No Culture in Dubai? Why UNESCO Might Think Otherwise

Dubai has a reputation for being a fake city. A city known for the tallest building, the fastest cars, endless construction, oil riches, and fast living. A concrete jungle devoid of culture and flush with cash. Expats are quick to tell you nothing is authentic here, that the real world exists outside the country.

Could these ideas be misplaced? The UAE is in it’s infancy as a nation, but the area is not. In fact, the Arabian peninsula is home to a number of relics of the ancient world.

Which is why The National Council of Tourism and Antiquities has been busy compiling an inventory list of heritage sites for UNESCO. Included on the list is Ed-Dur, a large archeological site in the Emirate of Umm Al Quwain that predates the arrival of Islam.

Also listed is my childhood haunt and personal favourite, Khor Dubai, or Dubai Creek, and the commercial markets in it’s immediate vicinity. Dubai Creek is a natural seawater inlet of the Arabian Gulf in the heart of old Dubai. It has played a major role in the economic development of the region throughout history, and is a flourishing port of trade where the city of Dubai emerged.

Old wooden dhows, or ships, docking at Dubai Creek
Old wooden dhows, or ships, dock at Dubai Creek to offload goods
Trips to the Creek are incomplete without a jaunt through Dubai’s “City of Gold,” a historic gold market located right along the waterway. My first visit to the Gold Souk was at the age of four. While my brother and I happily ate ice cream, my grandmother, an expert haggler, carefully inspected chains of braided gold pulled from spotless glass cases. While certainly not as old as Ed-Dur, the souk has been around since the 1930’s. Many of it’s merchants have been selling gold for generations.

Emiratis make up a measly 6% of Dubai’s population. Despite tumultuous change, they celebrate deep ties to this part of the world and have a vibrant, fluid culture influenced by traders from Iran, India, and Pakistan, who still dock at the Creek. You must be willing to make the effort, once in a while, to leave the malls and look for it.

What The Inside of a Dubai Restaurant Can Tell You About Globalization 

In the last five years, my husband and I have created and operated two restaurants in Dubai. The first was a small pizzeria that focused on take-out and deliveries. The second was an Italian restaurant inside The Dubai Mall, one of the largest shopping malls in the world.

(It sounds strange to open a restaurant inside a mall, but malls in the U.A.E. are unlike malls in North America. Because of extreme temperatures, indoor spaces like malls are designed to be your one-stop-shop to beat the heat. The Dubai Mall has a hospital, a cinema, an ice rink, 1400 retail outlets, an underwater zoo, a gold market, a shoe district, two hotels, a waterfall fountain and more than 200 restaurants. It is also a major tourist destination. A year ago it received more visitors than the Great Wall of China.)

Our Dubai Mall location was large and upscale. It employed 50 people from all over the world: Nepal, Australia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Egypt, India, Philippines, South Africa, Kenya, Cameroon, Russia, Morocco and the United States. There were Christians, Muslims and Hindus, and within these faith traditions, adherents of different sects. Everyone had left family members behind in their home country.

What makes people leave their children to live in a foreign country for months, sometimes years on end? For members of my team the reasons were clear: to seek better employment opportunities so they could support their families and provide a better future for their children. It’s one thing to read about globalisation. To see it up front makes the cliched explanations crystal clear. For lower level and blue collar workers especially, the burden of supporting a family usually fell on one person. The reality is salaries at home are too low, and job opportunities too few.

Dubai is a big draw because it is safe, politically stable, and has a growing economy. It employs large numbers of expatriates, or foreign workers, in the core areas of it’s economy: aviation, tourism and hospitality, logistics, transportation, and marketing. Due in part to the relatively small size of its local population, Dubai must import workers to fill the jobs it needs to power its growth. Dubai’s expats make up a massive 94% of the population. This is abnormally high. According to Expat Focus, the U.A.E. ranks amongst the top 5 countries in the world with the highest percentage of expat workers. In comparison, the island nation of Singapore – another hugely popular expat destination for work and play- has a population of 5.5 million, of which 40% are foreigners.

Without expats, Dubai would not be able to achieve what it has in such a short period of time. Now, the UAE government has approved a new visa system designed to attract “geniuses,” or individuals with exceptional ability, across sectors. Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai, tweeted, “The UAE is a country of vast opportunity; we aim to provide a tolerant environment that can nurture potential and support outstanding talent.”

Given the recent flurry of initiatives in the realm of science and technology, measures like this highlight the UAE’s current focus on innovation. More importantly, they underscore a commitment to an exchange of ideas and dissemination of knowledge that are foundations of Dubai’s long-term vision and strategy.

This blog post was updated on March 15, 2017