Dubai: A City of Superlatives

I never wanted to visit Dubai. I grew up in a very fake city (Las Vegas) so the thought of visiting another very fake city just wasn’t appealing to me. But when I jumped on a great flight deal from Emirates I found myself with a 5-day stopover in Dubai, so I figured I’d delve in to explore this ultramodern playground for the rich.

Light Fixture at Dubai Mall

An elaborate light fixture at an Arabic-themed section of Dubai Mall, the largest mall in the world.

Thanks to CouchSurfing, I learned that (surprise, surprise), there’s more to Dubai than meets the eye. I stayed with an Iranian ex-pat who had lived in Dubai for 14 years and didn’t speak a word of Arabic. In Dubai, you really don’t need to! Since ex-pats make up something like 80% of the population, English is the common tongue.

Dubai Fountain

Dubai Fountain shoots up in front of Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.

Staying in “old Dubai” (old being a relative term, at 42 years old), I was able to experience what is essentially a tale of two Dubais. Yes, there’s that ultramodern world of manmade islands stretching into the Persian Gulf. There’s that wonderland of luxury and superlatives. Everything is the world’s largest airport terminal (which I found to be rather gaudy), or the world’s largest mall (Dubai Mall), tallest building (Burj Khalifa), fastest elevators and highest shooting fountain (Dubai Fountain). Hell, I’m pretty sure we passed the self-proclaimed world’s largest sewer treatment plant at some point…

Dubai Fountan

Dubai Fountain which dances to music. It reminded me an awful lot of the Fountains at the Bellagio in Las Vegas (it was designed by the same company), though on a grander scale.

But there’s also a whole other side that tourists would rarely see. “I want to see how people live,” I told my host. After looking at me like I was a little crazy, he agreed to show me around “old Dubai” (more commonly known as Deira). We had to wait till after dark though as it was far, far too hot to do anything during the middle of the day. I was prepared for desert heat but I wasn’t prepared for the amazing amount of humidity that Dubai had, so suddenly those 107 degree Fahrenheit (41.5 degrees C) temperatures weren’t so bearable.

Dubai Marina

New buildings located around Dubai Marina.

The life he showed me in “old Dubai” seemed pretty nondescript. It was filled Immigrants who had white-collar jobs and relatively comfortable lives. Dubai wasn’t cheap by any standards (my host paid about the equivalent for his Studio apartment that you would in New York City), but people seemed to be getting by. Of course, he didn’t show me the living conditions of the thousands of South Asian slaves who built the city and live in awful conditions with 8-12 people sharing one room.


A freshly caught shark for sale at Deira Fish Market in “old Dubai”

He took me around to various commodity markets which weren’t all that interesting, that is until we hit the fish market. I’ve seen a lot of odd food around the world but nothing was quite as shocking as what lay before me. Roughly 100 sharks lying belly up on a concrete slab. One of them had its tongue hanging out. Another was literally in the process of giving birth, with the tail of a baby protruding from its body. What’s more is that it was 10pm and these sharks weren’t on ice… I could only imagine how they would all go to waste…

Sharks for Sale

Sharks for sale at Deira (old Dubai) Fish Market.

This thought of excess kind of sums up my view of Dubai. It’s a city that’s been built around gluttony. Yes, it’s cool to stare up at the tallest building in the world. And yes, it’s kind of cool to see the dreamlike architecture. But at the same time it all kind of feels like a waste. Dubai is undoubtedly a playground for the rich, at the expense of just about everyone else.

Chihuly Sculpture at Atlantis

An enormous Dale Chihuly sculpture in the lobby of the ultra luxurious Atlantis the Palm, located at the end of the Palm Jumeirah, a giant palm tree built of sand that juts into the Persian Gulf.

Is Dubai a cool place to visit? Yeah, it was it was cool to experience the grand scale of it all. And it was interesting to see the results of an “if you can dream it, you can build it” mentality. But at the same time, it kind of feels like an adult Disneyland… I’m glad I visited, but a few days were plenty. Before I knew it, I was off on a far grander adventure with the remainder of my stopover in Dubai, as I rented a car and set off for the Sultanate of Oman…


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6 Responses to Dubai: A City of Superlatives

  1. Talon November 20, 2014 at 1:46 pm #

    All those sharks really make me sad.

    • Aaron November 20, 2014 at 1:49 pm #

      It kinda sums up my overall impression of Dubai, actually. But yes, very sad.

  2. Chanel | Cultural Xplorer February 9, 2015 at 7:05 pm #

    WOW! The sharks really made me very sad, especially the one giving birth! 🙁

    • Aaron February 11, 2015 at 1:13 am #

      I know… They were pretty shocking and all I could think about was what a huge waste it was!

  3. cayo December 26, 2015 at 11:18 am #

    How high is Burj Khalifa? and that building by the marina loooking like twisted, is that for real?

    • Aaron December 26, 2015 at 2:03 pm #

      The Burj Khalifa is 829.8m high (2,722 feet), though the top floor (154) is only 548.5m (1,918 feet). And yes the twisted building is real!

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