The Other Side Of Dubai

I think Dubai has pulled off one of the best marketing and branding jobs in the world! What most of us from around the world have is an image of a glamourous gleaming modern metropolis with beautiful shiny tall buildings, deluxe resorts and hotels, luxury brands, fast cars, a beautiful blue water front and endless picturesque desert dunes. Their marketing is done so well that when you do an image search with the words “Dubai”, or “local places to visit in Dubai” on Google, all you only seem to find are the same stunning images of what I just mentioned. I was curious, is all of Dubai one big spanking new modern metropolis like we see on TV, online and advertisements, or are there local less developed, more regular areas like any other major city. I was eager to find out.

My stay in Dubai was only a short few days, in addition to seeing the famous tall buildings, resorts and shopping malls filled with the same name brands the world over, I decided to try to explore the local areas and see what I could find. You may think that walking randomly around a Middle Eastern country may not be safe, but my friend who lives in Dubai assured me that due to its’ strict laws and serious punishments, “Dubai is very safe”… I was hoping he was correct.

While modern Dubai is a world class spectacle. The local areas of Dubai is well worth seeing also. I hope to share with you my photos of the local places and people that I saw. I was able to see more during my short stay because in addition to exploring on my own, I had a local friend to take me around. It is not hard to explore local Dubai, it is relatively safe (like Sydney or Hong Kong), if you check with your hotel or guide about the areas you plan to visit, I’m pretty sure you will be fine and you will have a good time.

The first local area I visited was the area around the Ruler’s Court, the Dubai government offices next to the Dubai Museum and Dubai Creek. I went there because my friend had a meeting there and he dropped me off in the area. The first place I visited was Heritage House, it is a converted old residence of a wealthy pearl merchant that is for tourists. It was nice, but it is more for tourists and a little artificial. After Heritage House, I headed into the streets to see the local areas and people that I truly enjoy. While most tourists will probably zoom by these streets in a bus or car without ever stopping, these local places are what I find most interesting and worth visiting when you are in a new country. To experience an area, I think it is best to walk around on foot and really get a feel of everything. Like other cities, Dubai has a ton of diverse local small businesses and restaurants. It is fascinating because it is completely different from Sydney and Hong Kong. One interesting thing I noticed is that there are many barber shops for men, but I did not see any for women. This is the type of local quirk that makes a place interesting. I wonder how women get their hair done in Dubai?

One thing totally unexpected for me was the friendliness of the local people of Dubai, and their willingness to let me take their photo, or photos of their business. This is unlike most modern cities I’ve been. Seeing the local Dubai people, the way they dress, go about their business and hang out was super fun. An unexpected feature of Dubai is the amazing colours and designs inside many of its’ local shops. It is quite a contrast to what you can see on the street.

One memorable experience I had was being invited to have tea with three old men on a boat on the banks of the Dubai Creek. Dubai Creek is a busy waterway where many ferries and merchant vessels take people and goods along the river. I was walking along the Creek watching the ships go by, when I came across a boat with three old men hanging out. I asked if I could take their photo, they nodded their heads (like most people in Dubai) and invited me for some tea with them! They spoke no English, but being invited onto the ship, sharing a cup of tea and their big smiles was one of my best travel moments. This really reminds me how simple things like being nice and sharing is one of the easiest ways to bring people together, people totally different like me and the three old men, and one of the most important things in life.

One day, my friend said he would take me to see camels, I thought we were going to the zoo or a tourist camel market… but he said wild ones! I didn’t believe that there would be wild camels still roaming around a place like Dubai, but what do you know! Only a short 15-20 minute drive out of the city, you enter the desert or more deserty areas, a stark reminder that Dubai is really very man made and heavily relies on technology to exist, and there are camels all over the place. So here we have the cliché camels in the desert photos! The camels were not timid, so you could get close. As an animal lover, I totally enjoyed hanging out with them !

One real eye opening experience is when my friend took me to a small goods port on the Dubai Creek. My friend thought it was important to show me this port to see how a portion of goods are traded in the Middle East, and the hard labour of the foreign migrant workers. There were many types of goods on the dock, from air-conditioners, to TVs, to tires, food, etc. The goods were being loaded and unloaded from small wooden goods vessels. The goods come from all over the world and are shipped to different areas in Dubai and other Middle Eastern countries. It is rumored that some of these small Dubai ports are where goods can be brought into countries like Iran where there is an embargo.

Most of the work at the dock was done by migrant labourers from places like Pakistan and India. The temperature while I was there was close to 40 C, and the sun was full on. The laborers continued their work of loading and unloading ships in their traditional Shalwar Kameez clothing and open toe sandals. Their skin was very dark, probably from the harsh sun, and all had a thick layer of sweat on their faces. There were limited places where they could sit down and rest, definitely no air-conditioning or cold drinks anywhere. I am glad I went to see this because underneath the glam of Dubai, and all major cities in the world, there is a large number of people who toil in extreme hardships to make things work for us. It was very important for me to see this and remind myself how lucky some of us are.

With the Dubai Metro, its’ great subway/train system, to visit different parts of Dubai is super easy. All you need to do is buy a “NOL Card”, it’s just like the Octopus Card in Hong Kong, or the Opal Card in Sydney, and it allows you to use the train and other Dubai RTA (“Roads and Transport Authority”) transport systems, like buses. I simply took the Dubai Metro and got off at different stations and began exploring.

Apart from the local areas, I also visited the Dubai Marina. It is a newly developed ocean/beach front area. It is chock full of tall buildings, even for Hong Kong standards the number was staggering. The beach was nice and I swam in the beautiful blue ocean. Being in the middle of summer, the air temperature was around 40 C, I thought jumping into the sea would be a refreshing experience, but boy was I wrong! Turns out the sea temperature in Dubai also gets quite high in the summer, and it was not refreshing but uncomfortably warm, like a lukewarm bath. Even though Hong Kong is a hot place, I have never quite experienced water so warm before.

I also saw the Dubai Mall and Burj Kalifa like everyone else. I did want to go up to the top of the Burj khalifa but for me the cost of around AED$ 500 (over HK$ 1000 or AUD$ 180) was too high. The inside of the Dubai Mall is huge and very nice, especially its’ great big aquarium wall, but the shops are just the same as any high class mall around the world. Its’ definitely worth a visit, but head out to the local areas, and you will see much much more .

Even though my stay was short, it was a great eye opener for me to see the parts of Dubai behind the glitz and glamour. As I always say, no matter where you go, you will find something unexpected, you will have unique experiences, you will learn new things and gain new insights… all you need to do is to open your eyes and explore!

(Text and Photos by Casey of URPhoto.)

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