A friend in Kazakhstan once told me: “Don’t go to Dubai unless you have money to spend.”
This turned out to be sound advice, but I went anyway on a two-day stopover between Istanbul and Delhi.
There’s nothing I can say about modern Dubai that isn’t already common knowledge. Depending on your taste, the downtown area is either a gleaming display of architectural prowess or an obscene and vaguely desperate demonstration of excess. Either way, the whole thing erupted out of the bare desert in less than 25 years on a wave of oil revenue, leaving few traces of the old trading town behind. It is a destination for those seeking a hot sun, a warm sea, and unbelievable luxury; As a visitor, you’re unlikely to get a true window into Emirati life just by walking around the city.
In late May, it was 104°F/40°C outside and Dubai was a ghost town. Everyone with the option of spending their day inside an air conditioned building did so, leaving me and my traveling companions nearly alone to wander the beach and the empty streets downtown. During the hottest part of the day, I could almost stand to be outside for about an hour at a time. A group of landscape workers caught me staring at them as I wondered what ten hours of daily physical activity must be like in this climate.
A sticking point for me in getting to know a place like Dubai is its reputation for abusive practices towards foreign labor. While that criticism alone could be leveled at almost every developed country on earth, Dubai is unfortunately unique for reports of construction companies literally trapping people in the country for years at a time with no other option than to work long days in intense heat for low wages until they can afford to escape.
As a tourist, maybe you’re entitled to ignore this sort of thing. But I think it’s better to confront it; To view Dubai not as some miracle oasis that grew out of the Arabian Desert when the time was right, but a city built with as much human sweat as tons of steel, and no small amount of blood.
It’s ok to know this, and to still find the Burj Khalifa pretty amazing.