Dubai: A Place of Extremes, Dreams, and Futuristic Themes

by Shelli Stein

Would you accept a job opportunity and relocate to Dubai? A friend of mine did just that and decided to move to Dubai for at least a few years. Travel across the globe to the United Arab Emirates, and travel to Dubai, may seem daunting. Yet my friend is up for the adventure!

Many people say Dubai is one of the most progressive cities in the world. The adjective “futuristic” comes to mind. I was curious and wanted to learn more since I’d not yet seen Dubai. I began to read about the background of the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) and the mega-city of Dubai. And as always, what I learn, I share!

Brief History of the Region

Going WAY back, the Arab Gulf has always been a hub of desert civilization, with archeological artifacts dating to 3000 BC. Sea routes through the Arab Gulf brought traders from many different cultures. Greek, Roman, and Phoenician settlers were among those who made their way through the area.

The United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), which is about the size of Portugal– is a mixed location of beaches, rocky coast, and wetlands—all surrounded by desert. It is humid and hot along the coast of the U.A.E., and extremely dry in the country’s interior (with only 4-6 inches of rain per year). It’s common for temperatures to regularly reach 115 degrees.

Who were the early inhabitants of the region?

Arab families and clans have lived in the area for thousands of years, herding camels and traveling through the desert. Because of the U.A.E.’s close position to Iran, it also has a strong Persian influence.

The emergence of Islam helped steady the country. To date, about three-fifths of the country is Muslim (as is the governing body).

The Portuguese made their way to what is now the U.A.E. in the 1500s, developing their empire into the Arabian Peninsula and Indian Ocean. Their control of the area lasted until the Ottoman Empire took over. The Netherlands and the British Empire also vied for control of this oil-rich gem at the nexus of the desert and Gulf.

In more modern times, British naval power prevailed into the 19th century. It wasn’t until after World War II that other Gulf countries began to declare independent statehood. The seven emirates comprising what is now the U.A.E. followed suit and joined together formally in 1971. Abu Dhabi became the country’s capital.

It’s interesting to note that the vast majority of people living in the U.A.E. are not residents; they’re foreign nationals who work to serve the needs of this wealthy land. Southeast Asians and Filipinos are among the most numerous immigrants to the region. Because of this demographic, the U.A.E. has substantially more males than females (about 2 out of 3 are male), and the population is relatively young.

Learn more about what to see and do in Dubai.

Why is the U.A.E. so Wealthy?

The economy of the U.A.E. centers on oil, which is mainly produced in the emirate of Abu Dhabi (the wealthiest of the emirates). Oil has been produced in Abu Dhabi since 1958. There are numerous offshore oil fields in the area, with competing companies run by American, Japanese, French, and British interests.

Because of the country’s geographical location, it receives high traffic in international business. It also is known for liberal financial and business regulations. This brings up a “darker” side of the U.A.E., as it is also a target for illicit financial activity such as money laundering and terrorist financing. Sounds like something out of a John Grisham novel!

20 Interesting Facts About Dubai—learn more!

Renewable Energy in U.A.E.

The U.A.E. has one of the highest per capita rates of energy consumption. This is because of its dependence on energy-draining technologies like air conditioning and water desalination. Because of these realities (of creating a city in the middle of a desert), the U.A.E. has become a world leader in alternative energy production.

To move from carbon-based emissions, the U.A.E. has shifted its energy production and consumption. The country has developed a strong natural gas industry (for use and export). The U.A.E. uses nuclear energy, as well as solar power. Dubai has taken a leading roll in developing renewable energy. For example, in one suburb of Dubai there is a housing development that recycles water and waste. Other innovations in the city of Dubai are driverless metro trains that alleviate much of the potential car traffic.

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Dubai: Birth of a Mega-City

Perhaps the most famous place in the U.A.E. is the mega-city of Dubai.

I once had a 7-hour layover in the world’s largest and busiest airport—Dubai International! Let’s just say it was surreal to be a speck of humanity transiting through teaming airport concourses at 4 in the morning.

It makes one wonder: how did this 21st century desert oasis come to exist?

Back in the 1800s, Dubai was a small village known for its fishing and pearl-diving industries. The ruling Arab families wisely welcomed foreign merchants and lowered taxes. The city became an exporting hub for India and Persia by the early 1900s. It also profited from wealth in the oil sector, though this is not what it is known for today.

Dubai was created in 1971 when the U.A.E. declared its independence from Britain. It is one of the wealthiest of the (seven) emirates. Almost 3 million people live in Dubai, which occupies about 13.5 square miles.

Travel to Dubai: A Fast-Growing City

Dubai is one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. This is partly because of the business-friendly environment that attracts foreign companies. For immigrants, it presents itself as a land of opportunity. It is also known for its low crime rate. Tourists who travel to Dubai are fascinated by the city’s human-made splendor, as much as for the beautiful coastal landscape and position on the south shores of the Persian Gulf.

Today Dubai is called a “City of Skyscrapers.” But before the 1960s, many buildings in the old quarter were not more than two stories tall.

The Emirates Towers were built in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They house government offices and a luxury hotel. The Dubai International Financial Centre boasts a number of soaring structures, including the Burj Khalifa, tallest building in the world in 2010, as well as the iconic arch-shaped building seen in many cityscape photos of Dubai.

Dubai city center is also surrounded by affluent suburbs, some of which surround man-made lakes, islands, and even a marina.

Unlike other emirates within the country, Dubai’s economy depends on international trade, not oil. Dubai runs two of the world’s busiest and largest ports, as well as an international air cargo hub.

Because of policies like the Jebel Ali free-trade zone (from the 1980s), international countries are drawn to the U.A.E. to produce products like cement, aluminum, and cars. Similar newer free trade zones make it possible for international companies to operate on their own in Dubai, without local partners. One recent account reports more than 6,400 companies operating in Dubai. Many are North American or European.

Tourism and Travel in Dubai

Tourism has taken off in Dubai over the past several decades. More than 19 million tourists visited in 2019. That number dropped to 5 million during the pandemic (though that still seems high, given travel bans over the past two years).

Tourists from around the world are fascinated by Dubai. Certainly the natural and architectural wonders attract tourists. The shopping is apparently also second to none.

In addition, visitors travel to Dubai for international sporting events (including the Dubai World Cup horse race), and it hosts the Desert Classic golf tournament.

Dubai also has a burgeoning art and film industry. It is a highly literate society, with an extensive public library system, bookshops, and the famous Dubai Museum (housed in a fortress from the 18th century).

You’ve no doubt heard of Emirate Airlines, formed by the Dubai government in the mid-1980s.

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Final Thoughts on Travel to Dubai

Dubai (and the U.A.E.) has certainly made the most of its resources to create a vibrant life and culture in the Persian Gulf. As some of the videos suggest, the wealth represented in Dubai emphasizes a “have/have-not” mentality. It has been ranked as the 20th most expensive city in the world, with a disproportionate number of billionaires.

Critics also point out an authoritarian government that rules the country.

Yet it’s valid to mention that Dubai—and the U.A.E.—presents a less restrictive version of Islam, thus balancing some of the extreme politics that have created a volatile dynamic in the Middle East.

With its more progressive politics and innovative economy, travel to Dubai is indeed a visionary glimpse into an oasis in the heart of the Persian Gulf.

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Paul July 16, 2022 - 10:48 am

It is a facade, a Las Vegas without the gambling or maybe they are gambling that no one notice that it is all fake.

Dubai: A Place of Extremes, Dreams, and Futuristic Themes – Travel Blogs July 16, 2022 - 1:30 pm

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Christian July 16, 2022 - 11:17 pm

I’m kind of torn on Dubai. On one hand, there are an awful lot of fascinating things to see or do: food, architecture, museums, etc. On the other hand they throw women in prison for the “crime” of being raped and in the (unlikely) event that a foreigner gets into a dispute of any type with a citizen, the foreigner can be arbitrarily thrown in prison as well. There are also some additional things like their death sentence for apostasy, dubious human rights record, and law that people can be imprisoned for saying anything bad about the government. Bottom line, I’m more-or-less willing to visit but if so will watch my step which is sad if I’m trying to enjoy a place.

Shelli July 17, 2022 - 1:05 am

Thanks for your thoughts, Christian. I share many of your sentiments. I’m looking forward to hearing my friend’s impressions. They might sway me one way or the other. If you do go for a visit, for sure please add to this post and let us know your experience of Dubai!


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