In May 2016, a friend and I went to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the string of seven emirates (independently ruled states that are federally united) in the Arabian Peninsula including Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the two largest. The UAE is sandwiched in the Arabian Desert between Oman and Saudi Arabia geographically and perhaps also in Islamic influence.
The other five emirates are Sharjah, Ras al-Khaimah, Ajman, Umm al-Quwain and Fujairah. Each is ruled by a different hereditary emir and royal family with unique cultures and traditions. However, the emir of Abu Dhabi is the UAE’s president and head of state, while the emir of Dubai is the nation’s prime minister. Uniting the emirates is an absolute monarchy and 300+ days of sunshine a year!
In May, the UAE is hot, hot, hot with scorching 40-45 °C (100-105 °F) days. We were like pieces of raw bacon cooking in the sun, dripping in salty sweat and browning quickly. (It’s best to visit the UAE October to February.) But we were instantly chilled every time we went indoors as buildings are intensely air-conditioned there. It was like being blanched, going from boiling water into an ice bath, multiple times a day.
No wonder the Emirati men wear white dresses and typically change them twice a day. The women, however, must roast in their sun-absorbing black abayas (robes) and hijabs (head scarves). Some elderly women also wear burkas (face covers). For swimming, Emirati women wear burkinis, hooded tunics with leggings made of swimwear material. My friend, Felicia, and I marveled at how they took the heat.
We also wondered how they felt observing us in cooler clothes, while respecting basic rules of modesty (covering shoulders, knees and chest unless at a hotel pool and never showing the bottoms of our feet, a gesture of great disrespect.) We had the chance to ask some Emirati women at the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rahid Al Maktoum Centre for Cultural Understanding, established by the prime minister to foster outsiders’ understanding of Islam.
Ironically, when we visited, it was run by a British woman. Through marriage and her job, she managed to get an Emirati passport, which until 2021, was a nearly impossible task for someone not born in the UAE due to the state’s extravagant social benefits (citizens in good standing are given a house!). But she was a propaganda mouthpiece for Dubai, enlisting young Emirati women to help answer the questions of curious tourists.
“Ask any question you would like about Islam,” she said, while inviting us to taste delicious, local foods. Meanwhile, we sipped coffee delightfully made with cardamon and saffron.
“How do you feel when you see women like us wearing whatever we want?” an Italian woman asked.
A young Emirati woman in her modern black abaya and hijab sincerely replied: “I don’t have envy as I realize you’re not Muslim and this is my culture. Besides, I can be fashionable at home and even with my abayas. There are many styles to choose from today.”
We listened intently while enjoying several Emirati dishes such as spicy chickpeas, sweet macaroni with eggs and donut holes with date syrup. (Dates are a hallmark of UAE cuisine; the country has 100 varieties!) We were mindful of not eating with our left hand as per Islam, it is to be used for “impure actions” only.
“Is it true that Emirati men can have up to four wives?” asked a Korean visitor.
“Yes, if a man can take care of all of them,” answered the British lady non-jokingly. “Or if a woman can’t have children, she might suggest another wife.”
One of the younger Muslim women rolled her eyes a bit. The Korean woman noticed and asked for her opinion.
“Women don’t want this typically,” the young lady furtively conceded. “For example, my father has two wives and it hasn’t worked out too well in my family.”
The British woman glossed over her comment and took the next question. Clearly, some cultural norms are a matter of perspective, especially between generations.
“Is it inappropriate to shake hands in Islamic countries?” I asked.
“Only between women and men,” said the British lady. “There should be no physical touching between members of the opposite sex if they are not married or closely related. Modesty is very important to the Muslim faith.”
Ex-pats have been prosecuted and jailed in Dubai for public displays of affection such as kissing. Women making eye contact with Muslim men who are not partners or family is frowned upon, dancing in public is considered indecent and nudity is strictly forbidden. Unmarried couples are not permitted to share a room in the UAE, hence, it’s the perfect destination for a girls’ trip.
Of course, some of these rules are bent at ex-pat hangouts, such as bars and nightclubs. Considering ex-pats make up 80 percent or 7.5 million of UAE inhabitants – Dubai has the second highest ex-pat population per capita in the world after Qatar – they have a big influence on the work force and socialization. Indians dominate (37%), followed by other Arabs and Iranians (23%), other South Asians (13%), and East Asians and Westerners (8%). The latter drive a significant non-Muslim counterculture.
We took in the swanky scene at restaurants like Warehouse and Zuma (it has magnificent views from its outdoor rooftop), Barasti Beach Bar, PRIVÉ Armani Club, CASH nightclub and Nikki Beach Resort on the Pearl Jumeirah, a luxurious beachfront.
Atlantis resort, located in the center of the outer ring of Palm Jumeirah (dredged, artificial islands developed by the Jumeirah luxury hotel group), looks like it sounds. Its majestic façade is out of a fairytale and its WHITE Beach is as nice as beaches get in Dubai. The Pointe in the center of the Palm is an entertainment complex overlooking the Palm Fountain, the world’s largest, with spectacular shows daily from sunset to midnight.
The world’s tallest building also exists in Dubai: Burj Khalifa. This skyscraper stands 828 meters (2,717 feet) high with 160 stories plus a spire. It contains the world’s fastest elevators to zip you to the top to watch a spectacular light show in the world’s tallest performing fountain. The Dubai Fountain shoots over 22,000 gallons of water into the air and sprawls 900+ feet in length on Burj Lake. The fountain includes five circles and two arcs that create over 1,000 different water designs. Illuminated at night by a multitude of color projectors and lights, the fountain dances to Arabic and world music.
“The world’s largest” is a theme in Dubai city. Like Atlantis in floral form, the Dubai Miracle Garden is the world’s biggest flower garden with 150 million plants. The Dubai Mall is the largest on earth, including a giant aquarium and underwater zoo, ice rink, virtual reality park, opera and haunted house. Dubai takes malls to the highest level; its Mall of the Emirates even has an indoor ski “resort,” including a penguin colony, where people can beat the heat. WAFI is a modern replica of an ancient Arabian market and Gold & Diamond Park has every gem under the sun.
More authentic are souks (markets) with spices, gold, perfume, shoes and more. You can take a public boat (abra) across the Dubai Creek from mall land to the souks as well as the largest mosque in Dubai (Grand Bur Dubai Mastij).
Capping off our luxurious time in Dubai city, Felicia and I did a four-hour, around-the-world culinary tour in the famous Burj al Arab Jumeirah, a six-star hotel shaped like a sail in the ocean. Our tour began at the top floor Skyview Bar then we ate our way down via five restaurants to the undersea Al Mahara. It was the ultimate indulgence … only in Dubai.
We joked that the 1 million Emiratis are all millionaires. They certainly live large in the emirate of the world’s largest luxuries.