.  We had zero time to research, but I was still excited.  If nothing else, I’d get to see the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa (formally the Burj Dubai!)

The Weekend

Friday is Sunday in Dubai.  Or something like that.  I’ve since read that Thursday and Friday used to be the Arab world’s weekend, but in Dubai that’s officially shifted over to Friday and Saturday.  All I know for sure is that getting around on a Friday morning is problematic.

We arrived at the Dubai International Airport, around 5:30am, on a redeye flight from Moscow.  Even after we’d taken the time to figure out the immigration process (no visa needed for U.S. citizens – at least not for those that just want to spend a day wandering the city!) and passed our bags through customs, it was still too early to go anywhere.  We used the time to caffeine up at a café, repacked our day bags and left our bigger packs with the Left Luggage desk, and then set about figuring out how we could get into the city.

We found an information desk and asked.  The easiest way, they said, was to take the Dubai Metro… but it was closed until 1pm today on account of it being Friday.  Okay, then.  What’s the next cheapest option?  The bus… but they don’t accept cash and you can’t buy a pass because, well, it’s Friday.  The only thing left was an expensive taxi.  We eventually paid a woman wearing a silk burka and pink leather racing gloves to take us to the Emirates Mall in her taxi… but only after killing several more hours in the airport – the mall didn’t open until 10am on  Friday!


We had only ever visited two other Arabic countries in our travels – Egypt and Jordan – so, we didn’t quite know what to expect when we arrived in Dubai.  It wasn’t too much trouble communicating in those other countries, but that was only because we were always on the tourist path and tourism attracts English-speakers.  Still, there were often times when we tried to ask someone for directions or how much an item cost and we were completely unable to converse with them.

Dubai surprised us in that practically everyone we came across spoke English.  Not only that, but their English was good.  Taxi drivers, store clerks, waitresses – everyone we talked to spoke our language.  I was especially impressed with the supermarket cashiers (a position that typically doesn’t employ bilingual staff!)  They would glace up at the next patron and take their best guess on which language to open with.  If you replied in a different language, they would seamlessly shift.  We got a “Hello, did you find everything okay, today?”

English speakers in Dubai still had an accent, but it was slight.  They must begin learning English at a young age.  I’d be curious to learn more about their early schooling (public or private?) at least with respect to languages.

It’s no wonder Dubai is the most well-known Arabic city in the Western world.  By speaking and conducting their business in English, they’ve made traveling there much more accessible for us.

Wealth & Shopping

The wealth on display in Dubai is staggering.  The Burj Khalifa dominates the skyline, but there are half a dozen other famous buildings and landmarks that were designed and built as a testament to just having enough money to do so.  That same concept applies to shopping.

Good God (I mean Allah!), you have no idea.

Shopping malls are a staple now in the United States.  Every community has one and they’re known for putting mom and pop shops out of business.  Seeing the old market mentality struggle to fit into the new strip-mall architecture in Russia, I realized that most countries’ malls aspire to U.S. standards.

American malls should aspire to Dubai’s.

We started out at the Mall of the Emirates, where we wandered through the electronics stores and shot our McDonald’s video in the food court.  After walking from one end to the other to see what movies might be playing at the cinema (which we skipped, though I wish I could have justified the $40 ticket prices to try out the VOX Gold cinema!), we decided to go skiing.  On snow.  In the mall.  While it was 100 degrees outside.

The mall was immense, easily the biggest I’d ever set foot in.  At least until later that afternoon.  At 12 million square feet, the Dubai Mall, which we visited next, is the world’s largest.

We walked through The Dubai Mall on our way to the base of the Burj Khalifa.  If not for the distinctly airport-like direction signs located at every corner, we never would have found our way through.  Having informational displays with the maps at the entrance is not enough.  By the time you’ve walked a half-kilometer toward your destination, you’ve been distracted enough by the dazzle of shops (and, say, a full-size, world-class aquarium!) to forget where you were going.

Oksana and I didn’t do too much shopping while we were there, though I did pick up a reasonably-priced USB3 cable for one of my hard drives.  I enjoyed wandering through the electronics stores there.  Dubai not only has good prices – UAE was the first country we visited where things like laptops, hard drives, and iPads have prices comparable to those in the U.S. – but they also had every newfangled gadget you can imagine.  800mm lenses for you Canon or Nikon DSLR?  Unboxed and put on view.  Dyson bladeless fans?  On display and rotating.  The thinnest of thin flatscreen TVs?  In 3D demo mode, perfectly positioned in front of a comfy couch.

The malls weren’t necessarily where the greatest excesses were to be found, either.  There are “hypermarkets” in Dubai.  We had time to visit one.  Imagine a Costco, Home Depot, Best Buy and an immense grocery store under one roof.  I’m not even kidding; that’s exactly what they’re like.

At the base of the Burj Khalifa, there’s an ATM that dispenses gold.  That’s right, gold!  Put in your PIN, empty your savings account, and walk away with your choice of gold coins or actual nuggets.  99.9% pure, 10-day, money-back guarantee, try not to spend it all in one place!

You know how some people are thrilled to pass through the duty free shops in the airport so they can load up on fancy alcohol or expensive chocolate?  In the Dubai International Airport, they advertise duty-free cars! I have no idea how that works. They most certainly are not going to meet you at the gate with your purchase…


Dubai might well be the most Westernized city in the Arabic world, but it’s still very conservative by our standards.  The most obvious sign is the number of women walking around in burkas, but if you look, you’ll see other indications.  On the brochure for the mall, there was a section on appropriate behavior.  No kissing.  No public displays of affection.  No clothes that reveal either knees or shoulders.  To be fair, the women wearing skimpy attire – tourists, mostly – did not seem to be judged on their attire.

Speaking of gender, there’s obviously a huge divide between men and women in the United Arab Emirates that’s far too complex for me to grasp after just one day’s visit.  I did see two hints of the inequality with my own eyes, however.  First, the light rail that serves as the Dubai Metro had one full car completely reserved for women and children (we only noticed the small sticker on the door after Oksana and I were prevented from stepping into it by a kind security guard.)

Second, there’s something going on with the “family taxis,” which I didn’t quite understand.  When we were trying to leave the airport Friday morning, we were told we had to take a family taxi at a slightly higher cost.  I wasn’t clear if this was because it was the only taxi available at the time or if it was because Oksana and I were a couple.  At any rate, a little cursory research seems to indicate that there’s now a whole fleet of female-taxi drivers that are a big hit with women (and children) who need to travel without a male escort.

It’s depressing to think that the women of the UAE feel they need a service like that, but on the other hand, it’s good to see Dubai making some inroads into equaling the sexes.

The Burj Khalifa

We didn’t get a chance to ascend to the observation deck of the world’s largest building, and I now regret wasting so much time in the malls.  When we realized the Burj Khalifa’s line was too long, we decided to walk around its base instead.  It’s difficult to put into words how beautiful, daring, and amazing that building is.  It’s hard to wrap your head around the scale even when you’re standing at the base, at least until you look around and see all the other “tiny” skyscrapers clustered around it.

Seeing the Burj Khalifa up close was the highlight of my day in Dubai.