What I Learned from Traveling to the United Arab Emirates

What do you think when you hear “Dubai” or “Abu Dhabi”? Maybe it’s luxury and gold, maybe it’s desert lands and Ferraris. This past week, I had the opportunity to see myself what these places have to offer. (Spoiler alert!) Dubai is not a country, it’s one out of seven emirates that make up the actual country United Arab Emirates. I visited three of them: Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. My first impressions of the United Arab Emirates is that it’s not dripping in gold the way Americans idolize it to be. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of shops to go gold mining in and buildings decorated with gold linings and calligraphy.

A look at the city from the Burj Khalifa (tallest building in the world)

However, the real treasure is in the rich Arab culture and the vision to be the biggest, largest and best of whatever modernized and tech-savvy building, airport wifi, or massive array of malls in the world. Abu Dhabi is, in fact, the richest city in the world and although it is in a desert, it’s funds are shown by being the greenest emirate in the entire United Arab Emirates (imagine the major water bill for watering plants in a desert, guys).

Beyond all the riches lies a large population of expats (short for expatriates, aka immigrants) who go to Dubai and Abu Dhabi to work and for some, to make enough money to send back home to their families. This was something that surprised me. Much of the money Dubai and Abu Dhabi is known for belongs to the small percentage of Emiratis who are native to the land. In my experience, I didn’t see a huge car show of Ferraris and Lamborghinis everywhere I went. Although I did see a fair share of Range Rovers and Mercedes-Benz, there were plenty of Nissans, Toyotas, and Hondas sharing the road too. My point is not to downplay anybody’s dream of Dubai. The United Arab Emirates is an absolutely beautiful country and they work very hard on innovation and building new spaces to make their country stand out as the best.

My point is, however, no matter where we go, there are real and honest hardworking people who live there. In the same way that we idolize Dubai for it’s richest, we also judge less affluential countries and cultures based on the perceptions we’ve been given. It’s not until you actually have a conversation with someone from a different culture and get to step into their home that you are able to truly envision the life others live there. The same happens with getting to know Muslims and the fear Americans have been socialized into misunderstanding them and the religion of Islam.

The young Emirati women I was able to meet during my time there were very similar to me and even enjoyed the same music I listened to, used the same slang (e.g. saying “I’m weak” when something is funny), and are aware of American social politics enough to know not to say the n-word during rap songs while Americans still continue to have this debate in our own country. The women I encountered there have the freedom to go to school and choose the major they want to study and the man they may decide to marry someday. Some of them are not as conservative as we may think while some are very conservative and that’s okay too. They are able to practice their religion in the way that is most meaningful to them.

Jabel Hafeet Mountain

Before getting to travel to the Middle East, I had no honest idea about who lived there or what their culture was like beyond what we see in the media. Although my experience in visiting the richest cities in the Middle East may differ in visiting other cities in the Middle East (and around the world), getting the chance to visit for myself gave me a first-hand experience and pushes me to explore varied cultures at an even deeper level. I am grateful for the opportunity to have met so many people during my trip who continue to inspire me to go beyond my limits and do what I can for myself and for my family. I hope to continue to explore cultures outside of my own and grow in my perspective of others and the things we share, the ways we differ, and the ideas we can come to create together to make our world a better place.