More than a month ago, I emerged through the swishing arrivals doors of Dubai airport at 5:30 in the morning, to end a journey begun in Seoul. Beckoned over by a female driver, we piled a year’s worth of luggage into the ‘pink taxi’ that then sped along empty roads, past the lush green golf course, across the once-arterial Creek’s water, past the pyramids of Wafi shopping mall, and through a tiled tunnel before cruising along the Sheikh Zayed Road. It is a journey I have made many times, but the post-dawn quiet made for a portentous homecoming.
As the cab left behind it the twin toblerones of Emirates Towers, we overtook a white bus filled with South Asian workers. Slumped over in deep slumber, they were probably destined for a construction site—whilst I was returning to the luxury of my family home. Reacquaintance with Dubai is always something of a shock. It is in these moments that Dubai is a glassy microcosm of the world, reflecting vast income disparities, inequality and unfairness squarely back at you. The uncomfortable awareness of bestowed privilege derived from holding a certain passport is disconcerting and guilt-inducing. I always feel this more acutely in Dubai than in the UK, or South Korea.
But this is also my home. I was born in Abu Dhabi, living there and in Dubai for 18 years before leaving for university in the UK. Even then, I would still return between terms. While I am not Emirati, or an expert on the UAE, with my long history in the country I hope to provide some insights. Like it or loathe it—and I have done both over the years, often at the same time—the UAE is where I’m from.
What never ceases to amaze me is Dubai’s resilience. Back in 2009, building projects had visibly ground to a halt. People were leaving. Debts were mounting. The situation was, in the buzzword of the global economic downturn, ‘austere’. Things had picked up a little by late 2010. But after being absent for over a year, the changes are noticeable. Our street, which previously had three empty villas, now only has one. There is a surprising volume of people walking around the nearby mall. A restaurant strip adjacent to the beach is bustling even on weeknights. The supermarket checkout always seems to have long queues. Traffic has returned to pre-recession levels, to be avoided at peak times. Friends working in law and consultancy in London or the US are being dispatched to UAE offices, and there is a sense of jobs and opportunity that is lacking elsewhere in the world. All these small changes add up, catching the attention of not only the local press, but also as a topic of conversation for local residents.
Undoubtedly, not all is the same as five years ago, as hunger-striking prisoners show who have been incarcerated due to their cheques bouncing. People are still writing to a local paper renowned for its letters page, 7Days, complaining that the ‘house’ they are paying a mortgage for remains nothing but a plot of sand. However, the overall feeling of growth and resurgence is undeniable. Some point to the Arab Spring as a stimulus for this growth, reinforcing Dubai’s status as a regional ‘safe haven’. Tensions between the UAE and Iran may have dampened this somewhat. But daily life in Dubai feels as far away from the revolutions and ensuing uncertainty of the Arab Spring as South Korea did.
This article is part of Arab Awakening's This week's window into the Middle East.