Dubai. The name has become synonymous with wealth, innovation, and the future. To many, it is the land of opportunity, and to those unfortunate ones, it is also a land of vast inequality. It is a place where dreams can be realized and just as quickly taken away again; it is truly the Las Vegas of the Middle East. The leaders should be commended for their outstanding work in the progress of the nation. After all, how many places in the Middle East (or even the US for that matter) can you stroll along any neighborhood at night without fear of being robbed? More than safety, the modern living conditions that have been afforded to the nation’s citizens over the past forty-two years are incredible; it has gone from a desert trade post to a thriving modern city in only a few decades. That progress has certainly come with a price, however, and my eyes were definitely opened to the people who get caught on the underside of the nation’s progress.
Living in Dubai can feel like stepping back in time to the American South fifty years ago. The concept of “The Help” is still very much thriving in Dubai, with stark contrasts between social classes. At the dorms, for example, there are cleaners who came into my room every week to clean up after me. When I ate a snack in the common room, they would immediately come and collect the trash from my table and wipe up after me. There are always people (typically from India or the Philippines) to serve and look after the better off residents, and they are often not treated any better than the housemaids in “The Help.” Furthermore, there are massive problems with workers in Dubai who have been brought in to construct the engineering marvels and modern developments. Though I personally did not visit the labor camps, I heard countless stories of the treatment of these workers who often send most of the money they earn back home to their families, leaving them with only the bare minimum to survive. Fortunately, the government has faced outside pressure and bettered the living conditions of these people in recent years.
With this influx of a mostly male workforce in their 20’s-40’s come a variety of other social issues, chiefly among them the inability to start families and to rise from poverty. There is a lack of women for these workers to marry, creating discontent among the workers who have no goal but to continue working for money to send back to their families. This causes a largely under-the-radar issue with prostitution in the poorer parts of the city especially. The women in these prostitution rings are almost exclusively from East Asia who are often conned into joining these ventures in order to earn back the money they borrowed to escape poverty in their home country in hopes of a brighter future in the UAE.
Despite these issues, the government has taken great strides toward a modern society acceptable by Western standards. Though there is next to no democratic representation in the country, the leaders have done a good job of ensuring that the money gained from the oil exploration over the past several decades has been distributed to the citizens, and developments have increased the wealth of the nation, bettering everybody’s position. Though only 10% of the population in Dubai are citizens, they have been able to retain an identity of their own with a culture and traditions that I was fortunate to experience. The Emirati people were incredibly kind and generous, welcoming us into their homes for dinner and conversation. Furthermore, the country was very modern and accepting of other cultures and religions. Unlike some of its neighbors, the UAE has Christian churches and Hindu temples, much of the land for which was donated by the sheikh to increase religious tolerance in the emirate.
Over the semester, I experienced just a taste of the Middle East but learned an incredible amount about the region. Before leaving the States, I thought of the Middle East as one people and one culture. Due to the constant news casts which focus on the violence of certain areas, I was more than a little nervous about going to the region. It took a while for me to realize that you cannot group all the Middle Eastern countries into one unit any more than you can say that Mexico, the US, and Canada are the same. Each country has its own problems and benefits, and it surprised me to find out that many parts of the Middle East are actually VERY friendly to tourists. Furthermore, the violence seen on TV tends to be sporadic and contained to certain areas. I can’t count the number of conversations I had with people from countries such as Lebanon, Israel, or Saudi Arabia that ask why Americans think of the Middle East as such a dangerous place when the US experiences random acts of violence such as the number of recent shootings which often take more lives than events in Middle Eastern countries. They have a point. It was surprising to realize that I am statistically safer walking around downtown Dubai at midnight than walking back to my dorm from the library in Birmingham.
In the past seven months, I’ve been introduced to the world through studying and traveling abroad. It’s been quite a ride, meeting countless people who have been tremendously influential on the life and taught me things that I never would have learned otherwise. I have discovered opportunities and made connections around the world through people I will never forget. But as I sit in the Atlanta airport listening to the continuous drone of Christmas music and freezing in my warm-weather clothes, I am remembering why I love the US. The ability to better oneself regardless of your upbringing. The right to post and say anything we want, even if the political leaders disagree. The power of the people to decide who rules over us. But besides all that, it just feels like home.