I recently accepted a 3-month work assignment in Dubai, one of the seven Emirates of the United Arab Emirates, after my visit to the States, detailed in my last post, Because I Missed Home. So here I am in a strange new land… one that was never on my list to visit. I don’t have an agenda of things that I want to see or do. I don’t even know what there is to see or do in the vast, open desert. So, let the adventure begin…
As I flew into the Dubai International airport, I looked out the plane window to see miles and miles of sand dunes. Then, as if someone had taken a tiny model of a metropolis and set it on the scene, there was the city. I arrived on a Friday, late in the afternoon, and was greeted warmly as I stepped off the plane. As a corporate guest in Dubai, my company extended Marhaba service for me. Marhaba means “welcome” in Arabic, is inspired by legendary Arabic hospitality, and means that I had a friendly guide to walk me through the airport, retrieve my luggage and escort me through immigration. My guide then ushered me into a chauffeured car and I was whisked through a still quiet and solemn city because Friday is respected as a day of prayer and rest until sundown. When I arrived at my hotel, I was again afforded royal service with doors held open, someone to assist with my luggage, warm greetings at reception, refreshments, and probably just about anything else I would have requested… all with a “yes, Madam” and a smile. I must say that I much prefer Madam to Ma’am, as is often used in the US. It seems much more refined.
I was scheduled to stay in a hotel for two weeks until I could find a short term, furnished apartment, so I spent the rest of that day unpacking, ordering room service and settling in. It wasn’t long before it was dark outside, and when I looked out my hotel room window, all I saw was a city transformed into twinkling lights. The next morning, I awoke at 4:30am, my internal clock completely out of whack, and laid in bed staring out the window until the sun started to rise. As soon, as the light of day reared its beautiful rays, I ventured out for an exploratory stroll around the neighborhood. My hotel was directly across from the Dubai Mall, just down the street from the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, and a few blocks
away from Downtown. The first thing that I noticed was construction. Around every corner, there were construction cranes, orange cones, mounds of dirt, and detour signs. I laughed out loud, as my brain made inadvertent associations to my life path and I thought, “Detour, huh, seems about right.”
As I continued to walk, it seemed as though the buildings were springing up through the desert floor like weeds that had suddenly been doused with a warm, summer rain. I observed how tall, shiny and new all of the structures seemed to be. Dubai has had both significant upturns and downturns in its economy and most of the buildings weren’t constructed until
the 80s and 90s, so all of it is new by most of the world’s standards. All 5-foot, 3-inches of me felt miniature as I peered up at skyscraper after skyscraper. I eventually arrived at a small park, which felt phony positioned next to all of the glimmering metal, planted palm-tree trunks wrapped in lights, and 4-lane wide concrete streets divided with a barrier between the other 4-lane street going in the opposite direction. After walking for about 45 minutes, at only 7am, it
was almost 90 degrees (32 C) outside and I was feeling a little light-headed since I hadn’t eaten breakfast. I was also trying to be reverential of local customs and the modest dress code by covering my knees and my shoulders, so I was dressed in full-length pants and a t-shirt, which wasn’t helping. It was time to go back to the hotel for some breakfast and exploration of the pool. I spent the rest of that day relaxing and preparing my mind for the start of my workweek that happened to be the next day.
Due to the Islamic religion, the workweek here is from Sunday to Thursday. Initially, I thought this might feel strange, but oddly enough, since I’m immersed in it, the schedule makes little difference until I try to call home and wonder why no one is answering on what is still a workday on a US Friday morning. The rest of my first week was filled with introductions and business meetings, riding high-speed elevators up and down 40 floors, getting lost, driving in circles, and searching for a short-stay furnished apartment, which I quickly determined would be based on the location with the least amount of traffic on my route to the office. After a year of parachuting into new cities, I’ve developed my week-one routine. It mainly consists of asking a million questions to anyone and everyone in order to gather as much information in as little time as possible, never setting firm meeting times, so that I don’t get stressed about being late when I get lost, and then purposely getting lost and attempting new routes in my off time to learn my way around the city. I’ve actually surprised myself with how comfortably I’m able to do this now.
By week two, I realized that a large part of Dubai’s economy is reliant on tourism and the level of service here is better than just about anywhere else I’ve been in the world. There are plenty of 24-hour grocery stores, pharmacies, and restaurants and all of them will deliver. As a matter of fact, I could never leave my room and still have almost anything I wanted delivered, except alcohol, which is strictly regulated. At work, even if I never left my desk, someone would still come by and offer me water, tea or coffee. I’ve also now discovered that there isn’t one local or National employee that works in our office. Only about 8% of Dubai’s population of around 2 million are Emirati – the other 92 percent are expat and migrant workers. Men outnumber women by around 300 percent – an optimistic prospect for the female, single professional. The result is one of the most diverse work environments that I’ve ever experienced.
Week two continued with a trip to our regional corporate office in Abu Dhabi, the capital of UAE. It is about a 75-minute trip from Dubai, and although I had a chance to witness more enormous construction projects and landmarks, like Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, one of the world’s largest mosques, I didn’t get a chance to do much else that day. One of my colleagues was kind enough to drive, which was far more relaxing since drivers are quite aggressive and disorderly here. As we departed the office to return to Dubai, my colleague also showed me where I could find alcohol. We drove a few blocks, turned down a side street, pulled into a parking lot, and just when I thought we were going to stop, he drove through the parking spot into a dirt lot and pulled up next to what looked like a loading dock. There was an inconspicuous ramp leading to a door, and through the door, a dimly lit storeroom of shelves and shelves of alcohol, ranging from hard liquor to wine and champagne. This retailer was considered an off-license distributor. As I started to scour the shelves to see what kind of imports I could find, I noticed that my colleague had filled his basket in record time and was already paying. I quickly followed his lead, grabbed a few bottles of wine, and a bottle of Vodka, which I figured would last my entire stay, and then casually and swiftly paid and exited to the car, as if I were fleeing the scene of a crime. My colleague explained that it technically is illegal to buy, transport, or house alcohol unless you have a license, which he does, but you can only get a license with a resident visa, which was impossible for me since I was visiting with a mission visa for my assignment. So it was best if I didn’t linger long enough for anyone to ask questions. The rebellious teenager deep inside me flurried with glee as we drove off in a trail of dust from the lot. It was silly, but I just pulled off my first scam in UAE. Living in a land that is so foreign, and conservative, in relation to how I have lived, I was certain there would be other scams to come. For the rest of the drive back to Dubai, I chatted with my colleague about other cultural abnormalities, and made mental notes of the places that I would want to come back and explore.
I rounded out the week by signing a lease for an Executive apartment in the Emirates Grand Hotel, which would be home for the rest of my stay. It is difficult to find short stay apartments here, as most places look for a one-year commitment, so a hotel was one of the only options. Not exactly “homey”, and again, far different from anything that I might have chosen anywhere else, it is a convenient location both in regard to my commute to work, and its proximity to places to see. So, it’s been an altogether highly productive first two weeks, and so far, it’s fascinating. I feel very much like an observer at the moment, as if standing at the zoo and watching the animals play. It’s delightful to anticipate what I might see next.
Revelling in gratitude for the opportunity to be a spectator of the world’s diversity… until next time. Be well.