There are usually 2 over-arching assumptions when one mentions the word ‘Dubai’: money and sand. It is undeniable that the developing country is famous for its successful transformation from desert to urban paradise as much as its collection of exquisitely expensive shops, hotels, buildings and cars – and you know that when the police force has a selection of ‘super-cars’ including a Bentley, an Aston Martin and a Ferrari, that the place has money to burn.

Often, tourist hotspots include the biggest and the best; Dubai Mall (the largest shopping centre in the world, housing its own aquarium and shops including Gucci, Baby Dior and Burberry Children), the Burj Khalifa; the world’s tallest building, an assortment of beaches and a sunset photo by the Burj Al Arab; the seven star hotel.

As I drove down the main highway; the Sheikh Zayed road, a few days  after the announcement of Dubai winning the Expo2020, I passed an advert; “Whoever said winning isn’t everything, doesn’t know Dubai”. It doesn’t do the country many favours in modesty and seems only to scream; more, more, more!

But under the façade, the veil of richness that is now becoming an increasingly accepted symbol of this part of the United Arab Emirates, away from the glitz and glamour, the superficial observations and materialistic presentation, there is so much more to Dubai than one would first think.

In the scheme of glaring misconceptions, I aim to bring some clarity and shed a light on the various myths of this rich urban paradise.

Almost everyone, at some stage or another, has asked these questions or made such statements below but I’d like to present the truth and end the speculation as to whether they are factual or fictitious.

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“Everywhere is desert.” – This was one of the most frequent assumptions but, as of late, there has been great recognition of how incredibly urbanized Dubai has become in a very short amount of time. It is, of course, not the dune-filled space it once was. You will, however, find remnants of the desert on the sides of the main roads, under houses and in areas of scrub-land in between development.

“It never rains.” - Dubai’s geographical location, surrounded by desert, far closer to the equator than England and laying almost on the Tropic of Cancer, there was never going to be guarantees of flash-flooding and monsoons but Dubai does still have rain. With London’s 50-60mm annual rainfall in Summer alone (according to worldweatheronline.com), Dubai’s precipitation levels are comparatively low with around 12mm of rain per annum. The sun really does shine nearly everyday of the year!

“Everyone in Dubai is rich and everything is expensive.” - This assumption is a little more tricky to answer. What is certain is that not everyone in Dubai is rich. It is hard to imagine, with all the flashy buildings and hotels, expensive cars whizzing past and the houses built on plots of land that could sustain 3 more that this is just a sheen. These constructions, of course, were not founded in a day. Dubai, essentially, was constructed upon the work of the thousands of migrant workers, namely from India, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, who find work on construction sites. Migrant women often find work as maids or in retail and it is these people who represent the ‘poor’ of Dubai. Undoubtedly, they are getting a considerably higher wage than they would at home, but it still isn’t much and their lives are a far cry from the lavish lifestyles lived by locals and the wealthier expat community.

As for “everything being expensive” – it depends. Of course, the tourism industry is geared at getting people to spend money and so if you arrive at tourist destinations; Dubai Mall, for example, you’ll find high-end shops selling jackets worth more than you probably brought with you on your holiday. Nevertheless, there are places where you can find clothes with a price-tag that’s more kind to your wallet like ‘Naif Souk’ or down by the creek, Karama or Satwa, but if you find yourself shopping there, you can almost guess at the quality of the garments you take home.

“Everywhere in Dubai is fake.” – It is safe to say that in the rapid urban sprawl and development of Dubai within the last 10 years, Dubai has lost a fair amount of the culture and natural attractions it had to offer to the tourism industry. So, yes, it is safe to say that much of Dubai is now ‘fake’ if we take this to mean ‘artificial’.

“Do you have to wear a burkha/ abaya?” – People often ask whether or not you have to wear traditional dress when you visit or live in Dubai.

The truth is that you don’t have to. Over the years Dubai has been known to be one of the more relaxed Emirates in the UAE and Middle East and so, unlike in Saudi Arabia, it is not compulsory to have to wear traditional costume. Having said that, it is neither acceptable nor advised that one walks in public in shorts and a skimpy top. There is some leeway at the beach and around the pools, however but the general rule of thumb is to keep to clothing that covers your shoulders with trousers reaching to your knees.

“Women can’t drive.” – The WHO (the World Health Organisation) recently ranked Dubai’s roads as some of the most dangerous in the world and so taking to the highways in the UAE (United Arab Emirates) is more a case of risking one’s life. This isn’t to say that selected people aren’t allowed to drive if they want to. People unfamiliar with Dubai often confuse it with Saudi Arabia. In fact, in Dubai, women can drive and the minimum driving age is currently 18 years old for anyone. Yet, undeniably, there is a culture that has evolved as part of the ‘modern Dubai’ where it in not uncommon for a family to keep a ‘driver’ – usually a man who drives the family cars and transports them to school, work, extra-curricular activities or the malls.  So whilst men and women alike have the option to drive, it is sometimes more convenient to get someone else to do it for them.

“Will your hand get cut off for stealing?” – Stealing, in any country, is frowned upon and, though Dubai is strict, your hand will not pay the price for your greed. But, you will not be ‘let-off’ lightly.

“You’re not allowed to drink alcohol.” - Despite being a Muslim state, Dubai does allow non-Muslims to drink but this comes with certain limitations. If you are a tourist, drinking exclusively in clubs, bars and your hotel will ensure that you stay on the right side of the law, but as a resident, if you wish to keep wine at home and drink it in comfort, you must have a ‘liquor licence’. And, remember…public drunkenness is punishable by law!

“Is Dubai really strict?” – I suppose, after reading this article, you can make your own assumptions as to whether Dubai is strict. Certainly, after embracing the culture and familiarizing yourself with the customs (and law) it is not as strict as one would first imagine. What is required is just a little forward thinking.

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  • Geoff Smith
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    Sounds like hell to me. No thanks.

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    Laura Ash
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    You would think so, but try it. It isn’t at all.

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