According to Business Insider, Dubai International Airport is now the third busiest airport in the entire world in terms of passenger traffic. There are several reasons for this. For one, Dubai is well-suited geographically to serve as a stop over from Europe to Asia or vice versa. In addition, Emirates Airlines has been making a hard play over the past several years to dominate air travel. But crucial as well is Dubai itself. The city and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) writ large has become a hotbed of business and financial activity over the past few decades, becoming the economic hub for the entire Middle East. All of this was spearheaded by the UAE’s vast amounts of oil reserves. But those running the show in Dubai know that oil won’t be the leading energy source forever, so they are trying to pivot to an economy based on business and tourism.
But while Dubai and the UAE have launched themselves onto the world stage spectacularly in recent decades, how much do we really know about the people there? We know about the Burj Khalifa, the sandy beaches (and deserts), the oil, and maybe the royal family. But what do we know about the local Emiratis? What are their lives like? You may have even been to Dubai and you don’t really know (and there are reasons for that). So just what is it like to be an Emirati in Dubai?
15 Emiratis Are A Minority In Their Own Country
There are a lot of foreigners in Dubai. A lot. As of 2010, it was estimated that there were over 8.2 million people living in the UAE, and only 13% of those were actual Emiratis (citizens of the UAE). The rest are expatriates. And that’s not even counting the tourists. In fact, Emiratis are not even the largest ethnic group in the UAE; their numbers being lower than Pakistanis and well lower than Indians, both of whom come to Dubai mostly to work as laborers. Given this, it kind of makes sense that for many of us, the life of an Emirati is shrouded in mystery. Dubai is a unique country; we are not familiar with its makeup or how it’s run. And with comparatively so few people in Dubai being from Dubai, it’s hard to know how the locals live. So what is it really like to be an Emirati in Dubai?
14 Emiratis Pay No Income Or Sales Tax
Here’s one that many of you may know already. There is no sales tax in the UAE, nor is there even any income tax. Upon hearing this, you might think that Dubai has no public education system, crumbling infrastructure, and no clean drinking water. Well, that’s not true. You see, the Dubai royal family essentially has unlimited money. They control the oil reserves, they financed the building of Dubai into a global city, and they run that city. The residents of Dubai have very little say in how their city is run. To make this situation more palatable for Emiratis, the royal family largely cover themselves all the services and infrastructure that most countries fund with taxes. So the average Emirati gets free government services and pays no income or sales taxes. But the royal family has absolute rules and billions of dollars. Who do you think has the better deal?
13 Health Care Is Free For Emiratis
While the royal family definitely has the best deal, being your every day Emirati ain’t so bad either. Not only are all the above services free, but so is health care. Health care is a complex and difficult issue for wealthy and relatively well-run nations, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, to figure out. And that’s with the aid of tax dollars. For Emiratis, they need not worry about basic health insurance or tax hikes. It is because of government services and support like this that the UAE has much more respect and admiration in the developed world than do other governments in the region. But there is a dark side to life in Dubai as well.
12 Lack Of Press Freedoms
There are obviously many jobs in Dubai, but one sector that is not soaring is journalism; at least not open and free journalism. Despite all the money, privileges, and benefits sloshing around in Dubai, access to a totally free press is difficult for Emiratis. In their annual Freedom of the Press Report, Freedom House continually rates the UAE’s press as “not free,” and Reporters Without Borders consistently ranks the UAE poorly in its annual Press Freedom Index. Criticism of the royal family of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and the other Emirs is strictly prohibited. In 2007, the leader of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, decreed that journalists can no longer be prosecuted or imprisoned for reasons relating to their work, although this decree has often been worked around by pressing charges of threatening the public order to journalists who criticize the government or the status quo.
11 Do Not Quarrel With An Emirati
Speaking of laws, do not break them if you are a tourist or expatriate there. UAE law can be harsh. And make sure you know the laws, such as the UAE’s modest dress code (women cannot bare their shoulders or knees). But even if you are entirely within the stated laws, you still could end up in trouble if you wind up in an argument with an Emirati. Emiratis may lack freedom of press and freedom of expression, but the government takes care of them in other ways. Many a traveler or expatriate has a story like this, like being rear ended by an Emirati driving over the speed limit. It doesn’t matter if the Emirati was at fault, the collision can quickly become your fault. So drive carefully and try not to get into any disputes.
Having said all that, you need not fear Emiratis. Like most people, they are largely friendly and polite. But more than anything, you’re unlikely to spend time with many of them. Remember that Emiratis constitute less than a fifth of the total population. More than that, Dubai, as a city, is quite segregated. It’s not segregated in the sense of how the Jim Crow South was in the United States; just physically. The Emiratis tend to live in one part of town, the Expats another (which is where most of the hotels are), and the laborers in another part. If you’re a traveler who likes to meet the locals on your travels and hear stories and have some drinks, Dubai is not your best option. Firstly, Emiratis typically don’t drink, with the UAE being a Muslim majority country (expats and tourists can drink in hotels and bars, but expats need a special license to buy liquor from a store). But secondly, the city is quite segregated and Emiratis are a bit standoffish; expats who have been there for years might have many Emirati friends and acquaintances, but will rarely ever be invited over for dinner or anything.
9 The Laborers
As mentioned above, Emiratis don’t have a lot of interaction with the laborer class. The laborers live in a different part of the city. And to be honest, their lives aren’t great. They work in incredibly hot environments, doing the backbreaking labor required to literally build Dubai into a global city and tourist destination, and the pay they receive is paltry. The fatality rate is far higher than it should be, and the families of these workers back home only receive a small sum, should their loved one die on the job. Most of the laborers are from India and Pakistan, and they have been lured over by the (sometimes deceitful) promise of higher wages and steadier work than what is available to them back home. They have very few rights in Dubai. The Emiratis themselves largely ignore the laborers and their plight while they enjoy the fruits of their hard labor.
8 Dubai Life Is Better Than Country Life
A strong majority of Emiratis live in urban areas. This is because rural areas are mostly just desert. Not a lot to do there. Even so, not all cities are big and glamorous like Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The smaller towns of the UAE have higher rates of poverty, fewer job opportunities, and their access to government benefits and services is not as good either. While rates of poverty among Emiratis across the whole country is still quite low compared to most countries, it’s not as if all Emiratis are wealthy landowners. The average Emirati in Dubai is more well-off than the average citizen of...well...most other cities in the world, but their counterparts in smaller towns are not quite so fortunate.
7 Cheap Stuff
We’ve been looking a lot at the dark side and negative aspects of Dubai life for a while, so let’s talk about something positive. Despite Emiratis being relatively wealthy on average (and the royal families being relatively insanely wealthy), goods and services in Dubai are still relatively cheap. Unlike major cities and tourist destinations in Europe, Dubai has yet to see a significant raise in the price of goods. And that is to say that things are cheap even before you factor in the absence of a sales tax. Now, if you want to blow a whole wad of cash on fancy items, Dubai can definitely help you out with that. But for the everyday purchases of the everyday Emirati–like toothbrushes, socks, and office supplies–things are more than affordable.
The United Arab Emirates is a Muslim country run by Muslim royal Sheiks in the Middle East. As a result, women do not have all the freedom nor the same place in society as they do in most Western countries. Most Westerners see this as a bad thing; equality is good, inequality is bad. Having said that, if you grade the UAE on a scale, the role of women in Emirati society is actually quite good in comparison with the status of women in other countries in the region. Women are much more present in the workforce in the UAE than they are in other Muslim majority countries, especially the UAE’s similarly oil-rich neighbor, Saudi Arabia. And, like most big cities, Dubai tends to be a bit more progressive on these matters than the smaller towns of the UAE. It’s by no means perfect, but a businesswoman’s prospects are greater in Dubai than perhaps any other city in a 2000-mile radius.
5 Emiratis Are Excellent Linguists
As we’ve seen, Emiratis can be a bit standoffish, and they can even be hard to find in their own country. But if you do meet an Emirati in Dubai, they’re likely to be able to understand you. (Especially if you speak English.) Arabic is the official and most widely used language in the UAE (specifically the Gulf dialect), but many Emiratis have learned English as a second language. Dubai has been bringing over English teachers for decades to give their citizens the best chances for success in international business. And Dubai has long been a prized destination for international English teachers, as the revenue one can make there often exceeds the salaries being paid to teachers in other popular countries, such as South Korea and Japan. You’re also liable to hear any other number of languages throughout Dubai, such as Cebuano, Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Punjabi, Persian, and Pashto, among others.
4 Dubai Locals Are Very Adept To Change
Not only are Emiratis good language learners, they have to be good navigators too. This is because Dubai is forever changing, and at a quick pace as well. This is a city that, 20 years ago, had a population of around 700,000. Now, it has an estimated population of over 2.5 million! That is extremely rapid growth. And the city has to grow with the people. But not only that, the influx of money has been just as impressive. With skyscrapers such as the Burj Khalifa popping up intermittently to dominate the skyline and various stores of various brands jockeying for prestige, the urban landscape of Dubai is ever changing. If you visited Dubai a few years ago and are wondering if it’s worth another trip, you might as well go; it’s probably all different now.
3 The Mall Of The Emirates
For many of us, a trip to the mall is an errand. We are going shopping. We may enjoy shopping, but whether we do or we don’t, that is the purpose of our trip. The mall hasn’t been a destination to hang out for most of us since we were teenagers and had yet to gain admittance to bars and clubs. In Dubai, this is not the case. To call the Mall of the Emirates a mere mall is to do it a disservice. The Mall of the Emirates is a multi-level shopping mall with more than 630 retail outlets, 7900 parking spaces, over 100 restaurants & cafés, 80 luxury stores, and 250 flagship stores. It has four levels and 2.4 million square feet of retail floor area. It also hosts family leisure activities including the 500-seat capacity Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre as well as Magic planet, one of the largest indoor family entertainment centres in Dubai. Oh yeah, it also has Ski Dubai, an indoor ski resort, and snow park! Right in the mall!
2 Late Night Eats
Dubai is a city that’s probably very different than where you’re from. As a result, Emiratis are a different type of people. But they’re not so wholly alien to us. Emiratis, like just about all people, love a good meal or snack after a night out. And the preferred choice of food for Emiratis? Shawarma, of course. Everybody loves shawarma or falafel, right? If you’re lucky enough to strike up a conversation with an Emirati, be sure to ask them where the best shawarma is or what their other favorite late night spots are. As we’ve seen, Dubai is a very multicultural city, so you’re likely to be able to get any type of cuisine you want. Really, the only difference here between Emiratis and many of us is that when Emiratis eat their late night shawarma, they’re not three sheets to the wind, which actually might reduce their enjoyment of it. But on the plus side, they’re much less likely to drip garlic sauce all over their clothes.
1 To Become An Emirati...
After reading all of this, maybe you’re intrigued by Dubai. Maybe you want to live there. Maybe you think you can help soften the injustices there or at least overlook them. Well, there are obviously many expatriates there, so maybe you can. But if you want all the perks of an Emirati, here’s what you must do, be an Emirati. No matter how long you live in the UAE, there is no path to citizenship. Even if you are born in Dubai, that doesn’t necessarily make you an Emirati. This is a serious problem for the children of expats and even more so for laborers because some of these people have no passport or official citizenship of any country. If you’re parents are not Emiratis, you are not an Emirati. Hey, these Sheiks can’t be giving free education and health care to just anybody. Or maybe they just don’t want to.
Sources: Business Insider, Lonely Planet, Matador Network, The Telegraph