Undefining Dubai

I have encountered the same scene many times while driving away from the Dubai International Airport in an air-conditioned SUV. The euphoria on the ...

I have encountered the same scene many times while driving away from the Dubai International Airport in an air-conditioned SUV. The euphoria on the face of my guests gives way to an air of unrestrained disappointment as we cruise along the 12-lane Sheikh Zayed Road, flanked on either side by glass-plated towers of Babylonian proportions. Fully aware of the answer I am about to receive, I inquire with my practiced naïveté as to what the cause of their discontent might be.
“I don’t know … The skyscrapers are incredible and all, but it all seems kind of superficial to me. Where is the real UAE culture?”
The familiar sense of irritation clutches me. Usually I say nothing, but perhaps I should apologize.
I apologize for the absence of turbaned beggars luring cobras out of baskets with their flutes. I deeply regret the inconvenience caused to my honourable guest by my inability to offer them a camel ride to my mud hut. I am sorry that I live in an apartment in a high-rise building, which happens to be quite remote from their harem fantasies and most of all that I prefer Burger King over the camel couscous I was eating in their elementary school fairy tales.
Those who have never visited the Middle East often imagine the Orient as a place of magic and mystery, a twilight zone which has been immune to the progress of history: the timeless Orient. The fundamental structure of the mainstream representations of the Arab world in the Occident have changed very little since the age of Imperialism; there is no distinction made between exceptional phenomena and our quotidian realities. Moreover, the Middle East is often imagined as a monolithic and homogeneous entity; that which happens in Afghanistan or Morocco becomes applicable and representative of the entire region. Whilst misconceptions, such as the statehood of Dubai — and yes, I have heard scores of people refer to Dubai as a country — are perfectly acceptable, it would be ludicrous to make a similarly ignorant statement about Europe, i.e., mistaking Paris for a city-state.
Regardless of whether we perceive ourselves to be as such, Dubai is labeled as fake and artificial by foreign spectators. And it is not because we assume an identity which is not our own, but rather because we fail to mirror the largely imaginary stereotypes and perceptions which have been attributed to us as a consequence of decades of scrutiny by the Eurocentric gaze. The Eurocentric gaze approaches Dubai and the Middle East through the lens of demagoguery, a perspective which cannot correct itself through the reception of new information.
As modernity, pluralism and universal tolerance do not fit into the exoticised, yet prevalent regime of representation of Arabia, these empirical observations are rejected and instead discussed in terms of exceptionalism. That which cannot be justified within the framework of the Orientalist episteme is therefore overlooked and becomes “fake,” and “artificial”; its genuineness is denied. For years, Dubaians have been spoken for by distanced voyeurs, based on the quite audacious assumption that they have a better sense of Dubai’s identity than its own inhabitants, whose voices have, of course, been disqualified in the arena of public discourse through the trope of the superficial and disillusioned Dubaian.
Why do so many visitors aggressively demand to see evidence of our “culture?” Why is our cultural integrity measured by such draconian standards?
Other global cities do not face nearly as much pressure to “prove their authenticity” to guests by reverting to a primordial stage in their history, which no longer exists or has never existed. It is not and cannot be simply accepted that Dubai is a modern city; visitors demand to see proof of our “culture”; it is believed that we are masquerading our true, archaic and exotic identity behind the facades of our skyscrapers. But indeed it is not our culture that they are looking for, but the culture that they have been conditioned through centuries of Orientalist discourse to look for.
As a long-time Dubai resident, I must disappoint our guest once more: This “artificiality” is the quotidian reality for many of us — not only has the UAE become part of modernity, but it has secured its place as a paragon thereof. Dubai is the global nexus of cultural exchange in an increasingly polycentric world, and our culture cannot be essentialized. Indeed, most of Dubai’s residents exist in a hybrid state with overlapping cultural identities, and it is through the pluralism of our city that this “difference” and paucity of definitive identification can be accommodated.
I wish to conclude this article on a reflexive note; I do not, and cannot for the matter, represent Dubai in an objective manner. Indeed, there are multiple “Dubais”; what I represent in this article is merely the ways in which I have experienced the city, namely as a society which values gender equality, individualism and pluralism. “Dubai” means many different things to its inhabitants; however, the face which I am confident does not exist is the one plastered between pages 17 and 24 of any given publication on the standard European newsstand. By describing Dubai as a “bubble” and as a “dream,” they undermine the world in which I grew up and continue to live. We are just as real as any other society, and it is high time to realise that the East has the same capacity as the Occident for modernisation and change.
Ashraf Abdel Rahman is a contributing writer. Email him at
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