Dubious about Dubai

Night time with Burj Khalifa

I’m still trying to figure out what the deal is with Dubai. I’m amazed that it has been built out of virtually nothing in such a short period of time but it seems to have no local culture, no vibe, no native pulse. Or if such does exist it seems to be mighty well hidden. I spent a couple nights there earlier in the month for the Dubai Air Show and did well enough by it, I suppose, but I still really don’t understand the love some seem to show for it.

Dubai Marina

Thanks to a friend living there I got to escape the hotel and high-rise area of downtown, trading it for the hotel and high-rise area at the Dubai Marina. On the plus side the breeze was cooling and the beers were ice-cold (and only moderately overpriced for being at a hotel bar). And the views weren’t all that bad either, though it easily could have been transplanted just about anywhere and been the same gaggle on display.

On the beach in the Dubai Marina area
On the beach in the Dubai Marina area

Burj Khalifa

Beyond that, Burj Khalifa is really, really tall. And it lights up well at night. I still haven’t been up in it. Doesn’t seem like there would be much to see with the constant haze and staring out into a desert.

Not every skyline shot needs the Burj Khalifa in it; sunrise over the sea
Not every skyline shot needs the Burj Khalifa in it; sunrise over the sea
Sunrise in Dubai with Burj Khalifa
Sunrise in Dubai with Burj Khalifa and that crazy guy out over the safety wall

At least it is reasonably photogenic, assuming you can get a wide enough angle.

Burj Khalifa at night
Burj Khalifa at night

Just watching the traffic roll by in front of the Burj Khalifa in Downtown Dubai. Fun timelapse from a half hour or so of activity.

Night time with Burj Khalifa
Night time with Burj Khalifa

One of the more surreal moments came on the evening of day two as I relaxed pool-side with a couple colleagues. We were enjoying a beer in between the show and dinner when the adhan, the call to prayer, came for the last time that day. There was something wonderful and bizarre to me about the juxtaposition of that experience. Is this what the quintessential Dubai experience is supposed to be??

Watching Burj Khalifa from the pool bar with a call to prayer in the background. Is this the quintessential Dubai?
Watching Burj Khalifa from the pool bar with a call to prayer in the background. Is this the quintessential Dubai?

This was my second time in Dubai. Maybe I need a third, just to be sure about the place, but I’m not betting on that any time soon.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. I have been to Burj Khalifa, Seth:


    The premium experience is not worth the extra money — and yes, the constant haze does diminish the views. I have photographs of that, which I intend to post in my backlog of trip reports.

    In the race for the tallest building in the world, there are others currently under construction. Unless being at the observation deck in this building once is a goal of yours — and it is not all the way at the top — I would consider skipping it.

    You are based in New York. I do not need to tell you that the views from virtually any tall building in New York would be more scenic than those in Dubai.

    For what it is worth, I have similar thoughts as yours about Dubai. It is an artificial manmade desert oasis — and quite expensive overall as well.

    1. Perhaps being based in a city skews my views sufficiently; I’ve felt that way in the past.

  2. not sure what the point of this post was: other than to paint an orientalist image of how the orient can’t be like “us” no matter how hard they tried: their views are of desert, which has no appeal to you but the way you word it makes it seem like it should have no appeal to anyone, even if the statement were taken at face value.
    Then the image of pool side chilling with a beer during the call to prayer is meant to… Conjure up… Fakeness? Contradiction? Orientalist? I’m not sure.
    Either way, I don’t think you meant for it to come off this way.

    1. I thought the purpose was pretty clear: To share some photos and my experience visiting the city. I have no doubt that it appeals to some people as a destination. I’m hoping some of them can explain why. As for the juxtaposition of the pool-side beer and call to prayer, it is an interesting contradiction to me.

      I have no idea what you mean by “orientalist” so I’m not even sure what to say about that.

      1. “Orientalist” is the new speak pejorative for those of us unfortunate enough to have been born in the western world and bring our values to the middle and far east. It is a put down on our value system because some of us believe in that Gertrude Stein aphorism “there was no there there” when describing her visit to some small Ohio city. I tend, however, to agree with your assessment of the vacuousness of Dubai. I much prefer visiting Bahrain (Manama) where there is still a genuine old city a sense of character of what these emirates were before oil turned them into Vegas-on-the-Gulf with the advent of their oil wealth, and desire to copy the success of Singapore, both as a city and as a major world airline hub. But Dubai is unlikely to offer the genuine experiences even that previously-thought-of-as-dull city now offers. There are just some things money can’t buy!

        1. @DavidB Do you know of a new speak dictionary somewhere? I’m partly tongue in cheek, but actually kind of serious – I see terms on Facebook or in articles that don’t correspond to established dictionary definitions; made up in-group jargon used by people that I’m likely to disagree with, but for which it would be good to know the intended meaning to decide whether to counter it or ignore it.

          I saw plenty of paradoxical things in Dubai. For instance everyone should go to the night fountain display at the mall. What struck me was that part of the background music when I was there (in August a couple of years ago) was a Christian Christmas tune. I imagine it was just chosen for its catchy melody and rhythms, but the incongruity struck me. The architecture, the museum and the desert are worth seeing. As I noted, it’s not a destination vacation, but it’s a hop worth two or three days when in the region. I’d love to get to Manama next time in the area.

  3. I’ve lived in Dubai for 8 years and it perplexes me why people come on vacation here. It is a hugely easy city in which to live, it works spectacularly well for a developing country…the transport links are epic – a direct flight to everywhere important, it’s very easy to run a business here, it’s a safe / easy place to base your family and there’s no tax. In an abstract way it’s even a cultural experience. Yes, it lacks embedded culture but not all culture is inherently old, and there’s definitely something interesting about living in a city that is so rapidly expanding and at such cultural odds with its near neighbours. But as soon as I’m on vacation I’m out of here.

  4. You seem to have spent your entire time in “new” Dubai. No wonder you find it confusing. New Dubai is less of a city than a loose confederation of shopping malls.

    My first memories of Dubai from the 1980s were of a small town where Jumeirah was the outer suburbs and visits to my uncle’s villa in Jebel Ali involved a packed lunch and a camel train (ok, maybe not that bad but close). Sheikh Zayed Road wasn’t the monstrosity it is today, the center of town was Deira and the airport was a glorifed bus station with Duty Free. It was still an everyone-knows-everyone kinda town, but with the simmering excitement of ambition bubbling under the surface.

    You still can find this spirit elsewhere in the country. My current home of Ras Al Khaimah is just an hour drive north and is a world different from Dubai. Locals are not outnumbered 10 to 1 like in Dubai, there is still a strong feeling of local pride and community. Heck, you can find this spirit even in the less salubrious parts of Dubai north of the creek, or next door in Sharjah.

    There is plenty not to like about the UAE, just like there is plenty not to like about other places in the world. However, the Burj Khalifa, DWC and Marina are hardly representative of the country or indeed even of the city itself.

  5. I completely agree with the image you paint. I’ve been twice and I immediately question the intelligence of any well-traveled person that thinks Dubai is a destination unto itself. There’s a lot “to do” but it mostly revolves around shopping or business or, well, money. I think the fact that a really tall hotel and a giant mall are some of the biggest attractions should be quite telling. As FinalCall mentioned, it doesn’t have it’s own culture, rather it sort of borrows from around the world. So, I guess that’s unique unto itself, but anyone with the means to travel globally would really do better to experience “culture” at its origin instead of opting for the McCultural experience of Dubai.

  6. I didn’t have high expectations and had a great time. Dune bashing, sand boarding, skiing, plus all the touristy stuff, it was great.

  7. I had a good time in Dubai but it was just a few days as part of a larger journey. I would hardly make it a priority as a vacation destination, but it was an interesting contrast, in my case, to the historic sites in Jordan and Israel.

  8. I think the answer to why some like it is much simpler. The foundation is their basic needs are being met, and by basic, I mean modern conveniences such as AC, decent restaurants and entertainment, stable employment etc. Once those needs are met, all some people need to make life enjoyable is the company of other people. Dubai, Singapore, what does it matter the locale? I wouldn’t live in either of those places by choice since i find them too sterile, but to each his own. Sean’s point that one can find interesting culture outside of “new” Dubai is taken. But the people I’m referring to wouldn’t much care about those areas anyway.

  9. I have not visited Dubai yet but does not seem that appealing. I would not go out of my way to visit but I would stop by if I was in the region.

  10. Dubai is an interesting city. I didn’t really get the feeling it had its own culture in my experiences there either (and I’ve spent many a one night layovers, and one trip a few days longer). I have yet to venture over to the more traditional souks and “old dubai”, but, I do find the paradigm interesting. Here you have a city that so very wants to be western, yet the “locals” can be very traditional, that seemed even more prevalent, visiting during ramadan.

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