Middle East

Dubai, UAE: Experience the Middle East without the Middle East

We’ve all seen the displays of unimaginable wealth and development in the United Arab Emirates (of which Dubai is the most glamorous of the seven states comprising the Federation). Whether it’s the indoor ski-center, Bentley-driving Arabs with cheetahs in tow, or 7-star luxury resorts — most of us marvel at this endless display of raw wealth.

Entirely built up from the desert within our lifetime, there are so many parallels to that other desert Fata Morgana — Las Vegas. Sure, there’s the casino distinction (few in Dubai), but other than that, both cities have the air of defying reality coupled with a brutal display of hedonism.


But even if you struggle to make sense of Dubai, you can find places where you can get a flavor of what life might be for the many who are not at the forefront of the economic development. Sort of.


One of the places to see what Dubai may have looked like before the enormous boom and for those who are not real estate moguls or investments bankers is the other side of the Al Khor (The Creek), a large saltwater inlet dividing the main city-centre district of Bur Dubai from the district of Deira. On the latter side, you’ll find souks/markets and more affordable housing, all in far less glamorous trappings. The inlet also provides a scenic thoroughfare with wooden dhows, abras (water taxis) and ships in an area that is far more chaotic than the modern city scene on the opposite side of the river bank.

IMG_5487Temperatures in Summer can reach 105 Fahrenheit in the early morning. 

Hoping to see evidence of the authentic Dubai, I went to the Deira Fish Market where hundreds of fishmongers display their catch. The market seemed strikingly orderly and clean compared to similar markets in Asia and, as you’ll see from the photos, there are no women present. This dichotomy sums up much of my experience in UAE — the place is just too squeaky clean. Yes, Deira probably is more authentic, but it cannot be the “real” Middle East.



So perhaps the unease with gender-mixing is one of the few Middle Eastern identifiers left? Evident in the older part of town as well as in the ultra-upscale, complexes of the main city where you can see the Metro’s train sport special cars for women and children. The segregation of men and females seem entirely cultural, and as there are far more expats here than Arabs, you can probably conduct your daily life without even noticing the oddity. Moreover scantily clad westerners are tolerated as long as they do not engage or challenge the “code”, whatever that may be.



Walking the city, you cannot escape Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. Towering some 160+ floors above the desert floor, the building provides a great point of reference in the city and intrudes on all photos of the skyline. I had planned to take the elevator to the top but changed my mind when they wanted $150 for the experience.

With the passing of Ramadan, time to remove the Eid Mubarak stickers. 

Burj Khalifa, it’s difficult to fit this monster into a photo.

I had planned to enlist my good friend, Tommy, a Dubai transplant, to show me around but ironically, he flew to Norway the same day I arrived in the city. But I look forward to the next visit when I hopefully can explore the desert and the Hatta mountain range.

Leaving Dubai, I reflected on the many contradictions of the city-state and the fact that I never felt that I had really entered the Middle East.

Categories: Middle East, UAE

2 replies »

  1. Nice write-up, Bjørn. Let me take you out next time, looking for Dhubs (Spiny-tailed Lizards), Sand Gazelle, Mountain Gazelle and other critters.
    35 min from the Burj (both of them)


    • Thanks, Tommy! Looked for you at OSL but you must have passed by just as I went to the bathroom. Interesting to see your neck of the woods and look forward to your guided tour next time.


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