Earlier this month I accompanied members of the Arizona Commerce Authority to the GITEX trade show in Dubai, UAE. This is a global technology conference the size of CES or the COMDEX Show in Las Vegas, although with a marked business focus. I arrived a day early and stayed a few days after the show to attend EXPO2020, the World’s Fair running from Oct 1, 2021 – March 2022, and see some of the other sites in this “sandlot turned global hub.” If you’re getting this in email, I encourage you to follow the link to the online version as it contains photos.
As happens to any traveler, ignorance and pre-conceived ideas of another country get shattered (or at least realigned) on a personal visit. This happened to me in Dubai. Below are my observations. While I’ve little interest in packing up and moving to Dubai, learning directly about a place rather than from the “Chamber of Commerce” hype I find always has value.
- Truly International City: This is an Arabic country and you can’t miss men everywhere with long flowing white robes and some women in black Hijabs, although not very many. However, the local citizens are a minority. Of Dubai’s 8.84 million people, UAE nationals are only 1.15M or 11% of the population, making it the most internationally populated city on the planet with large numbers of Australians, English, French, and Germans as well as other Europeans. I met people living and working here from Algeria, Pakistan, Thailand, Jordon, Palestine, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and India. At the World’s Fair, I stood in line with and spoke to families on vacation from Turkey, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, and Norway.
- Leaders in the UAE appear to have taken a page from the USA playbook, recognizing that mixing cultures and perspectives leads to substantial advantages and a strong competitive edge in business and tourism. One example is the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, which drafted expertise from nearly everywhere on the planet to get the best talent for each aspect of this extensive project and bring it to life. Some in the US appear to have lost the recognition of how much we benefited as a country by embracing the “melting pot” approach and how some now want to reduce or slow immigration. This runs counter to the benefits of being the place where the best, smartest, and most motivated people wish to come to start families and careers.
- Weather – it’s HOT and Humid. Coming from Phoenix and knowing Dubai was a desert, I assumed I’d be well equipped to deal with the heat, but I’d not counted on the humidity. The outdoors was uncomfortable until late in the afternoon when a breeze would invariably pick up, cooling things down and the shadows became longer, providing increased shade.
- Burj Khalifa: Everyone knows it as the world’s tallest building (828 meters/2,716 ft.) with over 200 stories. Being in it, even as a tourist, was spectacular. They’ve gone beyond the idea of a mere long elevator ride and observation deck at the top. They do that, but much more, making it something for everyone. For me, it was the extensive set of interactive interviews with different people involved in creating this building, the problems they needed to solve, and how they managed to solve them. In particular, I found how they dealt with wind issues (45 separate wind tunnel tests with models), and the requirements for concrete that had never been made before from its density and strength to how to get it up that high and then to slow its drying time in temperatures that reached 50 degrees C (122 degrees Fahrenheit) to be utterly fabulous. This project depended on the blending of design, engineering, and construction companies from all over the world. It was too big a project for one firm or one point of view; it took the thoughts and ideas of many different people.
- Religion: The biggest illusion shattered rather quickly is that anyone there has any interest in your adopting their religion and, for the most part, nearly everyone thinks and acts as secular as we do in the US and perhaps, even more so. Of course, the Arab world has its fringe religious adherents, the same as we do here in the US. No region in the world has exclusivity on people with nutty ideas. But like the US, they are so far in the background, we don’t run across them all that often. In Dubai, it is not uncommon to see Muslim Mosques, Jewish Temples, Catholic Churches, and Hindu temples within blocks of each other.
- Sharia law. While in theory, it is the “law of the land,” it does not apply in over 50 “free zones,” which are sort of enterprise zones scattered around the UAE. In the US there is a good bit of misunderstanding about Sharia Law. First, you should know that Sharia laws apply only to UAE citizens and then only when they choose, for religious reasons, to be governed by them. Most Muslims have no interest in applying it to anyone else, and the creation of all of these areas where it can’t be applied is one way to accomplish this. While some laws in the UAE are based on Sharia law — the ones like the death penalty for murder, rape, and treason — many of the prohibitions against cross-dressing or adultery, appear to be quite relaxed and only enforced when someone appears out to get someone for some reason. Think of it this way: it is a crime in Phoenix, Arizona to exceed 45 miles per hour on larger streets, and yet, the prevailing traffic is almost always closer to 60 mph and sometimes higher. And yet, the jails aren’t full of speeding lawbreakers.
But the big reveal is these 55 or so “free zones” all have their own laws, judicial systems, and regulatory framework. I visited one which covered most of downtown called the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC). This is an entire matrix of large skyscrapers all linked. I spent a revealing afternoon visiting the local Thunderbird Office and an Aviation brokerage firm where a T-Bird Alumnus worked. The size of this area is immense, covering 272 acres and resembles downtown San Francisco. All of the buildings are linked to a common mall, but this place is 5 times larger. It has become one of the largest FinTech hubs in the world, has three hotels (the Rita-Carlton, Waldorf Astoria, and Four Seasons). It is filled not only with massively large office buildings but has art galleries, bars, restaurants, and retail shops.
- Lack of crime. Contrast crime rates in Dubai with Maricopa County which has a similar-sized population. Also, the result this lack of crime risk has on people’s behaviors is obvious: backpacks, bags with purchases, and purses are left unattended as people run various quick errands. You’ll see cell phones on tables in restaurants, along with car keys, when people head to the restroom. At night, streets are filled with all varieties of people – families, single men or women, or walking in groups of two or three. No one appears to have the slightest fear or concern walking down dark streets or alleys.
The first thought might be that fear of medieval punishments, such as cutting off a hand for theft, is the reason for this. I don’t think so. First, brutal punishment practices for this sort of crime largely ended decades ago. The real cause is cultural pressure. As a Turkish friend who graduated from a US university explains, the values are very different. In the United States, we place the greatest value on acquiring the most wealth and power. The more money someone has or makes, the more expensive car they drive, and the bigger the home in which they live, determines how much they are valued by society. In Turkey and many other Arabic countries, the value of an individual is determined very differently. Their value is set by those around an individual – first their immediate family, then extended family and relatives, followed by the larger community. Stealing from someone or cheating would bring shame not only on the person but by extension, their family and community, thus exerting a powerful force to stick to the straight and narrow and avoid any temptation to take something that does not belong to you. The risk is just far too great.
- Food and juices. Sure, food is always different. I noticed a lot more juices and juice drinks than in the US, but it is very good. Due to the international penetration throughout the population, it is easy to find authentic food made by expert native cooks. I had a particularly memorable meal at a Palestinian restaurant. But it was just as easy to find Texas or Korean BBQ.
- Hair and beard grooming: Being a man, this is not something I would normally notice, but most men over there have beards. Hair and beards are mostly fairly short, only a tad longer than mine. The difference that most stood out was how well trimmed they all are. Seriously, they all look like they just came from the barber. Then I began to notice a large number of barbershops and salons. Clearly, no one does this themselves, instead they make frequent trips to these male-only salons where they receive detailed and precise hair care and a pleasant degree of pampering from the all-male barbers as well – which I tested. And they are one helluva deal. My 45 minutes in the chair at a neighborhood shop involved a haircut, precision beard trim where the stylist re-sculptured my whiskers and, then followed the big items by going to work on my nose and ear hairs and eyebrows. When it was all said and done, I owed $6.50. Without tip.
- Attire: Male citizens, at least when out in formal business settings like the GITEX show, favored pure while long-flowing robes called dishdasha or kandura. The head is covered too, and the headscarf indicates what country you are from. The patterned cloth, both worn and used in a variety of other devices, indicates the country of origin and is sort of like flying your country’s flag, but with a bit more subtlety.
- Exotic cars: The plethora of exotic cars I was told would be prowling every road never materialized. By some accounts, the streets were filled with Ferrari, Lamborghini, McLaren, Bugatti, and every other version of exotic. It’s a reasonable – but false — assumption. I spent a lot of time observing traffic in my daily walks to/from the convention center and while in cabs or private cars between various events. I found the automobile makes and models and the general age of the cars, pretty much the same as Phoenix, except for a few more Peugeots. But speaking of cars, the traffic is horrendous!!
- Traffic: Dubai has exceptionally well-developed highways and wide boulevards, but far too many cars, trucks, taxis, and buses. In afternoon rush hour, walking will literally get you to your destination more quickly. Of course, you would arrive hot, sweating, and tired, which is why you sit in an air-conditioned car, crawling along, barely moving. Comparing Dubai traffic to some of the worst I’d seen in Los Angeles during rush hour, my more internationally traveled colleagues told me neither Dubai nor Los Angeles could hold a candle to Mumbai, New Delhi, Moscow, or Manila.
- Prices: Many things are super cheap here, such as food and taxi cab rides. But it is also home to luxury goods sellers, and they were everywhere. While the streets weren’t filled with exotic cars, dealerships of these vehicles were common sites. Also jewelry and watch stores as well as high fashion temples to Armani, Tiffany, Louis Vuitton, and Gucci. When is the last time you saw a Montblanc store in the US or an entire store filled only with Cartier or Rado or Rolex branded watches? They also love cologne and expensive perfumes.
- A Global Brand World: I’m probably the last to notice the consolidation of global brands. I was under the impression Tim Hortons was mostly a Canadian franchise, but they’ve settled right in at one of the busiest entrances to the Dubai Mall. It’s no surprise to find Starbucks, MacDonald’s, Krispy Kreme, Burger King, Pizza Hut, and Wendy’s right alongside the Apple Store, Urban Outfitters, Pottery Barn, and Footlocker. Of course, they’ve got tons of exclusive Dubai brands, often specializing in fragrances, unique local art, and high-end watches. I’ve never seen so many banks in a single mall in my life.
- It’s a hub. Dubai has intelligently positioned itself as a hub for visiting a host of surrounding countries that require long, convoluted routes to reach from the US. But once in Dubai, many destinations are far easier and faster to reach. Most African countries are 3-4 hours, India is close with Mumbai just a 2 hr and 40-minute flight. Istanbul Turkey is five hours and Thailand only six. Singapore will take seven hours, as well Hong Kong and even Beijing are 7 hours and 15 minutes. I could see coming to Dubai for a vacation. While it’s not Las Vegas, it is right up there in terms of the variety of experiences and things to see. It is cheap and easy to get around, with both taxis, trains, and buses. Pakistani-driven taxis are everywhere and it’s hard to spend more than $5-7 to go anywhere. They have massive beach-style resorts with tons of water sports and more cosmopolitan, downtown hotels surrounded by nightclubs and great places to eat. Until March of 2022, you have the World’s Fair (EXPO2020) which encompasses over 1,000 acres, with over 200 pavilions, 191 representing a particular company putting its best effort into showcasing its culture, people, and their current concerns and how they want the world to see them. I managed to see a dozen or so pavilions (maybe 5% of the show) and what I saw was spectacular and thought-provoking.
Dubai was a genuinely interesting and fun experience and I would absolutely go again. The 16 hour non-stop flight from LAX over and 17 hours back is a bit long, but Emirates airlines make it quite doable, even in economy. They provide decent legroom, killer entertainment, and large bathrooms. I didn’t make it up to the floor with business and first class, but I hear it is stupendous.
The next time you’re ready to have your ideas on the world expanded, I encourage you to spend a week or two in Dubai. It will change how you see the world and your role in it.