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June 15, 2011 / Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project

Behind the Glitz and Glamour

Dubai was glitzy, that was my first impression. Tall buildings with pretty lobbies and huge malls with expensive stores abound everywhere you turn your head. But there is more to the city than the glamour: the rich history and culture of the United Arab Emirates. This is the facet of Dubai that I wish I got to understand and see more of. The population of this principal Emirate is 90% expatriate, and we did not get to meet many natives. Most of the people we ran into were foreigners who had come to the UAE to work in ithe thriving business hub. It makes Dubai an extremely diverse, colorful Emirate, with foreign languages and foods everywhere on the streets. Unlike Saudi Arabia or Libya, Dubai seems to have better used its oil money to bolster the economy and invest for the impending day when their oil will run out. It is hard to say whether oil money is helpful or hurtful for a nation. Sometimes, as Professor David reminded us, having large quantities of money practically thrown at you can lead to materialism and laziness. Dubai seems to have done better for itself than many of its rich neighbors, however, and Professor David gave the Emirate credit for trying to re-invent itself as a sustainable, booming economy.

One native who we did have the fortune of meeting was Nasif, our guide at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. Upon arriving at the museum, we walked through an old village and had a glimpse of what the UAE was like before oil was discovered. The walking tour was interesting and informative, but it was the second part that really stuck with me. Nasif, a middle-aged man with a kindly face and a great sense of humor, led us into an old mosque (the first one I had ever visited!) and began explaining a bit about Islam. Hearing how, why, and when Muslims pray from such an accessible source, in a mosque nonetheless, was quite special to me. Then we had a question and answer session where Nasif told us that he believed women should wear abayas because we are superstars and should be protected. The cultural center was a great, friendly experience overall, and I hope Nasif comes to lecture someday at Johns Hopkins.

So we saw the old, but of course in Dubai you also have to see the new. The Emirate loves its superlatives and boasts the tallest building as well as the largest mall in the world. Towering over the skyline like a steel icicle, the Burj Khalifa was as jaw-dropping as we thought it would be. Our ears hurt on the elevator ride up the 124 floors, but seeing Dubai from so high up was worth it. There was also a “Gold ATM” which gave you a piece of gold if you fed the machine enough money. After the Burj we walked around the mall for a bit. It was interesting seeing the variety of people who passed us. Some woman were fully covered, while others were wearing less clothing than a normal Westerner would. The mall offered its guests an ice rink, a full-sized movie theatre, a video arcade and a theme park. It made the Mall of America look like a Walgreens. After the mall we went outside to watch Dubai’s famous water show. The water jets shot up and around to the beat of a blood-pumping theme song that made my ears hurt again. Bayly and Rafee started talking to a Syrian man and his son that were watching the show next to us, while, as usually happens, Aya and I turned to the man’s wife and struck up on our own. They were ex-pats, and came to the mall every weekend to walk around with their adorable daughter Leia who blew us kisses.

While Dubai’s tourist attractions were awesome, the next day was great in a more professional regard. We visited Dubai Media City, learned about its operations, and were even encouraged to apply for internships. The huge conglomerate encourages foreign business investment in the Emirates by offering tax incentives and consulting services to their clients. We also saw a CNBC studio, and a radio station which broadcasted an impressive number of shows in different languages.

After Media City we had what was the probably the coolest dinner of my entire life. Lara Setrakian (an expert on Iran and an ABC/Bloomberg reporter in the Middle East), her producer (who covered the State Department beat in D.C. as well), and a leader of the newly formed Libyan Transitional National Council (which is working to transition Libya to a better state after Qaddafi leaves, hopefully), all graciously spent their night with us at a delicious restaurant. The food was great but the conversation was better: they were such inspiring, interesting people. Lara talked about journalism, encouraging us all to explore the field, and discussed what it was like being a reporter in the region during the “Arab Spring.” I was honored that they gave us their time and were so humble and open with us.

We said our goodbyes, exchanged business cards and then headed back to the hotel. Eric, Briana and I decided to walk back along the edge of the creek. It was fun to see all the stacks of random goods set to be loaded onto the dilapidated cargo boats tethered to the docks. Sweaty and tired in the heavy air, every man we saw by the creek was lounging on his boat or on the grass in front of it. Dubai is an interesting city. It is wealthy and prosperous, but one wonders just how fortunate the dock-workers and ex-pats who come looking for work are.

-Hannah Elson


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