I Really Wanted to Love Dubai and Didn’t

dubai_marketDubai sells itself as a beautiful, somewhat exotic and luxurious destination. Something like the Las Vegas of the UAE, but with less alcohol and more Bentleys. I thought Dubai would be a perfect city escape to marvel at modern architecture, dine well, and finally see all those Dubai superlatives like the tallest building in the world, the largest man-made island, and the largest shopping mall in person. After 4 full days, my Dubai daydreams were dashed and I found myself hating a city I thought I would fall in love with.




An Inaccessible Culture

It thrilled me to be going to a new part of the world that I’d never been to before. I had the same expectations for immersing myself in Dubai as I have for anywhere I travel: eat the local specialties and have conversations with people from there. Dubai is pretty stand-offish in this sense. I didn’t have any interactions with Emiratis, aside from the men who stamped my passport on the way in and out of the country. With over 200 nationalities represented in Dubai, the locals are the minority. You’ll be hard-pressed to find an Emirati driving your taxi, checking you in at your hotel, or serving you in a restaurant. 

And for local food? You can find a shawarma in Deira or higher-end Middle Eastern food scattered throughout the city, but, in general, it gets lost in the shuffle of Shake Shack burgers, Indian curries, and French-style cafés.

Dubai is a city caught in an identity crisis. Struggling somewhere between its desire to be a playground for the rich and its adherence to traditional Islamic roots, rests a city that lacks sufficient infrastructure to support its delusions of grandeur. Visit if you must, but leave quickly before you are sucked into its calamitous void. – via Escape Artist 

My observations are all too familiar amongst tourists. So much, that the Sheikh Mohammed Cultural Center for Understanding has addressed them here


gold-market-dubai emirates-tea

An Urban Planning Nightmare

I was not expecting Dubai to be SO spread out. Forget walking where you need to go, or even taking the Metro, and rent a car or use taxis. I planned on getting around via the Metro as I had read that it’s new, clean and easy-to-use. What you aren’t told, is that the Metro just cuts through the middle of the city parallel to Sheik Zayed Road, Dubai’s main artery. More often than not, I ended up a far walk (in the stifling heat) from where I wanted to go. After a day of getting around on the Metro, I was more than ready to rent a car; which invited its own host of problems, like the seriously aggressive drivers on the road there. YIKES. 




Human Rights Violations

I went to Dubai aware of the criticism it has received by human rights organizations for its treatment of foreign workers.  I read this haunting article of Dubai’s dark side, which I’m sure has turned many off of ever visiting, and while researching for this post came across this investigative piece by The Vision Project. And while I find Dubai’s practices reprehensible, I do believe that, like people, no place is perfect. Usually, the people making these decisions are not representative of the country or its people as a whole. Many places I’ve been to have their own share of troubling issues, my home country included. Should that stop us from visiting? I’m conflicted. It’s a very complicated question that Adventurous Kate examines in this thought-provoking blog post.

Accusations aside, I’m going to tell you what I saw. I saw construction workers in August working outside at the hottest part of the day in temperatures hovering between 40-46°C with 95% humidity. I couldn’t stand to be outside for more than 5 minutes, it was awful. As soon as you step outside, your lenses immediately fog up and you start dripping in sweat. It’s unlike any other climate I’ve been in. No human should have to work outside in those conditions. Yet, the sounds of drills and hammers are part of Dubai’s soundtrack as they add more and more to their skyline. 

I also saw these workers bused out of the city at night, assumably to the outskirts of town where they reportedly live in cramped, shared housing.  

If you go looking for dirt on Dubai, you’ll easily find it. The problem was, I wasn’t looking for it, I just stumbled upon it, there in the open for everyone to see.




Things to Do in Dubai: Spoilt For Choice?

After you’ve seen the self-proclaimed 7* hotel, explored the enormous shopping malls, and seen the indoor ski resort, Dubai’s allure wears off quickly. There are also theme parks, and more hotels to see, but once I realized I was doing and seeing a lot of the same things in Dubai that I could do back home in the United States, I wondered what the point of it all was. If you want to go skiing, spend your money on a trip to the Alps. If you want to see skyscrapers, go to NYC, and if you want beautiful beaches, go to Thailand. Don’t go looking for a lesser version of these things in Dubai.




What I Actually Liked About Dubai

The evening that I spent along Dubai Creek in the souks of Old Deira and The Heritage Village was memorable. In the Gold and Spice souks, you’ll find Dubai’s pulse, a hint of the Dubai without makeup that I had hoped to see all along. If you go to Dubai, I highly recommend that you seek out this part of the city – it’s so different from the rest and gives you a glimpse of the fishing village that Dubai was before all the oil money poured in. 



Should You Visit Dubai?

You  should make up your own mind about Dubai. Many people go to Dubai and absolutely love it. A lot of people do not. I went to Dubai because I had a layover there, and decided to extend it into a short visit. Would I go back? I’ll never say never, but it’s certainly not high on my priority list.

Have you ever been to Dubai? What did you think of the city? If you haven’t, would you ever visit?


  1. says

    What an incredible post Christine. I too read that article and would certainly be conflicted if I ever were to travel to Dubai. But wow– your pictures are incredible and definitely do its glamorous side justice! Thanks for the perspective.

  2. Joanne says

    Thanks for a great article Christine. The pictures are fantastic. I always thought.. why would anyone want to go to Dubai. You have confirmed my thoughts (for my style of travel anyway) were right on. Through your article and photos I’ve now seen it and definitely do not have a need to see if first hand.

    • says

      You’re one of many who’ve said the same thing regarding going to Dubai. It does really come down to travel style, and some people are content with staying at a resort and not getting to the heart of where they are, and that’s ok too – just VERY different from what I look to get out of travel.

  3. says

    What a shame that the city seemed disjointed to such a degree that it affected your visit. At least you were there on a layover and not traveling expressly to see Dubai. I have to echo what the other commenters have said–your photos do make the city look intriguing!

  4. says

    As soon as you said you it was like Las Vegas, I was immediately turned off just by that! I visited Las Vegas a few years ago and hated it with every fiber of my being. I’m not into casinos or the nightclub scene and visiting hotels made to look like cheap imitations of foreign destinations is not my idea of fun. We did see Cirque de Soleil’s show O which was amazing. But I hated every single moment I was on the Strip–I much preferred visiting nearby Red Rock Canyon and Death Valley which were both awesome.

    Las Vegas is a manufactured city and Dubai looks to be exactly the same. Why would I want to go skiing indoors when real snow on real mountains is much better? All glitz and glam and very little substance or soul. Your post convinced me I’m not missing out on much.
    amelie88 recently posted…How to Talk Safely about Sex in the Spanish ClassroomMy Profile

  5. says

    I spent three weeks there for work a couple years ago, and even with the people putting their best face forward (it was backed by an int’l organization that kind of rhymes with pizza, so a lot of money behind it) I remember thinking the whole time, I did NOT move halfway across the world to have a Tim Horton’s or Potbelly Sandwich Shop right at my fingertips! Where’s the adventure in that? Plus with the few expats I know of who’ve moved there (a lot of Singapore expats tend to go there next), I think I’m all set on the city and don’t really see a need to return anytime soon.
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    • says

      I was excited to go there, but when I was there, actually wanted to cut my trip short! I’d be interesting to hear what it’s like living there.

  6. says

    I agree with everything you wrote except I actually liked Dubai (does that even make sense? ) I liked the modern city and huge buildings and posh malls and I loved being able to eat at the Burj Al Arab. I stayed in a more “authentic” neighborhood so I was able too get the feel for the real Dubai as well authentic the sparkling Dubai. But the heat…my god. I have never experienced anything like it. My clothes were soaked within authentic minute of going outside and I was there in October! While I liked it, I feel I saw and did everything and probably wouldn’t go back.

  7. Ana says

    Nice article , even nicer photos and a great viewpoint you’ve put across from your experience and perspective. Just remember though that one can’t love every place in the world so it is ok if you and Dubai didn’t click.
    It clicks for a lot of people for lot of other reasons , I know the rich Indians and Pakistanis love to go there for shopping , the poorer ones love to go there for work and the westerners who work there go there to earn duty free big bucks.
    I have a stopover every time I am travelling from Adelaide my home town to Europe or Asia and have slowly started liking it . I still am not in love with it but it is a nice place that can grow on you given time and patience. Anyway that was my 2 cents worth .
    Do keep on the good work with your writing and I better read your other articles on Spain because that was the main reason I came to your blog :-)

  8. says

    Hi Christine, congrats for your report. I´m writting you from a train arriving home after spendind a week in the Emirates and… woow 100% agree with you. Its a horrible city where´s impossible to find a small piece of autenticity. Everything superficial and stupid. Money money money and not a grame of good taste. I´ve been dinning in the top 3 places un the city and… Big dissapointed. Its my second time in the Gulf and in my opinion, Qatar is the best country to visit in tne Gulf. A bit more hard, conservative and strict, but much more original, with taste and roots.
    Regards and… as you are living in the basque country now, why don´t we do a report about our gastro-traditions (my speciality… steaks)!! looking fordward hearing from you. Markos R.

    • says

      Aupa Markos! I’ve never been to Qatar, but it sounds intriguing! Thanks for stopping by, I love your site! I have a restaurant to recommend to you…Txakolí Simón in Artxanda. Amazing txuletas!

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