Touring the World without leaving Dubai - Top 5 ethnic influences in a global hub

By: Helen McClure

Dubai likes to boast. So it should be pretty easy to put together a top list about Dubai. After all it can offer the World’s biggest dancing fountains at the Dubai Mall, shooting 150m into the air. The same mall boasts the World’s largest fish tank (or largest piece of acrylic). The indoor ski slope at the Mall of the Emirates is the World’s longest. Dubai is also on the edge of the largest desert (The Empty Quarter). In short, Dubai likes its claims to fame; from high-rise living in the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the World standing 828m, to the World’s biggest residential project, Jumeirah Beach Residence.

Room with a view: Burj Khalifa and dancing fountains
Room with a view: Burj Khalifa and dancing fountains


But what about an alternative list? Dubai is an international travel hub with most airlines making stops here on long-haul flights. It is home to more than 100 nationalities. In short, it’s a melting pot of cultures, which is a doubled-edged sword. On one side you can practically navigate the globe without leaving Dubai, sampling the riches of each culture. On the other, each culture applies its own interpretation of rules, regulations, customs and ethics.

So let’s jump in a time machine and start at the beginning of the region’s history.

Dubai doesn’t really appear on a map until the 18th century, and from a small piece of grit pearls grow. Indeed, it was the pearling trade of this small fishing village that put Dubai on the map in the first place. Muslim, Turk, Mongol and Ottoman Empires have influenced the development of the Arabian Peninsula, and in the nineteenth century the British investigated the region as a strategic base for exercising its control in Europe and India. Having defeated pirates, Britain signed a treaty with local rulers denouncing piracy. The British offered protection in return for local influence and the Trucial States were born.

Dubai is one of seven Emirates that form the UAE (Abu Dhabi-the capital, Sharjah, Ajman, Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah, Umm Al Quwain). It was granted independence from the British in 1971, and Dubai has become one of the fastest growing and most cosmopolitan places.

So which nationalities have made their cultural stamp and created modern Dubai? What are the alternative places to visit?

  1. Iranian traders: Visit the Bastakiya and Creek
    Tax concessions were made to encourage Iranian traders to settle in Dubai in the 19th century and the Bastakiya Quarter, Dubai’s heritage heart, was born. The Dubai Museum, which is also housed in the Al Fahidi Fort, is a great place to start if you’re looking for historical context. The Fort is Dubai’s oldest building, built in 1787. The Creek was dredged to enable access for large ships and Dubai became an import and export hub. Although oil was discovered in 1966, it’s Dubai’s global position as a trading nation that has brought it stability and wealth. Old Dubai can still be experienced by watching life on the Creek. See wooden dhows overladen with goods, speedy abras (water taxis) toing and froing from one side of the Creek to the other, bustling souqs offering gold, spices and textiles and forget you’re in the 21st century.

    Walking in the footprints of Iranian settlers: Bastakiya, Old Dubai
    Walking in the footprints of Iranian settlers: Bastakiya, Old Dubai
    Trading routes: Dubai Creek
    Trading routes: Dubai Creek


    Iranian influence has travelled far in the region. Thirty years ago I lived in Kuwait, and as a young child I remember watching in awe as a man made flat patties of dough and stuck them to the roof of an oven. The gooey warm bread, peppered with crispy bubbles, was a delight I have not forgotten or been able to find in any of the other 50 countries I’ve visited. Then one day I walked past a shop in the Satwa area of Dubai, and with a waft of fresh baking was transported back 30 years. I know didn’t it was Iranian bread I had been searching for. And here it was in Dubai.


  2. British law and order: Sample colonial life at a big blow-out brunch
    Fighting pirates might seem like a romantic notion but far from swashbuckling and searching for gold, the dominance of the British was an economic necessity to safeguard its interests in the Far East. Today’s expats can see the legacy left by the British as soon as they make their coffee in the morning. The three-pin plug and 240v electricity will look familiar if you’ve stepped off the plane from London. And the road signs are the same colour and font too. In fact the highway code, although largely ignored by drivers, is based on the British one. Until the mid-1960s, you even drove on left. And parallels can be drawn between the legal and school systems too. And if you want to see how the Brits spend there Friday afternoons, chew the cud over a glass of wine at any number of brunches around the city.


  3. The Arab way: Visit the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding
    There is no such thing as the Arab way. It is human nature to judge nationality and cultural differences. And when a melting pot like Dubai presents these nationalities side by side it is easy to compare and contrast – but only generally. For example, no Westerner would say that the French are like the English, or the Greeks and like the Russians. But to an Indian or Filipino that might appear to be the case, based on looks, cuisine, financial status etc. So the same issue emerges when we talk about Arabs. An Emirati (representing only 11% of the UAE population) will be able to tell if someone is from Kuwait or Yemen from the colour of his skin, to the subtle differences in his dishdash, to the lilt of his Arabic.

    But it’s not that straight forward. Less than a century ago, the Arabian Peninsula did not have borders and boundaries in the way a Westerner might understand. It is a Western phenomenon, filtered through from a period of Empire when countries marked out their stamping ground.

    The Peninsula was home to hundreds of tribes and Bedouins roaming in search of grazing land, water and the chance to improve their lot through ghazi (raids). This looting brought home livestock and weaponry and according to the Umayyad-period Bedouin poet a-Kutami: "Our business is to make raids on the enemy, on our neighbour and our own brother, in the event we find none to raid but a brother." Borders were unnecessary and unenforceable until dominant tribes were able to reach agreement with others, aided and underpinned by Western diplomats and cartographers.

    While to the Western eye this appears aggressive, it is perhaps the historical root of the famous Arabic hospitality. Looking after your family was the most important task, and explains how hierarchy still very much exists here. These are simple explanations that make little dent on the complex subject of Arabic culture. But it highlights that although people are quick to judge and size up a nationality, it is complex and travellers can’t possibly get to grips with the subject in a short visit.

    An important ritual: Traditional coffee
    An important ritual: Traditional coffee


  4. The formidable Subcontinent workforce: soak up the atmosphere as you wander the streets of Satwa or Karama
    Indian builders, Pakistani taxi drivers and Filipino maids make up the biggest immigrant group. There are 1.75 million Indian residents1, 1.25 million Pakistanis2, around 600,000 Filipinos3. Other Asian countries, including Afghanistan, China, Iran, Korea, Philippines, and Thailand account for 1 million residents4.

    1 Gulf News 7 October 2009
    2 Gulf News 7 October 2009
    3 HSBC survey of the friendliest countries to live in for expats (the UAE came last), reported by Forbes 6 January 2012
    4 Gulf News 7 October 2009


    This workforce is low paid and often poorly treated. Builders live in labour camps, sharing dormitories, and there has been much press coverage on the conditions they endure. There are scandals involving unscrupulous contractors who confiscate passports once a labourer has arrived in Dubai, preventing him from leaving. There are rumours surrounding pay rates and working hours. And there are campaigns in schools encouraging families to donate shoe boxes filled with toiletries and sundries. When you first move here it is difficult to accept this hierarchy, and guilt sets in. How bad must life have been in their native countries to choose to settle for a labour camp as home? And that’s the thing. It isn’t a matter of choice.

    Maids generally have a better lifestyle. Living with their sponsor they mostly have their own en-suite room, but depending on the family’s needs, and often the nationality of the family, the hours can be long and conditions difficult. There is a statutory minimum wage a maid must receive, but this is sometimes ignored. They are entitled to one day off a week. This is sometimes ignored. And to add injury to these insults, some are beaten.

    Often the difficulties emerge through a lack of cultural understanding on both sides. A friend of mine complained that her maid never said “thank you” and made a point of explaining to her that it was an important courtesy that shouldn’t be ignored. While one side understood that saying “thank you” was polite, the other side did not understand that leaving the word unsaid was rude.


  5. Western expats: buy some sausages from Spinneys and cook them over an open fire in the desert
    Depending on where you live you might feel that Dubai is dominated by Western expats. Everyone speaks English. Even the shop assistants, most of whom are Filipino, don’t speak Arabic. The business world is based on Western rules. The numbers, however, don’t tell the same story. There are only 100,000 Brits in the UAE5, 25,000 Canadians6, 5,000 Dutch nationals7, 25,000 Russians8 and little over 500,000 Western expatriates from other countries including Australia, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe9.

    These numbers fluctuate widely in a transient society and soldiers at the American air base are no exception. Their presence often raises eyebrows in a region that isn’t the most tolerant of US foreign policy, especially given tensions in the Strait of Hormuz and the unstable relationship with Iran. Tolerance, however, might be Dubai’s middle name. That is why so many nationalities make it home. There are Christian churches, Westerns can cook pork sausages on their barbecues and wash hot dogs down with cold beer. This doesn’t mean you can act as you might in your own country. You should not go shopping in a pair of shorts for example. Tolerance on one side should be met with respect on the other.

    The long and the short of it: Dubai’s landscape
    The long and the short of it: Dubai’s landscape


    Diversity is what makes Dubai stand out. It makes this a vibrant and cosmopolitan place and if you are able to keep your eyes peeled and be open minded you’ll learn something from everyone you meet, from the Pakistani taxi driver, who writes his own highway code, to the maid, who leaves her young children in Philippines in to order to make ends meet.

    The World ticks in different ways for different people and too often expats assume people are approaching a conversation or an issue in the same way. A friend of mine recently tried to book a hotel room. She booked a standard room and then called back and said she’d like to upgrade to the deluxe room. “I’m afraid that is impossible. We can’t do that,” she was told. After a long conversation, which lead nowhere except to frustrate both parties, she asked to speak to the manager and explained that she would like to upgrade. “Ah, I understand,” he said. “Our booking staff thought you wanted the upgrade for free.” And the lesson? Just because you’re speaking the same language, don’t assume you’ll be understood.

    And if this isn’t enough cultural insight for you, visit Global Village. This outside themed entertainment park takes you on a trip around the World. Different nations are represented in food, cultural displays, music and dance. What more could you ask for?

Practical information:

About the author

Expat Blog ListingHelen McClure is a British expat living in Singapore. Blog description: Travel ideas, expat insight & holiday inspiration to help families, intrepid explorers and expats pack their bags. Stories, advice, information, photographs and itineraries to get you started.
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Contest Comments » There are 24 comments

Adelle wrote 5 years ago:

Never though of travelling this way. Thanks for the fresh perspective.

Corinne wrote 5 years ago:

It's true you can travel the world while not leaving the shores of Dubai. It's wonderful and challenging. I've learnt more about south Asia, the Phillipines and Europe than I ever expected to.

Marino Fresch wrote 5 years ago:

Great article! I always feel like Dubai is the Vegas of the Middle East. How accurate is that?

Lucy Buckler wrote 5 years ago:

Wow- and I thought it was just one big shopping mall! How ignorant am I! Fab article. We'll start making plans for a trip now!!

Ann Burke wrote 5 years ago:

This was an excellent article. I want to go now! Thanks for Sharing Helen!

Philippa Fresch wrote 5 years ago:

Very informative and well written article. Great to hear more about the culture and less about the hotels!

Malcolm wrote 5 years ago:

Hi Helen, Great article and bubbly website. Refreshed a lot of great memories. Keep it up. Hope my Linked in recommend helps.

Norma McClure wrote 5 years ago:

Excellent article Helen. Very informative and interesting. A "must read" for anyone preparing to be an expat in Dubai. Reading about the culture and history of the region was fascinating.

Rebecca Manson wrote 5 years ago:

Excellent article well written. Having been in Dubai 2.5 years there are parts I have not ventured into yet and will now take the step thanks to Helen's blog. Can't wait to hear more!

Andy wrote 5 years ago:

Great article. Cogent, thoughtful, concise. Thanks for sharing.

Andrea wrote 5 years ago:

How true! I have learned almost as much Hindi and Tagalog as I have Arabic living in Dubai.

Tilly wrote 5 years ago:

I love Dubai and this is so true. I just hadn't thought how it could be put into words before. Very thought provoking. Thanks.

James P wrote 5 years ago:

Great article and good memories of our trip to Dubai. Where next ?!

Catherine wrote 5 years ago:

A really interesting and informative article, which makes you appreciate both the place and the people, and want to scratch beneath the surface.

Heather Cremin wrote 5 years ago:

Excellent website, can't wait to come see Dubai for myself.

E Woods wrote 5 years ago:

The author's passion for Dubai comes through loud and clear in an interesting and easy to read article.

Kate Hart wrote 5 years ago:

Informative and insightful, an interesting 'insider's view' of life in Dubai.

Allison wrote 5 years ago:

A great perspective on the opportunities available to us in Dubai. Thanks Helen.

Marky Moo wrote 5 years ago:

A great insight into what makes Dubai, Dubai! Very useful, thank you.

Suzi wrote 5 years ago:

Very interesting, informative and beautifully written. My parents love Dubai - your blog has made me want to go now.

Sarah Wright wrote 5 years ago:

Dubai hasn't been on my travelling list before - it's now been added. Thanks for the insights Helen!

Caroline Fiander wrote 5 years ago:

What a fantastic article. There is so much more to Dubai than I thought. Dubai will go on my list of places I must visit.

Michele wrote 5 years ago:

Very enjoyable read! It's wonderful to see a new city through an experienced traveler's eyes. Thanks for sharing!

Amanda wrote 5 years ago:

Great article!

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