How to Write About Dubai
Always use the word ‘iconic’ in the opening paragraph. Other words to mention are ‘gold,’ ‘silver,’ ‘shifting sands,’ ‘credit crunch,’ ‘richer neighbour Abu Dhabi,’ and ‘gleaming airport.’ In fact it is imperative to start any feature about Dubai ny mentioning the airport. Some writers never actually leave the airport, but still manage to produce well-rounded articles.
Remember to write about your initial culture shock: it’s important to mention your own feelings as many times as possible — your admiration for the ‘gleaming white thobes,’ the ‘regal, smartphone clutching locals,’ the ‘abaya-covered women with bright red lips and Gucci handbags.’
The main crux of the piece should be the juxtaposition between old and new, tradition and modernity. Do not worry that this is a tired cliche. Nuance should be avoided at all costs. If you are writing a book, the cover must include a picture of a man wearing a national dress. It does not matter if the man is Emirati, but he must look Emirati. He should be either smiling benignly or shaking hands with a western man dressed in a suit. You can also include a falcon, a skyscraper, a dhow and a palm tree.
These images work better when juxtaposed. So, for example, a skyscraper looming over a dhow, or a man (wearing national dress) talking on a mobile phone while walking past a palm tree. Be careful not to overdo it. A man wearing national dress while shaking hands with a westerner holding a falcon, while both men sit in a dhow sailing past a palm tree will only leave your work open to ridicule.
Dubai has no history. Before 1971, all Emiratis either dived for pearls or wandered around the desert with a camel. Occasionally a western man came with a camera and took pictures of men pearl diving or wandering past with a camel. Sometimes they took pictures of men pushing a dhow out to sea. Before cameras were invented, there was nothing. Just sand, bandits, and palm frond huts. In the seventies, the only people who visited were oil workers from America, political advisors from Britain and Indians who sold spices.
Of course today, everyone who is not Emirati, or white, is being exploited. Be sure to use phrases such as ‘indentured servitude,’ ‘21st century slaves,’ and, if you want to be even more evocative, ‘foundations built on the bones of the Third World.’ This is not over the top, simply a statement of fact. Do not worry if you have no experience of writing about labour laws, workers’ rights or the construction industry in the Middle East. Every writer who comes to Dubai is an expert in all three subjects.
Be sure to let the reader know that Emiratis in the past were noble, but tough. Emirati men above the age of fifty still are. Emirati men in their twenties are lazy, drive too fast and only eat fast food. Emirati men in their thirties and forties all have diabetes, drive too fast (but not as fast as the twenty-somethings) and are either extremely rich, or extremely lazy, and often both.
Taboo subjects: Emirati entrepreneurs (all Emiratis are either in the family business or work in the civil service), friendships between Emiratis and westerners, and the other Emirates. Abu Dhabi can be mentioned, but only in the context of Dubai.
Throughout the article, alternate between a ‘haven’t they done well’ tone and a ‘they have gone too far tone.’ Between to mention the ski slope in the desert and the Burj Khalifa. These two buildings can be used to illustrate the Emiratis’ ingenuity and also, if required, their grasping greed and recklessness. You can also mention that Dubai is a place where ‘capitalism has run amok.’
Western characters featured should include the permanently drunk Brit, the subservient, slightly devious Indian, the subservient, smiling Filipino, the swaggering Lebanese, the glamorous, possibly-a-prostitute Moroccan, the arrogant, most-definitely-a-prostitute Russian, the American who works for an irrelevant think tank and of course the badly dressed Chinese tourist.
All interviews with British characters should take place in a pub, preferably after they have had six to ten pints of beer. Make sure to refer to their oversize bellies and their red faces. Every British expatriate that comes to Dubai ends up either extremely rich or sleeping in a rental car in the airport car park.
All interviews with Indians should begin with a few sentences on the poor state of their clothes and their emaciated frames. Mention their rudimentary living conditions and ask them about their moonshine consumption. The right tone is patronising but worried, with an undercurrent of western guilt.
All Filipinos either work as maids, nannies or waitresses. Be sure to mention their ‘sing-song’ voices and the amount of money they send home every month. Every Filipino is being beaten by their Emirati employer. Ask them to show you their bruises — they won’t mind.
Finally, end your piece with a dire warning about the future. Make sure to be as apocalyptic as possible in your predictions. Your reader expects no less.
This article was first published in the first edition of We Are Dubai in March 2012.