Visiting Dubai: The local culture

Part two of five installments

Among the interesting aspects of my visit to Dubai was observing how the old and the new interact symbiotically as well as how they continue to conflict with each other.

Mall of Dubai
A small section of Dubai Mall
Dubai’s emir, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, is dedicated to advancing the emirate and has an eye toward the future but many facets of the area reflect the traditions and practices of the past. Dubai’s shiny new buildings, including its shopping malls, are clearly modern – some might even be considered avant-garde – but their placement follows traditions that are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old.

In the West, we pay little attention to the placement of stores, either in town squares or shopping malls but in the Middle East, souks were arranged by what they sold. Souks selling women’s clothing were located near others with the same type of merchandise. Likewise, men’s clothing purveyors were clustered together, fish mongers were next to each other, vegetable and fruit producers were near others selling the same type of merchandise.

In many ways, it made sense. If a person needed food, they would need only go to a specific area rather than heading out hither and yon. And “hither and yon” is a lot tougher on foot or camel-back than in a mini-van or SUV.

Today, many of the area’s shopping malls are arranged similarly. While not as strict as in the days of the souks, Dubai Mall, the Mall of the Emirates and indeed the city itself are, to a great degree, arranged by the types of goods or services they sell.

The Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building
The Burj Khalifa
To a degree, the city itself reflects a certain compartmentalization. There is a stop along the Metro called Business Bay; pretty self-explanatory. In the area around the Dubai Marina, there are Dubai Investments Park, Internet City and Knowledge Village. As their names suggest, they are home to many businesses and educational institutions that share certain similar characteristics, thus continuing to apply long-standing practices in a more modern setting.

When contrasting the old and the new, it is interesting that Dubai officially courts something that might have been frowned upon in the past: Hollywood and its movies. Dubai has been the setting for scenes in several movies, including “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” in which Tom Cruise’s character Ethan Hunt climbs the outside of the 160-story Burj Khalifa. “Fast and Furious 7” includes scenes filmed in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and elsewhere in the U.A.E.

The city will host its 13th annual International Film Festival in December, an “[A]nnual platform for Arab film-makers and talent, as well as for showcasing the emerging cinema movement,” according to the festival’s website. Although its stated focus is on Arab filmmakers, Western actors including Catherine Deneuve, Jake Gyllenhaal and Emily Blount have been honored and awarded at past festivals.

Identifying the "no man" zone on the Dubai metro
Identifying the "no man" zone on the Metro.
Despite the emirate’s overall march toward modernism, many of the old attitudes and practices remain in place. On the city’s Metro trains, trams and buses, certain sections are reserved for women and children. Men face a fine of 100 United Arab Emirates dirhams (abbreviated AED) if they are found in those areas, which are delineated by a pink stripe.

Consumption of alcohol is another area where the old and the new have not been fully reconciled. Unlike many – if not most – Western countries where alcohol is ubiquitous, it is more difficult to find in Dubai.

A misconception I heard repeated quite often is that only large hotels can get licenses to buy and serve liquor. While not entirely accurate, it is true that licensed establishments are rare outside hotels that cater to Western guests. As a result, at many large chain restaurants like Chili’s where diners are accustomed to grabbing a beer to wash down their tacos and burritos, they must make do with soft drinks.

Some rare independent establishments such as the noted Mediterranean restaurant Qbara where I enjoyed dinner with a couple I had met in Emirates’ premium lounge at LAX have permits to serve beer, wine and spirits, and these usually identify themselves by using the word “bar” in their name, such as “restaurant, lounge and bar.”

When dining out, it will be useful to understand that tipping is customary in Dubai but there is a caveat: Tips – including, in some cases, the “service charge” or “fee” added to restaurant bills – don’t always go to the person providing the service. A visitor who wants to reward good service directly should ask the staff if they receive the tips and, if not, slip them cash discreetly. Guests can also ask to have the automatic service fee removed from the bill.

Tipping amounts are a bit lower than customary in the U.S. For example, a tip of 10 to 15 percent to reward good service in a restaurant is acceptable, while 15 to 20 percent is more the norm in the states. For a taxi driver, round the fare up to the nearest note if the driving was acceptable. Food delivery personnel, valet parking assistance, bell persons all warrant tips of AED 5 to 10.

On a related note, weekends in the U.A.E. are Friday and Saturday, and Friday brunches are a very popular activity, much as Sunday brunches are in the U.S.

An astute observer might see some apparent incongruities where tradition and progress intersect. While many men wore traditional Arabic garb including the white, flowing robes called jubba and a head scarf called a keffiyeh secured by two black ropes called agal, many also carried smartphones and iPads.

McDonald's along Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai
McDonald's along Sheikh Zayed Road
Many women wore long black robes called abaya and veils called hijab that showed only the eyes. However, it was often apparent that those eyes had been carefully made up. When the hijab was pulled aside to allow them to eat at a fast food establishment along Shiek Zayed Road – an establishment that served “only Halal beef” -- it was obvious that they were no stranger to lipstick.

The fingers that clutched designer handbags had been carefully manicured and, though fingernails remained their natural color, the toes showing through the sandals were clearly sporting the latest color in polish.

While traditional garb can be seen most everywhere, Dubai is clearly a multi-cultural city with residents and visitors alike sporting clothing from across virtually all cultures.

Recommendations for getting around this bustling, multi-cultural city in my next installment.

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Photos by Carl Dombek
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