This city needs no introduction. As the main attraction and destination of the Middle East, Dubai is an exotic and trendy city full of luxury and amazement. Skyscrapers everywhere, including the highest in the world, building new ones nonstop. The most amazing and extravagant hotels, such as the Burj Al Arab: a seven-star hotel with 200 rooms, each 2 stories high. A coast with artificial capes and islands, full of extraordinary mansions. Its very own indoor ski resort, the Ski Dubai, while outside temperatures reach more than 40º Celsius. One of the most spectacular cities in the world, that in many ways makes no sense at all. How can a city so successful in so many ways be built in a hostile desert, by a previously unknown people, in a region so influenced by political tensions and wars?


The Past

Dubai is one of 7 monarchies that would make the United Arab Emirates (UAE), located on the coast of the Persian Gulf.

In the beginning of the twentieth century, Dubai was just a small insignificant trade port. The city survived by having special diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom, offering stability, and by selling its finest trade resource: high quality pearls. The only special thing about this city was its strategic position, close to the Strait of Hormuz.

In the 1930s, the creation of high-quality fake pearls and the Great Depression devastated the economy. Dubai experienced great migrations and economic losses, now as an official protectorate of the British Empire. It was in this period that the people realised the disadvantages of being dependent on one trade resource and the advantages of having stability in the region, provided by the British. These will be the two factors that will define Dubai.

Old Dubai in 1950 (source: wikipedia)

Old Dubai in 1950 (source: wikipedia)

Throughout the twentieth century, more and more oil was being found in the Emirates, but not much in the Emirate of Dubai. When the UAE became independent in 1972, the country was increasingly dependent on their oil exports. But Dubai learned from its past; it focused on diversifying its sources of income. As such, it invested their share of the oil revenues on infrastructure like ports, roads and airports. From there, they attracted foreign investment, granting special economic zones for any interested. All of this was only possible by having almost perfect stability in the country. As the years passed, they became great competitors in maritime trade, banking, finance, energy, science innovation, aviation and, of course, real estate. It was in the 1990s that the city exploded with the famous skyscrapers, while wars were being fought all over the Middle East.


The Present

Nowadays, it is a global city like no other. Over two million people live in Dubai, with more than 3 quarters being immigrants. While more than 80% of UAE’s GDP is dependent on oil related revenues, less than 5% of Dubai’s GDP is as such. Because it is right between Asia, Europe and Africa; and is so safe and diversified in its services, it serves as a bridge for business and diplomacy between the continents. It is, in many ways, the Switzerland of the Middle East.


Present Dubai

Present Dubai

The main types of people that Dubai attracts are entrepreneurs, to establish their companies in the city so that it becomes increasingly competitive; qualified workers, to work in such companies; and tourists, 13 million per year, from the extremely rich to the normal western, as tourism is a field where Dubai excels at.

I was able to interview an entrepreneur and a tourist so that they could share their experiences in Dubai:

Our entrepreneur is the owner and CEO of a marketing company in Portugal. He chose to do business in Dubai to take the advantage of the bridge between societies. Not only is it easy to set up business in the city, but also there is easy access to other markets from Asia and Africa. There are companies from all over the world in Dubai, making the competition fierce. It’s extremely difficult to survive in such a market, with all the big international players present. Still he is steadily surviving.

Our tourist is a student from Nova SBE that travelled to Dubai during the summer holidays.  She found many comparisons between Dubai to the big cities of the USA: big skyscrapers, big shopping malls, great suburban areas, gigantic highways and the automobile as its main form of transportation. Everything like that, only everything more extravagant. She particularly liked the desert landscape, the extravagant shopping malls and the culture. Most of the old Dubai is often forgotten, but that is where you can truly find the roots of the people, in the old part of the city, like per example, the Souks, covered traditional markets with a different one for each type of product, from clothes to gold.


Dubai’s traditional covered markets, the Souks

Dubai’s traditional covered markets, the Souks

Her trip dismisses the myth of Dubai being only for the super-rich. You can still have a great holiday in Dubai without spending that much.

These testimonies only confirm what was already stated. Dubai is a safe and exciting place to visit and work. But the city is far from perfect: it has serious problems.

The city grew exponentially in only 30 years. The city was not planned to grow that greatly, so there are very serious logistical problems. Big highways separate entire neighbourhoods and many streets are completely disconnected from each other by foot.

Dubai is seen as having a very relaxed law relative to neighbouring countries, and that is true for the most part. Women do not have to cover their hair, other religions are free to be practiced, even alcohol is legal. But there are still harsh laws. You can’t drink in the street, you can’t show intimacy in public (like hugging, holding hands and kissing) and you can’t say or report badly about the government, not in public nor in social media. There is no freedom of speech. One shocking case was of a British Phd student that was in Dubai to study. He was arrested for just suspicion of spying. Trialed and sentenced for life imprisonment with no lawyer present. He was later released, but not after 5 months in solitary confinement.

And then there is the rule of law itself. Many laws are ignored when it becomes convenient. There are reports from tourists of showing intimacy and drinking in public with no repercussions. Some labor laws are also ignored.


Living conditions of forced labor workers

Living conditions of forced labor workers

And that leads to problems in human rights. Many less educated people come to Dubai to work. The more desperate are cheated out of their salary when recruited to various jobs, mostly construction. They are maintained in conditions considered less than humane, forced to work without pay. This is no different than slavery. It is possible that those amazing skyscrapers were constructed by these people.


The Future

Dubai will certainly outlast oil, thanks to its diversification and its eccentric identity, attracting business and attention worldwide. It has serious problems, but they should be overcome with increasing influence from the west.

Meanwhile, the increasingly more bizarre construction projects are underway, like the Dubai Creek Harbour. This will be an urban complex full of luxury apartments, green parks and the Dubai Creek tower. This latter will cost one billion US dollars and it will be the tallest structure ever made by mankind, standing 1,3 kilometres high. Construction was expected to finish in 2021, but that will probably be postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, when it does finish, it will maintain Dubai in the hotspot that it is currently standing.


The Dubai Creek Tower (source: EMAAR Properties)

The Dubai Creek Tower (source: EMAAR Properties)

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