Dubai is a fascinating experiment, and perhaps unique among the world’s cities in a number of ways. Sure, its incredible skyscrapers and other architectural wonders hold myriad of global records for size, height, and splendor, but the city itself is a curious cultural concoction. In this city of 2.5 million (a nearly fivefold increase over the past two decades and a 6000% increase in the past five), a once-humble pearl-fishing town has exploded into an international destination for tourism, finance, and commerce. And in true global city fashion, the booming metropolis has attracted countless foreigners to come and be a part of this massive new opportunity.
Unlike most global cities, however, Dubai’s populace is now primarily composed of expatriates. Five out of every six residents of Dubai are not citizens of the United Arab Emirates, and many of them (myself included when I lived and worked there) intend to eventually return to their home countries. Thus, despite the mutual excitement for all the exciting events and opportunities that Dubai’s growth has opened up, the city has a somewhat fractured identity. And if you’ve been watching the news for the past… well, ever, you know that the region – and the world at large – is host to plenty of ethnic, national, and religious strife caused by clashes between the cultures who – for a time at least – call Dubai home. And while any cosmopolitan city has its share of ethnic and religious tensions, Dubai differs from the melting pot approach of, say, New York City, in that most of its denizens do not aspire to become Emiratis. In maintaining their original identities wholesale rather than assimilating more into the existing culture, the potential for conflict increases.
I had my eyes opened to this reality in the classroom, where some students would use another’s nationality – a nationality that was generally looked down upon as a second-class citizen in the city at large – as a hateful epithet. Another pair of students got in a fistfight over some cultural spat I didn’t understand beyond the fact that it stemmed from them being from two different Arab nations. And of course, unbridled anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments were on full display, emblematic of the culture of the host nation and the region, and while we had no Jews or Israelis at the school, this attitude certainly bothered a number of Americans and other Westerners as well as some of the Christian students and staff members. Overall, the students were largely respectful and open-minded of their fellow students’ cultural backgrounds (at least, from what I, as a teacher, saw), but a number of similar dustups demonstrated the tensions lurking beneath the surface.
These conflicts were magnified when looking at the city as a whole, however, and perhaps no more clearly than the tension between Islamic tradition and Western progress. While Dubai is outwardly the face of modern-day commercialism – complete with sprawling shopping malls, theme parks, luxury hotels, and a bustling nightlife – the city, like the United Arab Emirates as a whole, is an Islamic monarchy. And while many freedoms are offered by the city to expatriates – indeed, many freedoms, such as the ability to purchase alcohol for home consumption or at any number of bars across the city, are designed primarily for non-Muslim foreigners – the prevailing culture retains a number of distinctly conservative laws and sensibilities.
The city’s shopping malls, stocked with hundreds of Western chains, wouldn’t look out of place in an American city. One often overlooked detail, however, are signs that resemble the traditional “no smoking” signs; except instead of a burning cigarette inside the stricken-through circle, it was a stick figure man and woman, holding hands. No PDA. And while I saw many a couple holding hands in the mall, including one mere feet from the sign shortly after I noticed it, it is something people can go to jail and/or get deported for. In fact, according to a colleague of mine, a goodbye kiss with his girlfriend as she got into a taxi got both of them sent to lockup overnight. Like many of Dubai’s cultural laws that fly in the face of typical Western freedoms, this was an instance of an Emirati witnessing, being offended by, and reporting the violation, which in turn caused the authorities to act.
A close friend of another colleague of mine fell victim to another cultural divide, landing him in much deeper water. In rush hour traffic (which, in Dubai, is nightmarish on a good day), the expatriate was cut off by another driver. On an impulse honed by years of driving in the Western Hemisphere, the expatriate shot the other man the bird. The problem, as he would soon find out, was that the recipient of the rude gesture was a local. And flicking someone off in Dubai could net one far worse punishments than angry epithets screamed from the other car. The local followed the expatriate home, took down his residence and license plate info, and reported him to the police. The next thing the Westerner knew, he was in prison, jailed for a seemingly harmless gesture witnessed by the wrong person. And though he fought the charges, he was fined, lost his job at a local hospital (and thus his visa to remain in the country), and, after serving a sentence behind bars, was deported from the country. All because of the cultural divide that seethes beneath the surface.
Of course, Dubai’s culturally mixed identity can create tension the other way as well. A beacon of Western commercialism and excess in the heart of the holy peninsula? Islamists and other Muslim hardliners aren’t happy about that. In fact, while I don’t have any way to verify it, I heard from several independent sources while I lived in Dubai that the government regularly paid off al-Qaeda to prevent them from attacking the city. Of course, al-Qaeda is hardly the only anti-Western extremists on the block, especially nowadays…
I explore both sides of this conundrum in THE DUBAI BETRAYAL, which just released May 10. While Wayne Wilkins and the other protagonists try to come to grips with the cultural divide from an American expatriate viewpoint, one of the main antagonists, a local who has seen the damage that the Westernization of his homeland has wrought in his own life, pursues his own destructive solutions to this pervasive conflict. And while I certainly don’t wish any of the devastation fictionally visited upon the people and sites of Dubai in THE DUBAI BETRAYAL on the city’s real-world counterparts, my own experiences and research reveal it to be a terrifyingly plausible potential consequence of this pernicious clash of cultures.