In September 2017, my dad asked if I wanted to join him on a work trip to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix over Thanksgiving. WHAT! I jumped at the chance. My boyfriend and I booked the trip, and we added on a few days to explore Dubai.
I’m so excited to share this trip on the blog. It was an incredible adventure.
Before we embarked on the trip, I had to google exactly where the United Arab Emirates were, because all I could picture was a man-made archipelago shaped like the world. So, let me help you with a quick geography screenshot.
I’d never traveled to the Middle East, and I wanted to be respectful of local customs. Growing up as an expat, I spent my childhood at the intersection of Singaporean, Chinese, and American cultures. My day-to-day made me keenly aware of how multiple cultures could co-exist in a small space, but also how they could rub each other the wrong way.
In pre-UAE trip prep, I did a lot of googling and reading. The blend of a flashy, cosmopolitan city and conservative culture was fascinating to me, and I knew the dress code would more nuanced than American media would make it seem. After doing some searching, I found Lonely Planet’s “UAE Travel Advice for Women” the most common sense and helpful:
“Even though you’ll see plenty of female tourists wearing skimpy shorts and tank tops in shopping malls and other public places (especially in Dubai), you should not assume that it’s acceptable to do so. While as hosts they’re too polite to say anything, most Emiratis find this disrespectful. …A bit of common sense (such as covering up to and from a beach party or when taking a taxi to a nightclub) helps keep the peace. …Dressing modestly means covering your shoulders, knees and neckline.”
I also loved this website, “Wander by Nada,” a guide written by a Jordanian expat living in Dubai. She covered everything from clubbing to cash. I was so smitten with her approach and style that I ended up booking a walking tour with her (more on that later).
So what did I end up doing for clothing? I went to Old Navy and snapped up a lot of light, long sleeved shirts or ankle-length dresses. The key was to keep the shoulders and knees covered. I also packed a couple scarvesj My boyfriend and I also decided to wear wedding bands – which seemed like overkill at first, but once we got there and started chatting with locals, I felt much more comfortable referring to my travel partner as “my husband.”
What did my boyfriend do for trip prep? He bought a Nintendo Switch. He heard about the 14-hour flight and panicked.
First 24 hours
We got into Dubai at around 10 p.m. While the city is known for glitz and glam, we planned our trip to focus on culture. We booked a hotel in Bur Dubai, known as the “old city.” It wasn’t shiny, it didn’t have a Hermés store on every corner, but it was also 3x cheaper and a heck of a lot more interesting.
After we dropped off our bags, we were desperate for dinner. I’ve traveled for years relying on Foursquare recommendations, and it was no different in Dubai – still amazing and reliable recommendations. We found a spot that was both walking distance and open late-night: Ravi Restaurant. Here was a first cultural experience: many restaurants in the UAE have “regular” section for men, and a “family” section for mixed-gender groups and families. We were seated in the family section, watched others around us for local custom cues, had some incredible Pakistani food.
The next morning, we woke up and wandered over to the Al Fahidi Historical District, a quiet yet touristy section of town that hearkened back to the “old way of living.” It was dotted with hipster cafes and eateries the way U.S. cities fill old factories with breweries and expensive haberdasheries. We got breakfast at the Arabian Tea House Cafe, where we completely botched our first attempt at Arabian coffee (the ghee-type liquid was for the dates, not the coffee… and we were so embarassed). That’s where we learned that we would encounter delicious dates everywhere we go – historically, it was an important source of nutrition for bedouin tribes, and today, it’s a way to welcome or greet guests.
Wander with Nada: A female-owned startup
That afternoon, we went on a walking tour with Nada, the guide I had found online. Like most folks in the city, Nada was very international – raised in Jordan, educated in Spain, and an entrepreneur in the UAE. She began the tour with a stop at the Women’s Museum, to educate us on Emirati history through the eyes of women. A few facts really stood out to me:
- When the UAE was founded in the 70s, the royal family mandated that all girls get equal education to boys. Today, 70 percent of the college graduates are women, and 95 percent of all UAE women are literate. #
- Women make up more than half of the government work force, and 30 percent of the cabinet are women. # #
- Maternity leave includes 3 months fully paid, and upon return, two hours per day fully paid for nursing breaks. Any government institution with 50 employees or more must have onsite daycare. #
- The UAE is the first country in the region to enact legislation requiring female board members in every company and government agency. In 2012. # #
My mind was blown. Some of the legislation was more progressive than the United States!
In addition to tasting and buying aromatic spices at the local market, Nada also took us on a walk through the gold souk where we learned about Emirati weddings dowries. How much is a dowry? Similar to engagement rings in the west, it depends on the couple and can range from hundreds to thousands. A dowry is typically presented to the woman in the form of jewelry, which she will wear on her wedding day. Here are some excessive examples from the gold souk:
Modern day arranged marriages in the UAE are kind of what you’d guess: boy and girl meet each other at work or through mutual friends, boy tells mom, mom does some “research” by asking around, meets the family, and if all goes well, they get married. Because the UAE dowry custom can get so expensive, two economic shifts have happened: UAE men commonly marry non-UAE women, and, the government has set up a dowry fund to encourage UAE marriages.
UAE weddings are a huge event on their own, but the bride and groom have separate celebrations. At the women’s celebration, they won’t wear the abaya cloak (which means there’s no photos or selfies allowed), but instead will be donning some incredible apparel and jewelry. The bride will be wearing the dowry jewelry – and it’s hers to keep after the wedding. Fashion shows and catwalks are common at these celebrations! At the bride’s celebration, no men can attend save for a 15-minute visit from the groom when all women except for the bride put their abaya back on.
At the end of the tour, we all got dinner together at a wonderful kebab spot. I would absolutely recommend Wander with Nada to anyone. It was a relaxed, fun way of getting to know the country’s culture and customs, and Nada (and our fellow tourists) were a great group to hang with for an afternoon.
AMA with Emirati hosts
The next morning we got breakfast at the Sheikh Mohamed Centre For Cultural Understanding. It was an incredible way of eating a traditional Emirati breakfast, meeting folks, and essentially doing an “Ask Me Anything” with our hosts, an Emirati man and woman.
First of all, the food was delicious. But what was really cool was watching a cultural exchange happen – a group of mostly western tourists (Europeans and Americans) asking questions about their preconceived notions.
I appreciated learning more about the traditional dress for men and women – long, beautiful garbs originally worn for sun and sand protection as Emiratis were once desert nomads. Like any clothing custom, there are nuances to the way people dress. Emirati men wear a kandura, a long, white garmet, with a gutrah, a headdress. The style of the headdress – color, fold, length, accessories – depends on family tradition and social class, similar to how American men have different takes on a business suit. For example, Saudis tend to wear red and white headdresses, while Emirati men tend to wear white headdresses.
Emirati women also customize their abaya – some have beautiful beading or even crystals on the sleeves, others have more “fitted” abayas for a stylized shape. Covering the hair is not required in the UAE as the headscarf is a cultural norm, not a religious one. I didn’t feel out of place at all with my hair down most days. Of note: 85 percent of the UAE population is expatriate – from other parts of the Middle East, from India, from Pakistan, from all over. This meant that walking around the city, we saw all different types of cultural apparel. It reminded me a lot of Singapore, where there was a hugely diverse population as well.
“So, does your teenage son like wearing the kandura?” One mom asked at breakfast, laughing with her teenage son next to her.
“He’s like every other teenage boy,” our Emirati host replied. “I try to get him to wear it, but he’d rather play Grand Theft Auto on Xbox, and he’s always on his phone instead of talking to me.”
I was going to the UAE. I had to see some camels. I recognize that this was the most touristy thing we could do… but I was so excited.
This camel tour was about a 45 minute drive outside of Dubai. On the way, we drove by a massive camel hospital. This is because camel racing is a huge thing in the UAE.
I don’t have much to say about this excursion other than we visited a (touristy) bedouin camp, watched a falcon demonstration (these powerful birds used to help Emiratis hunt), and rode some camels in the desert. It was my first time experiencing this type of desert landscape, and it was beautiful.
Ridiculous New Dubai
On our last day in Dubai, we explored the ritzy parts of the city: Jumeirah Beach and the Dubai Mall. We started the day with a lazy brunch at Al Falamanki Cafe, a bohemian lounge with a mish mash of aging outdoor couches. I won’t spoil it for you, but if you ever go, peek at the photos lining the walls. There’s some unusual history at the cafe waiting to be… verified.
Afterwards, we wandered along the beach front until we ended up getting drinks at the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel bar. Because we had spent a few days learning about UAE history, we had more appreciation for the glamour of new Dubai. For thousands of years, the local nomadic tribes made a living diving and selling pearls. The entire industry fell apart when Japan’s Mikimoto discovered how to culture pearls, and the country went into recession. This all changed in the 1970s with the influx of oil wealth. But, having learned the risks of having a mono-industry country, the UAE leadership decided to use the new wealth to diversify – and thus converting Dubai into a tourist capital. Today, it is the 4th most popular city for tourism in the world.
The shining pinnacle of Dubai’s tourism industry is the Burj Khalifa, one of the tallest buildings in the world. It is right beside The Dubai Mall, the largest mall in the world. To help you understand the insane size of the mall, here’s a list of things that we did in three hours:
- People-watched at the indoor ice skating rink.
- Took photos, stared in awe at the indoor waterfall which featured beautiful sculptures.
- Bought a baby gift at Monsoon (I would call them the British Anthropologie).
- Discovered an endless wing of luxury stores, watched a man waddle around with 10 shopping bags in tow, from Coach, Hérmes, Dior, Armani, Versace, and Burberry… and wondered how many thousands of dollars those bags held.
- We peeked the Apple Store which had the most ridiculous oversized balcony, where if you looked down you saw the Dubai fountain, and if you looked up you saw the Burj Khalifa.
- Watched a Bellagio-style water show at the Dubai fountain while eating at a local shop and bakery.
- We spent an hour in a pretty legit Emirates A380 flight simulator, and at my request, I got to practice flying out of Singapore’s Changi Airport and into the famously dangerous Runway 13 approach at Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak airport.
- … and we didn’t even get to see the aquarium, dinosaur fossils, haunted house, movie theater, or visit the top of the Burj Khalifa. The mall was endless.
New Dubai was pretty overwhelming. It was fun to see, but with all the luxury brands and hotels, I felt like I could have been in any other major city in the world: Singapore, Hong Kong, London, or New York City. Once the day ended, we were excited for our next morning, when we’d be moving onto the less glamourous, but much more cultural capital: Abu Dhabi. More on that in my next post…