Dubai in the Desert: From Bedouin Backwater to City of the Future

Arabic coffee in Dubai's Downtown Palace

One of the first people we met on our first trip to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates was Deva, barista extraordinaire at the Downtown Palace Hotel. We found him most afternoons in the lobby, serving dates and pouring tiny cups of Arabic coffee spiced with ginger, cardamom and saffron for arriving guests. His white robe is the traditional Emirati shirt-dress called a khandura. His headgear is typical of what Saudi men wear. But Deva is neither Emirati nor Middle-Eastern. Like 80 percent of UAE residents, he's from elsewhere in the world, in his case, Sri Lanka. 

Little more than a Bedouin desert  backwater until oil was discovered in the late 1960s, Dubai today is a prosperous city where natives are outnumbered by Southeast Asians, Europeans, North Americans and others - 200 nationalities in all - drawn here to fill a high demand for jobs and do business in a city of the future. Dubai has become the financial capital of the Middle-East, and more recently, a tourist destination for Americans taking advantage of stopovers on Emirates Airline's flights to Asia, Europe and Africa from major U.S. cities. 

For those who are unfamiliar, Dubai sits in the middle of the UAE, near the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, just across from Iran. Considering that Emirates operates two non-stops daily between Seattle and Dubai, I'm not sure why it took us so long to get here, but once we did, an assignment for Virtuoso Life Magazine kept us busy for several days prior to an onward trip to Myanmar. It was enough time to experience what a tour guide (a German transplant) called the "Wow'' factor of all that goes into creating an instant city from scratch in less than 50 years, and the "Ah'' factor as in "Ah, this is more of what we expected the Middle-East to be like," as we found ways to expose ourselves to the Arab culture in what some say is the least Arabic city in Arabia. 

Dubai's dancing fountains

First the "Wow." When the ruler,  Sheikh Rashid, hired British experts to build a city in the early 70s, he ordered them to bring Dubai from the third world into the first in 15 years. The population at the time was around 200,000. There were no paved roads. He told his experts to design a city for one million, and position it in such a way that it could prosper as a center of the MIddle East, even in the event that oil  someday might not be enough to  support the entire economy. No shame in going around the world and copying what you see, he said. Just make it bigger and better. 

His son and current ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid  followed through. Above is a view of the Dubai Fountain from the balcony of our room at the Downtown Palace. It is the world's largest dancing fountain, built on a huge man-made lake connected by bridges to the Dubai Mall, the world's largest mall by area with more than 1,000 stores, an aquarium and underwater zoo. With Dubai scheduled to host Expo 2020, plans are to build another mall three times bigger.

Burj Kalifa at night

Across from the mall and the fountain is the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building at 2,700 feet and 160 floors. When word got out that the Saudis were planning a taller structure, a competition began with Dubai announcing plans to trump the Burj Khalifa with an even taller building under construction now. A recent newspaper story about "preserving Dubai's past" as the city continues to build referenced "saving" buildings and neighborhoods constructed in the late 1990s.

View from the 148th floor

Here's a view of downtown Dubai from the 148th floor observation deck of the Burj Khalfia. Like everything else in Dubai, a ticket to the top is expensive - around $80. Going only as far as floor 128 is a cheaper alternative.

Sheikh Mohammed

Sheikh Mohammed's  picture appears on billboards alongside major developments. He's well-liked, and life is good, not only for the Emirati people, who hold the best and most highly-paid jobs, but also for the thousands of guest workers like Deva whose jobs come with living accommdations, a month off each year and a round-trip plane ticket home. We met hotel managers from Switzerland, France and South Africa; taxi drivers from the Philippines, India and Tunisia; and waiters from Nepal and Holland. Arabic is the official language, but English is what everyone uses and learns. The government renews work visas every three years, but doesn't allow foreigners to become citizens, even by birth. At age 65, a guest worker is expected to return home for good. There's little crime, almost no petty theft or pick-pocketing and neighborhoods are lively late into the evening with restaurants and shops staying open late. 

Dubai City Mall

How do all of these people, including millions of Western visitors who come to the beaches to drink and party, get along in a Muslim culture? The Emirati people have their rules when it comes to dress and alcohol, but don't impose them on outsiders. Men wear white head coverings and women wear black coats called abayas, but there are no laws requiring head scarves or other covering.


Alcohol is not forbidden in Dubai, as long as it is confined within an area like a hotel, which the government loosely defines as any development that includes a hotel on the property, opening the door for a complex to include restaurants and bars that serve drinks. 



Shopping malls have Starbucks AND Prayer Rooms, also an interesting sort of ATM-in-reverse scheme that allows shoppers to donate to charities by choosing a cause and paying for a donation with a debit or credit card.


For anyone planning to visit Dubai, I'd recommend spending a couple of days in the new city and and a couple in Bur Dubai (Old Dubai) and Deira, two historic and traditional neighborhoods populated now mainly by foreign workers. We booked a room in the Orient Guesthouse in the  Al Fahidi Historic district, built by Iranians in the 1800s on the banks of the Dubai Creek, a saltwater inlet flowing into the Persian Gulf. Little boats charge passengers 27 cents to cross from Bur Dubai to Deira, famous for its gold and spice souks and a hub for many lively Middle-Eastern restaurants with sidewalk tables. A little company called Frying Pan Adventures, run by two sisters who grew up in Dubai, put on an excellent four-hour "Middle East Food Pilgramage" walking tour in Deira including a lesson on how to eat with our hands! Not the most attractive pose, but, hey, I was learning.




The Al Fahidi district includes 50 or so restored buildings housing cafes, art galleries, two hotels, mosques, a coffee museum and the Sheikh Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding. The center offers breakfast, lunch and dinner meetings to tourists interested in learning more about Emirati life and the Muslim religion. The experience was perfect for my Virtuoso story which will focus on taking visitors on a tasting tour of the Middle East by finding ways to explore traditional Arab cuisine.


Our host was native Emirati Waleed Nabil, 31. First came the traditional coffee and dates, followed by platters of various rice, lamb, vegetable and chicken stews and an Emirati favorite called luqaimat, little dough balls similar to donut holes, soaked in date syrup. He encouraged us to ask questions about anything. Soon the discussion drifted from food to the Emirati law that allows men to take up to four wives (Waleed has just one), to the ins and outs of traditional dress and what men wear under their robes (a sarong). 


One of the best reasons to stay in Bur Dubai is to wake up and walk around the corner for breakfast at the Arabian Tea house and Cafe in the former home of a wealthy pearl merchant. The cafe serves a full menu of traditional Arabic dishes  including several different breakfast trays. One of our favorite treats was chebab,  little yellow pancakes, colored with saffron and served with cheese and honey. When I asked about the big piece of bread flapping over the basket, the waiter invited us to the kitchen to photograph the oven-to-table baking process.


Onward to Myanmar. I'll contine Facebook posts from there as WI-FI allows. For more photos of our trip so far, see our PHOTO GALLERY 


  1. Fabulous! How I envy you, Carol! Have a lovely trip to Myanmar where I spent 6 months in 1998 teaching French . One of my best ex-student is running an agency for French speaking tourists now! Take care

  2. Everything you write makes these faraway places become real. I admit I've never been tempted by Dubai but now that I've read your article. Your travel tips are invaluable.

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