Sitting outside a restaurant in Dubai recently our evening was disturbed by a raucous and rude party who were perhaps drinking more than was appropriate and who began shouting and intimidating the staff. They happened to be Russian [there are a lot of Russians in Dubai] but could have been British or German or any other of around 200 nationalities that are represented by the people now living and working there. What they weren’t was Emirati. There was a time – and not so long ago either – when the principal reason for being in Dubai would have been work-related. It wasn’t hard to get into the country but there was a process one had to go through and an implied level of obligation was imposed of the visitor. We were frequently reminded that we were guests and there was an unwritten but well-understood code of conduct. These days the doors are not only wide open but hanging off the hinges. Dubai does tourism and shopping in a very big way but, in embracing anyone who wants to spend, has been the architect of its own downfall. Consequently, one of the less endearing aspects of selling itself and its glamorous lifestyle across the world is that rent-a-crowd has moved in.
The dilemma that arises from the occasional clash of culture is well-publicised; tales of medieval punishment emanating from a stolen lip-smacking kiss in public tend to exaggerate the extremes and aren’t typical but there appears to exist now a level of communal disrespect that is both alien to the culture and saddening to witness. My experience has been that even in the most trying of situations Emiratis are by nature respectful, polite and dignified; qualities reflected in a legal system that will tolerate dangerous driving – to some extent, anyway – but which will lead to deportation for showing the finger to another driver. Rowdiness and injudicious dress amongst tourists are not only commonplace now but are justified by ubiquity. I guess this attitude comes with the proliferation of bars, clubs, restaurants, shops and leisure facilities that have swamped the place but, in many ways, the removal of exclusivity and the relaxation of entry regulations have combined to lower the bar.
Of course, expatriate life has changed a lot since I first stepped off a VC10 into the heat of Dubai. That was a long while ago and I’ve gone on to spend many years since then living and working in the region. Whether living in the Middle East is better or worse in 2011 falls to personal opinion, unless you’re in Syria, Bahrain or Yemen I guess, so I’ll avoid nostalgic anecdotes of a life when we had to use handwriting and telex, before we e-mailed each other and kept in touch constantly with mobile phones and before fax machines, computers on every desk and two-day weekends. Going to the souk a couple of times a week and bargaining the price of fruit and veg was just a part of life then; in Dubai last week we shopped at Waitrose for the same stuff you can get at our local store in England. We were spoiled for choice so breakfast was organic muesli instead of the flat bread I used to get in a pack from Sharjah Modern Bakery. And there are no weevils in the flour any more, which I suppose is progress of sorts.
There used to be very few amenities and whilst hotel bars, the Rugby Club and one or two other celebrated watering holes were always popular, one’s social life tended to develop around a dinner table or barbeque. In Dubai today you are spoilt for choice and you go out but, despite there being so much, there is a wearing sameness to what’s on offer. Before the move towards tourism the community was much smaller and less diverse than it is today. Expatriate society then was dotted with real characters and I’m often left wondering, dealing now with the mind-numbing ordinariness of the Facebook generation, where they’ve gone. Perhaps the paucity of people with charisma, individual qualities and original opinions reflects the manner in which society has changed but whatever it is, fewer occasions these days in Dubai leave you thinking that you’d just spent time with someone special. Often, it’s quite the opposite. Social life used to be a joyride that ricocheted between sumptuous feasts and evenings of inedible food, memorable occasions highlighted by adventurers, raconteurs, personalities of questionable background and a share of lost souls. Now we go to a sports bar, compete with flat screen television and look away as the bare-footed untravelled in cut-down shorts loudly demand service.
The Middle East and Dubai in particular is overflowing with the mile markers of our ‘improved’ and accessible lifestyle. It likes to wear it’s modernity on its sleeve so the tenets of what the USA upholds as ‘freedom and democracy’ are on every corner; Starbucks, McDonald’s, Domino’s Pizza and Baskin-Robbins proliferate and the fast-food courts in the malls are full.
So while I watched as restaurant staff were insulted and intimidated I wondered if the Emiratis who wanted Dubai to be the destination of choice have got what they wished for. And in an obtuse kind of way, I think they have. It’s busy, a lot of money washes around, it’s unquestionably safe and the Emiratis don’t have exposure to what I watched last week.
I am nostalgic for how it used to be but being an expatriate is of course enjoyable and more comfortable in different ways now. Variety and accessibility, however, don’t necessarily equate to richness and it seems to me that what’s on offer in Dubai sacrifices life experience for gratification. It sometimes feels like Ibiza.
I’ve made good friends in Dubai, some of whom I’ve known for more than thirty years; spending time with them these past few weeks has been an absolute joy. And we didn’t sit around groaning at how much better it all used to be, either – the steak and Argentine wine we had at Jumeirah Beach Hotel were as good as it gets. But it’s sad to think though that what made Dubai special and kept us coming back over the years has gradually been eroded. Things do change, of course, but it seems that the majority of visitors these days don’t really mind where they are, as long as the sun shines, they have money to spend and restaurant staff doesn’t answer back.