Travel Tips

Dispatch from Dubai, Part 3: Dispelling Middle Eastern Myths

Locations in this article:  Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Burj Dubai’s Karen Elowitt recently flew to Dubai for a more in-depth look at the city she once covered in a day.

When I told friends that I was going to Dubai, three questions kept popping up over and over.

Will you have to cover your head? Isn’t it really expensive? Why would you go so far just to do a bunch of stuff you can do in Vegas?

The answers are: no, sometimes, and it’s different than Vegas.

It may be located in the Middle East, but Dubai is not particularly Middle Eastern.
Though it was not so 30 or 40 years ago, Dubai is now quite modern, and very Westernized. I think of it as Middle East “lite.”

Where other parts of the Middle East have chaotic roads, intermittent electricity, and religious police, the Gulf Arab countries tend to be well-developed, cosmopolitan, and not militantly religious.

Dubai Luxury ShopsIn Dubai, all the major religions of the world are practiced, roads are paved and orderly, and goods are bought in modern shopping malls and boutiques. Clean, fuel-efficient taxis ferry workers to high-powered financial jobs at German and Japanese and Russian companies, and English-speaking wait staff serve guests from around the world in French bistros, Italian gelato joints and Lebanese shisha bars.

Though a few other Middle Eastern countries (namely Saudi Arabia and Iran) are fairly strict in terms of women being required to dress in accordance to local Muslim custom, Dubai is not one of them. Yes, the local women tend to wear the black hijab, but there is no expectation that foreigners should.

Dubai street sceneThere are no mullahs patrolling the streets, and Western women can wear whatever they want, including tank tops on the street and bikinis on the beach. Some of the shopping malls have signs requesting that “respectful” clothing be worn which covers the shoulders and knees, but people routinely ignore this without issue.

In fact, it would be pretty impractical for a dress code to be mandatory, considering that less than 20 percent of Dubai’s residents are native Emiratis, and the rest are expats. About 80 percent of the expats are from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and the rest are from everywhere else. Everyone pretty much wears whatever is customary where they come from, whether it be a sari or a sarong or a suit.

As far as Dubai being expensive, well that’s a mixed bag. The high-profile resorts and activities can set you back quite a few dollars and the international press tends to tout the place as a millionaire’s paradise, but that’s only part of the story.

Burj al Arab InteriorIt is indeed pricey to get to Dubai, particularly if you’re coming from North America or Asia, if only because it’s a long flight. With fare sales you can save a bit, but you probably won’t get there and back for less than $1,000, and of course more if you’re bringing the whole family.

Hotels such as the Burj al Arab and the Jumeirah Emirates Towers have big price tags to go with their big reputations and fancy amenities, while fine restaurants, desert tours, shopping and spa services can require a hefty infusion of cash.

Local store DubaiHowever, it’s not all about the money. The great thing about Dubai is that anyone can find something to do, whatever their budget. There are many free beaches, reasonably priced eateries, and cultural activities that only require you to pay for the taxi ride to get there.

Just yesterday I spent the afternoon browsing an art gallery which highlighted contemporary Persian artists, then I smoked some shisha (tobacco smoked through a traditional Arab water pipe) for about $5 at a local café.

The previous day, instead of going into debt shopping the high-end designer stores at the Mall of the Emirates, I wandered the streets of the ramshackle Deira neighborhood, where you can find electronics and other knick-knacks sometimes at half the price you would in the U.S.

And even the much-ballyhooed Ski Dubai will only set you back about $50 for two hours.

Ski Dubai InteriorSo yes, it’s possible to come here and not spend your life savings, if you are content with more modest activities that will give you the flavor of Dubai, if not the glamour of it. There are lower-priced hotels where you can lay your head at night for as little as $60, if you don’t mind not having room service or a bar in the lobby. There’s even a $30-a-night youth hostel that’s pretty much the equivalent of a three-star hotel. And as a mentioned in my last dispatch, room rates have come down quite a bit, which has put the nicer resorts within reach of those on more modest budgets.

And the Vegas parallel is a little overplayed, in my opinion. Yes, they are both cities that have recently sprung out of the desert and are experiencing massive growth over a short time period. They both attract visitors from all over their respective regions who flock to the fine hotels and five-star restaurants during weekend getaways.

But you can’t gamble in Dubai, and you won’t find singers, circuses or magicians to amuse you in the evening.

Aquarium in DubaiHowever you will likely be impressed by the sheer variety of activities you can engage in, from crab hunting, to watching bull-fighting, to sand-surfing and dune bashing. There’s a giant new sports stadium where you can watch rugby matches, plus numerous movie theaters, live music venues, and even a quilting club (yes, there is truly something for everyone).

Though it’s probably not the kind of destination most American tourists would head to just for the heck of it, more and more folks are going there either for business, or as an add-on to a trip elsewhere in the Middle East, such as Egypt or Israel.

According to the Dubai Tourism board, the number of North American visitors is small compared to the numbers from the Middle East, Europe and UK, but it is rapidly growing. This trend seems set to continue despite the recession, as Dubai itself continues to grow, along with its reputation.

Text and photos by Karen Elowitt for

Check out the next entry in the series: Dispatch from Dubai, Part 4: A Peek into the Lavish Lifestyle.

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