This isn’t meant to be authoritative or scholarly. And this isn’t meant to cohesive or well flowing. Most importantly, this isn’t meant to be offensive or read in the light of American cultural superiority, though I imagine that implicit bias will probably show up. This is just a scattering of thoughts I don’t want to forget. Some of this comes from my coworker/guide who lives here; most of it is just my own observations.
- English. English and Arabic are the official languages, and various guidebooks I’ve read say that English is the Lingua Franca for everyone except the Emiratis. As a very white, very obvious tourist, this has been my experience. That said, they aren’t speaking “proper” English, or even the slightly broken Indian/Asian English I’m used to (I work at a software company, after all). Instead, they seem to be speaking a formalized dialect based on Indian/Pakistani broken English. I even had one cabbie ask me if I spoke English because in his mind, he wasn’t speaking broken English.
- Public Transportation. I have a love-hate relationship with Public Transportation. I love the idea of it, and I love what it’s done for cities, but I am embarrassingly inept at using it. I also really hate having to schedule my time around catching the bus, because time planning has never been my forte. That said, in Dubai at least, Public transit, while stressful for me, is more my style. The metro runs every 6 minutes and the stations are spotless (thanks to the cheap labor, noted below). Similar to the US, everything runs on a check-in-check-out system with RFID Cards. Buses, at least the buses I took, all operate on a “when the bus is full we leave” basis. They don’t have as many bus routes, but more point-to-point buses, much like the metro, but with less overhead, and no timetables.
- Alcohol. The UAE is a Muslim Nation in the same way the US is a Christian Nation. Sure, the mosques send out the call to pray via loudspeakers and Alcohol is illegal to sell, but it’s not really illegal. Hotels and Resorts are allowed to sell alcohol, so at night, the little complex of my hotel is full of both tourists and locals coming for a drink. Locals have to pay hotel/resort prices for their beer ($10+ for a pint of Stella or Budweiser), but it’s readily available and all the nightclubs and bars affiliate themselves with a hotel, and the hotels have a side door for non-guests to get in.
- Cheap Labor. The office building where I’ve been working has waiters. And I don’t mean at the restaurants, I mean that someone comes around to clean the breakroom, clear off the used coffee mugs from my desk, and will come in at the beginning of meetings to take orders for water or coffee. These aren’t interns just happy to sit in on the meeting, this is their livelihood. On my walk to work, I also saw someone polishing the metal rail on a bridge. He was going up and down the bridge with a rag polishing the big metal pole on the end of bridge. In the morning and evening, you can see shitty little buses bringing day laborers to and from the public housing compounds on the outskirts of town, but their clothes are always perfectly clean and ironed. But there are always people there to literally pick up after me. Busing your own table is non-existent here.
- The Pseudo Caste System. They don’t have India/Hindu’s rigid caste system since upward mobility is possible here. They also don’t have racism quite like we do in the US. But it’s something in between. My Middle Eastern colleague described it as a racial hierarchy: Pakistanis/Indians, Blacks and Philippinos, Non-Emeriti Arabs, Whites, Emiratis. And it’s like in a Brave New World where everyone knows their place (based on their race), accepts it, and complies diligently. Again, upward mobility is possible, but institutional racism seems to be the norm, albeit not in the same way it exists in the US. Each group also has its own code of conduct to which they are held (though tourists seem to be able to get away with almost anything).
- Build now, use later. I have some pictures of two park benches on the sidewalk, but behind them isn’t a park; it’s an empty sand lot. It’s full of trash and nothingness. But there are these two park benches. While I was there, I worked in a 40 something story building that was built in the last 5 years. It was a beautiful building, right next to an identical building that was completely empty. In both cases, the infrastructure was built not only before the need was there, but before the builder knew what the need was going to be. I’m sure that the vacant lot will be filled in and the benches will be used by people visiting whatever building or park goes in, and I’m sure that the second office building will eventually attract businesses to fill the various suites, but the speculation is rampant throughout all of the newer parts of town. It’s amazing what oil can build.