Dubai: a fascinating 21st-century metropolis

Dubai is a very controversial destination: some love it, others hate it. The paradox is that many people I know who criticize Dubai have never set foot there!

Yet I think it’s one of the most fascinating cities of the 21st century, with its dynamism, extravagance and excesses. Influencers have given it a much worse image than it is.

Travel is first and foremost a source of pleasure and escape. But it’s also an opportunity to reflect and take a step back on our World. The extraordinary development of Dubai and the United Arab Emirates, even more so than elsewhere, prompts us to ask questions.

After several trips since 1996, I wanted to provide you with a vision that is as accurate and nuanced as possible of this extraordinary city:

If you’ve never been to Dubai, I’ve also included a second article to help you prepare for your trip:

Both articles were illustrated with photos from my travels since the early 2000s. Some are already so historic that the city has changed so much!

All texts in color coral indicate an internal or external link. There are plenty of them to give you a deeper insight into what I’ve been talking about in this article.

A city I’ve watched grow since 1996

In 1996, I visited Dubai for the first time for a professional event: the Air Cargo Forum. Then, with one of my closest friends living there, I had the opportunity to return regularly every two or three years and see the city grow with my own eyes.

My most recent trip was in 2023.

A satellite view between 1996 and 2020 shows the dramatic change. The desert has given way to a megalopolis. In 1950, the city had just 50,000 inhabitants. In 1996, 700,000, and in 2023, 3.5 million! (source: worldpopulationreview.com)

Another key figure: in 2021, Emiratis will number just 280,000. This means that over 90% of Dubai’s inhabitants are expatriates.

Dubai 1996 2020

Emirates: a symbol of Dubai’s explosive growth

Of course, as an airline professional, I could not fail to be impressed by the phenomenal growth of Emirates Airline, which has become one of the symbols of the city’s development.

In 1996, Emirates had just 18 aircraft (Airbus 300 and 310) and was waiting for its first three Boeing 777s. By 2022, it has 119 Airbus 380s and 145 Boeing 777s, making it one of the world’s largest long-haul fleets.

This is the growth we could never have imagined.

Emirates in Dubai

Dubai is a city of extravagance and excess

Every time I return to Dubai, my fascination with the city and its energy remains intact: how did people who, as recently as 1950, were sleeping in tents in the desert with their camels manage to create the Dubai of the 21st century?

You’ll tell me it’s easy with oil money! But on the one hand, that’s not true, because it’s Abu Dhabi, not Dubai, that owns the oil fields. On the other hand, large oil or gas reserves are no guarantee of a prosperous economy. Venezuela and Equatorial Guinea are sad examples of this.

Dubai is the city of extravagance and excesses. That’s undeniable, but it’s also a great economic success story that I’ve found fascinating to follow over the 25 years I’ve been going there.

Downtown Dubai

Three good reasons to visit Dubai and the Emirates

Going to Dubai is first and foremost about doing so as a citizen of this world and of our time, getting your own idea of the city and the United Arab Emirates. For a successful trip, it’ s important to avoid setting off with your prejudices.

1. Understand the phenomenon of this city so representative of our century

Until the end of the 20th century, the legacy of the colonial period, the world was organized around the West. One of the signs was that on my travels in the ’80s and ’90s, I only met tourists from Western Europe and North America.

The 21st century has seen the emergence of a new bourgeoisie class in China, Russia, Brazil, India, and the Middle East, with cultural references other than our own. For these new travelers, Dubai is one of the most popular tourist destinations. Perhaps they feel more at home here than with us? To ignore this would be to miss out on one of the great changes of our century.

Dubai is a new promised land. To illustrate how the city has changed, I took a photo of Dubai Marina in 2005 from almost the same spot, and another from the same spot ten years later. Eloquent?

Another photo I took, with tourists, and expatriates in the foreground, and a crane in the background announcing a crazy new project, is a fine symbol of the spirit of Dubai: partying and working!

Dubai Marina in 2005
Dubai Marina
Dubai Beach under construction

2. See breathtaking places and buildings

The Emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi have built some outstanding architectural achievements. The famous Burj Khalifa tower is a work of great elegance, and the Abu Dhabi Grand Mosque is a masterpiece. There are many others, which I invite you to discover as you stroll along. For example, you might come across the Dubai Opera House, which is superb!

A trip to the Emirates is an opportunity to feast your eyes. I give you a few tips in my article What to visit in Dubai and the United Arab Emirates?

Burj Khalifa by night
Dubai Downtown by night
Jumeirah Al Qasr
Grand Mosque Court Abu Dhabi
Dubai Opera
The Louvre Abu Dhabi

3. Observing the peaceful cohabitation of cultures in this global city

Israelis rubbing shoulders with Arabs in amusement parks. Russians dining in the same restaurants as Americans. Pakistanis shopping with Indians. Saudis strolling alongside Iranians. It’s everyday life in Dubai! (source: dubai-online.com)

Top 15 countries of origin for visitors to Dubai

Dubai is an incredible melting pot. As Emiratis are a small minority in their own country, this is all the more visible.

A trip to Dubai requires you to keep your eyes wide open to observe this happy world peacefully rubbing shoulders.

People behind Burj Khalifa
Emiratis in Abu Dhabi
Indian women in Dubai
Young Emiratis
Diversity in Dubai
Muslim women in Deira

Three Dubai clichés to watch out for

In 2019, before the pandemic, the Emirate received nearly 17 million annual visitors! (source: globalmediainsight.com)

Dubai’s marketing strategy to make it a global tourism mecca is formidable and effective. It plays heavily on clichés and high-spending tourism.

 

1. Go shopping in Dubai!

Emiratis want you to come to Dubai first and foremost to spend your money. They tout the city as a shopper’s paradise with extraordinary shopping malls. The duty-free shops at Dubai airport are supposedly very famous. Don’t listen to them! Admittedly, the merchandise on offer is considerable, but you’ll find the same brands as in Paris or London, and not much cheaper.

Emiratis shopping
Shopping at Dubai Mall
Vuitton at Dubai Mall
Dior at Dubai Mall
Jewelry in Dubai
Souk downtown

2. See Dubai only through its tourist attractions!

The entertainment on offer in Dubai is boundless.

The best known is the famous ski slope at Mall Emirates. As a ski fan, I couldn’t resist trying it out in 2007, shortly after its inauguration, and it’s pretty amazing, almost feeling like an alpine resort despite the faint smell of a refrigerator. But that’s a lot of ecological nonsense in a country where it can be over 40°C! To top it all off, there’s a chalet in the middle of the slopes with a wood fire to keep you warm!

The water parks, starting with the gigantic Aquaventure on the Palm, are better suited to the climate and are sure to deliver thrills, but only if you pay the price (80 EUR for a day) and accept the crowds.

Otherwise, you’ll be spoilt for choice: helicopter or seaplane flights, sea outings on ultra-luxury yachts, 4×4 or quad safaris in the desert, or even dolphin diving!

The latest craze is the hydro-jet pack. I find that these activities are expensive, not very environmentally friendly, and provide rather artificial sensations.

Ski Dubai
Fireplace ski Dubai
Aquarium Dubai Mall
Ski Dubai
Aquaventure
Hydrojet pack

3. Be blinded by Dubai’s luxury!

Dubai is seeking its place in the world of ultra-luxury tourism. Palaces, restaurants, and bars are legion. Its most striking symbol is the famous Burj Al Arab, which has established itself as the world’s only 7-star hotel! Already 11 restaurants have been awarded a Michelin star

Dubai is certainly the city in the world where you’ll find the most Ferraris, Bentleys, and Rolls-Royces.

Dubai has become THE destination for bling-bling influencers. Although we are in a rather strict Muslim country, alcohol is served freely in palaces reserved for tourists, and some 45,000 prostitutes are said to trade their bodies. Yet another figure on the scale of Dubai.

Although this is one of the best-known facets of Dubai, there’s more to the city than the cliché of a globalized jet-set.

Ferrari in Dubai
Aquaventure
Hall Palace Dubai
Burj al Arab
Yachts Dubai
Luxury hotel bar

Forming an informed opinion of Dubai and the Emirates

It’s only after a trip to Dubai that you can express an opinion about the Emirates. In this section, I’ll give you my very personal perception, but when you return, I invite you to share yours in the comments!

The Emirates are an undeniable success story

It is the work of two men: Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan of the Abu Dhabi royal family and Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai.

The first had the vision that he had to unify emirates still steeped in tribal culture, as the only way to become a political power in a region prone to great instability: the Middle East.

The second understood that oil money would be ephemeral and that it was necessary to invest in new sources of wealth production without delay: trade, real estate, finance, and tourism.

Cheick Zayed and Cheick Rashid

In my opinion, the Emirates’ greatest achievement is to have managed toharmoniously bring together many cultures in one place. With them, the Great Replacement is a reality!

Another success is tohave created a zone of prosperity and peace in a very troubled part of the world. Let’s not forget that Yemen, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria are not far away! Vision of Humanity ‘s map is self-explanatory.

Without the foresight of Cheick Zayed, the Emiratis could well have fallen into the trap of tribal struggles.

Global Peace Index

Finally, Dubai is also a culture full of optimism and entrepreneurship. For many people, Dubai represents an Eldorado where anything is possible, much as underprivileged Europeans saw America in the late 19th or early 20th century. It’s a far cry from French pessimism, and for that reason alone, it’s good to get out there!

Dubai and the Emirates also have less glorious sides

Don’t be fooled, not everything in Dubai and the Emirates is rosy.

An unsatisfactory environmental record

Ecology is certainly one of the Emirates’ greatest challenges. The lack of water and the heat did not prevent this region from becoming the seat of a megalopolis. Per capita CO2 emissions are among the highest in the world (source: ourworldindata.org).

Behind the picture-postcard landscapes, Dubai knows how to hide from visitors the ports and factories, particularly water desalination plants, that enable the Emirate to adopt a lifestyle that is out of keeping with its geographical and climatic location.

We can only regret that the sobriety of the nomadic lifestyle has been replaced by a consumer society at its most extreme. I understand thatthe Emiratis have a thirst for revenge to show that they can go further and higher than the West, which was the former colonizer, but it’s a pity that they didn’t look for another development model that is more respectful of the environment.

Road junction Dubai
Dubai by night
Dubai backstage

However, the Emiratis are beginning to become aware of their environmental impact. Projects such as the Masdar new town near Abu Dhabi airport are still in the early stages.

The aim is for the city to have zero CO2 emissions, thanks in particular to solar energy and innovative construction techniques using double walls. A modernized wind tower is being tested to cool the pedestrian patios.

The city is home to a university focused on sustainable development. On my last trip, I found the visit to this district very rewarding.

Masdar
Masdar

A people of merchants sometimes ambiguous about their values

The Emiratis are a trading people, and in some ways, they remind me of the Amstellodammers of the Golden Age. Pragmatism comes before ideology when it comes to doing business. In Dubai, almost everything is allowed as long as it doesn’t show.

This was also the case in Amsterdam in the 16th century but with other prohibitions. In those days, only the Protestant religion was visible. The others could exist as long as they didn’t know about it, hence the creation of Catholic churches hidden in the homes of wealthy bourgeois!

In Dubai, alcohol is forbidden by religion, but is freely and widely consumed in hotels and private residences.

Homosexuality is officially forbidden and punishable by death, but Dubai’s gay underground is very active, as Zayed explains in this interview with the Nomadic Boys blog. This poster seen in Dubai reflects this ambiguity!

Ambiguity in Dubai

 

An opaque tax and banking haven

In the same spirit, Dubai is all about money, with little concern for where it comes from. Several articles refer to money laundering in the city, which is one of the world’s most opaque financial centers (source: lemonde.fr). It’s true that when you see the incredible number of real estate developments, you have to wonder who’s investing in them.

Shipyard Dubai

 

Fundamental freedoms not always respected

Finally, Dubai is often cited as not respecting individual freedoms and human rights. The Emirates is indeed an autocratic regime, but it seems to suit Emiratis, who enjoya standard of living and security almost unrivalled anywhere in the world.

As for the 90% of foreigners living in Dubai, the overwhelming majority have temporary expatriate status, and the rules are clear, although there are still too many abuses, especially on building sites and for domestic workers.

To find out more, read the latest report from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Dubai: the world of the 21st century

Paris and London were the leading cities of the 19th century, and New York and Tokyo those of the 20th.

In the 21st century, cities have emerged as the new nerve centers of our world. Dubai is certainly one of the most astonishing examples. That’s why I recommend visiting Dubai at least once in your life to get a feel for this phenomenon.

This quote from Gaston Bachelard, which I saw at the Palais de la Mobilité in Dubai Expo, expresses the Emirati spirit very well:

“We must always maintain our link with the past and yet constantly distance ourselves from it.

Does the Dubai model rest on sand and crumble as quickly as it was built? Or does it herald a new world order in which the Emirates will play a pivotal role? Answer in the coming decades.

Dubai expo mobility

It’s up to you to make up your mind! And, if you’ve already visited Dubai, let me know in the comments what you thought.

Dubai Skyline

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