UAE: Not all that ‘glittery’

Early June, 2017

IMG_9387Thank goodness it was only a brief stopover. Dubai- sometimes called the ‘City of Gold’ is more a city artifically built on barren lands and deserts. A walk throughout the city and you realise just how new it is. Like her other Middle Eastern counterparts, the city boosts a couple of tall skyscrapers and other points of interest. It has the image of being rich, glamorous and flashy. However, a walk through one neighbourhood and along the bay area made me realise that Dubai is far from the gold and glitter. UAE being rich in oil has always attracted labor migrants who are seeking employment opportunities and much higher standards of living.  In 2013, official estimates puts UAE’s migrant numbers at 7.8 million. This is huge considering that the total population of the country is 9.2 million.  So in total, 84% of UAE’s population are foreigners.

As the main force behind the construction and functionings of the city, they are often lured into this foreign city by heartless recruitment agencies and middlemen. Promises that they will earn high wages results in many workers being trapped and in debt to their agencies. Sometimes, their documents are confiscated, so the only way out is to work and wait until the contract expires.

Like every city, there lies another world and with such factors being (always) economic prosperity, financial growth and poverty, they force the city and her citizens to change and adapt. Yes it is still about luxury and one brief look will give you this sense but since the global financial crisis of 2008 and the debt default of 2009, the local economy went into decline. The ruling family is popular and no doubt smart due to the creation of Dubai.

At the same time, capitalism always claim its victims. It always create distinct social classes.

So it was an emotional day. I left Jordan in the wee hours of the morning for my early flight from Amman to Dubai. I left Li Chin without a proper hug or goodbye. Thinking about the end of the trip and how similar this departure is with the one in Mongolia a few years ago turned me into an emotional mess. Must I wait another year or two before I see her again?

Dubai in midday was especially hot and what sucked was knowing that despite having a transfer in Dubai, I was unable to meet up with Li Chin due to being stuck in different terminals. The metro (thumbs up for Dubai and the efficient metro system) carried me past malls, neighbourhoods and the main center of the city where it is filled with markets, local shops and the creek which also led to the Dubai Wharf Customs area.


The walk throughout the neighbourhood was more of a way to really connect with the migrant workers. The neighbourhoods around the creek and central market have always been predominantly Muslim. The number of mosques and rather old buildings gives it a different feel. Seeing workers who are Indians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis makes the place feel like a city in any of those three countries. By walking deeper into the area, you start to see the shift in ethnic make-up. There are increasing number of those from Africa, South-East Asia and others.

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It was also a bit of an eye opener in the sense that I realised just how many live, work and try to make a living in Dubai. Although I didn’t get a chance to see the insides of an apartment, the clothes and open windows of these very visible apartments and building offered a sense of how cramped they must be. The iron bars that helps to prevent theft looks like urban prisons- trapping those inside the room and this city. Pay your debt to the very people who got you into this prison and work your way slowly out.

Now, these buildings will never be found in posh neighbourhoods inhabitated by more affluent locals and expats. The very distinct social class divide bought on by this wave of capitalism, modernisation, materialism and consumerism ensures that despite being in the same city and despite having Dubai being built by the hands of labourers, the two contrasting social classes will never meet and certainly not mingle. Even if they do meet, the rich will turn a blind eye to the poor’s existence. These migrant workers, trapped behind the iron bars that form their rooms, and the rich ladies trapped behind the golden cages of their expensive high-rise apartments would make a wonderful juxtaposition….. if they ever meet.


I found it hard to remain interested in Dubai despite the city being home to the world’s tallest skyscraper. With man-made and similar looking structures, I don’t see myself back in Dubai in the near future. Like always, I, unconsciously turn a trip into an investigation / inspection. The underlying problems facing Dubai is similar to what every other cities in the world had to go through. Such patterns remind us that as a traveller, it is more than just shopping, eating and snapping away with your camera- it’s also about taking on board the social and economic trends and realising that this world is your best teacher. Your knowledge is limited and the world has much to offer. Now bandit- you would never realise the other side of Dubai right?…unless you see it for yourself. How I wish that in our modern day and age, there is an end to human slavery and such confinement. I only hope that life becomes better for these workers.

Nothing is more sad than to be cooped up in a comfort zone…I am not that frog at the bottom of the well.

If I ever stop travelling with a brain- I’ll shot myself and the same applies if I ever lose my passion.

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