The Backpack Chronicles

My Backpack


United Arab Emirates Flag

After living in Saudi Arabia for many years coming to Dubai was like moving to Disneyland. The difference between these two countries is striking. For instance, no religion but Islam is tolerated in Saudi Arabia. In contrast Dubai has churches that sit on land donated by the government. Islam is still the official religion of the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), but other religions are not discriminated against. Unlike Saudi Arabia, women drive and work freely in Dubai. Some women hold very high offices in Dubai. This includes Emirati women.

Dubai is a fascinating place for many reasons. For a western expatriate Dubai is undoubtedly one of the best postings in the world. Of great importance to many is the knowledge that it is a safe place. During my decade living in Dubai I was never afraid to be in any part of the city at any hour of the day or night. This despite the fact the population is a melting pot from many different nations. It’s also an orderly city. There are processes for everything and they are transparent and easy to navigate.

It’s also a fun a place to live with golf, fishing and various water sports on offer. Waterparks and other themed attractions are also abundant.

Much of what makes Dubai work so well originates with its leadership. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum is the Ruler of Dubai. He is often referred to as Sheikh Mo’ and he is both a visionary and a visible leader. It is not uncommon to see him driving himself around Dubai in his Mercedes G5. He has been known to, on occasion, drop in on families camping in the desert. He will hop out with his tea pot and share a cup of tea. He is an involved and inspirational leader.

Hard Times

Times have not always been rosy for this desert mecca. I was living in Dubai in 2010 during the global economic crisis. Dubai was looking like it was very heavily over-leveraged and in serious danger of default. In the end, Dubai survived only because it received significant financial support from its big brother Emirate, Abu Dhabi.

In fact, during the early part of 2010, Dubai was remarkably quiet. One exception was the media attention surrounding the opening of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. Other than that, during that quiet time there were some big decisions made in the emirate, and it soon was back on the path to economic recovery.

Upon reflection Dubai suffered so badly during the recession because it relied heavily on foreign tourism. Dubai’s focus on tourism is due to the fact it has very little oil. Unlike Abu Dhabi, which is one of the largest producers in the world. Thus the decline in tourism affected Dubai disproportionately as compared to its neighbors. But soon the emirate was back on track and recovering nicely.

One project in particular serves to highlight Dubai’s recovery and its belief in the future.

The massive skiing complex known as Ski Dubai, situated inside the Mall of the Emirates. The structure covers nearly 250,000 square feet and has consistent, high quality snow all year round. The enormity of the project has to be seen to be believed, and its location inside the Mall of the Emirates makes it one of the major attractions in Dubai.

Dubai is quite simply an amazing place. In the view of many, Dubai is like Las Vegas on steroids. It is unrivaled when it comes to the sheer number of different things to do that are crammed into one, relatively small quarter of the Middle-East. For example, one day I played golf and went to Ski Dubai all before dinner. With the introduction of Sky Dive Dubai I suppose I could have done that also.

Local Minority

One very interesting aspect of Dubai is the fact that the Emiratis are actually very much in the minority in their own country. They make up only about 20% of the population of Dubai. In fact the common language spoken is English. If you need to go and obtain a driver’s license the discussion will be in English. The same for having your utilities turned on or just about anything else. The police department has officers’ fluent in languages as varied as Chinese, Russian and Hindi. I once had a dispute with my Indian neighbor and the police officer spoke to me in English and my neighbor in Hindi. Interestingly, the officer was actually from Yemen.

My son attended an American school in Dubai. But on any given day he would show up after school with a classmate from Afghanistan, India, and Canada, Norway or one of a dozen other countries. It was an incredible experience in cultural differences as well as human similarities.

Speed and Planning

While living in Dubai I was constantly amazed at the pace at which things were done. It seemed like I would read in the newspaper one day that a new road was being put in to reduce traffic congestion. A month later I would be driving on that road. The “can do” spirit of Sheikh Mohammed was on display nearly all the time and he challenged his various heads of government to act similarly. Failure to do so could find them being sacked.

My time in Dubai was a blast and I would return in a heartbeat if given the opportunity. The people are welcoming and the city is thrumming with energy. Like a massive engine, Dubai is hitting on all cylinders.

“Since the goal is clear, the road is paved and the clock is ticking, then there is no place for hesitation…while many do the talking, we do the achievements.”

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum