I lived in Dubai for about 4 years – this is where I met my boyfriend. When we decided to quit our jobs in Dubai to start traveling full-time, we got two kinds of reactions from friends and family. The most common was “I wish I could do that as well, I am so jealous!“. The other one, a bit more rare, was along the lines “you have such a great life in Dubai, why would you want to quit all of that?!“
There are several reasons why I would want to quit “all of that” Dubai has to offer. I was far from being unhappy in the UAE but there are a number of things that make this place only OK for a while and really NOT OK to live long-term. You can never belong.
In no particular other, here are some of the reasons why I left Dubai and won’t probably come back.
1. Human Rights VIOLATIONS
If you mention the word Dubai to anyone around the world they will automatically think of richness and fast development. It’s not the poorest place on Earth, that is true, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a fair share of misery going on. Side by side with that misery there is violation of the most basic of human rights.
We could start with the most obvious of cases: exploitation of the labor force. Dubai has gone from nothing to what it is now (a great pile of concrete and glass) in almost no time. In a couple of decades, exploited workers coming mainly from Southern Asia have literally understood the meaning of the expression “sweat, blood and tears” to serve the so-called lifestyle that Dubai residents – locals and expats – seek. I can’t stay in Dubai earning a great salary knowing that, while I earn those figures, people around me are being exploited that way. The system is unfair and many tend to overlook that, lured by the luxuries they most probably would have never been able to enjoy at home: full-time babysitters, cooks, live-in maids, gardeners, drivers.
Human rights violations doesn’t necessarily mean that people will earn ridiculously low salaries in a place where things cost a fair share. It means humans living in boxes without AC or fans, when temperatures easily reach 50C and more. It means working 7 days a week and only taking holidays once every 2 years. These are the workers that will be building skyscrapers non-stop even though the law requires construction to stop when certain high temperatures are reached (on those days, funny enough, the radio would never announce the same temperature your car dashboard displays).
The International Declaration of Human Rights says: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment“. I think the above fits just right.
Also in the declaration one can read “slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” In Dubai, as a laborer, you are likely to experience a modern form of slavery. Although not legal, it isn’t at all uncommon for employers to apprehend the passports of laborers during their contract. This way, even if a worker is unhappy, he won’t be able to quit, change jobs or leave the country. To add to this, sometimes laborers get paid not monthly but at the end of their contract, making it even more impossible for them to make a move.
No wonder the UAE hasn’t signed most international human-rights and labor-rights treaties. Dubai proudly displays the tallest building in the whole wide world, but, at whose cost was it built? People tend to forget what’s behind the surface.
2. Religion is the mother of all RULES
For me it makes no sense that a country bases its law on its religion. While in some countries religion still plays an important role to create a social conscious and influence individual behavior, it’s in the Muslim world where religion presents itself as the mother of all rules.
In many points, the Sharia law fails to comply to the international declaration of human rights. This affects the equality of races, fair trials or punishment etiquette, to name a few.
Let’s look at some examples of cases that took place in Dubai while I was living there, where the law didn’t seem to be that fair:
A colleague at work has a friend who was driving on the highway when 2 guys decided to cross. The UAE’s roads are mainly highways and those don’t have pedestrian crossings. It’s not uncommon to see people attempting to cross these multiple lane speedways because not everybody has a car and, eventually, you have to move. So this girl, whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, tried to avoid killing the 2 men who miscalculated their crossing and, not only killed them but crashed against a road divider. The price to pay? A traumatic experience, a couple of nights in custody, a fine that would go towards the repairs of the road divider and AED 250,000 (USD 68.000 ) in blood money for the families of those that passed away. Lesson learnt? If you kill someone, even if they literally place themselves in front of your moving vehicle, it will be your fault.
Another interesting case related with women behind the wheel: a pregnant lady that was driving in Dubai had an accident. In the collision, she lost her baby and was accused of homicide of the unborn. I am not advocating that driving while being very pregnant is the most responsible thing to do, but accusing someone of murder as if it was intentional, doesn’t seem right. As if the event itself wouldn’t have been punishment enough for life.
Under the UAE’s law I was an out-law by living together with my boyfriend and not being married. In the neighboring Emirate of Sharjah, the police actually went door by door looking for unwed couples. This is extremely scary! Although in Dubai I haven’t heard cases of police checks, you never know when you’re going to have to interact with the police or if any of your conservative neighbors might put out a word on you. Tip: when referring to your significant other, always call him “husband” / “wife”.
If I would have ever become pregnant while living in Dubai, the first thing I would have done wouldn’t be booking a gynecologist’s appointment. Instead, I would book a flight out of the country before I got deported or suffered more serious consequences.
These are just a few examples of what happens when the law is based on religion. In Rome, do like the Romans. That’s why I don’t want to be “in Rome” so I don’t have to play by Roman rules.
3. You MUST have a religion
Even though the official religion of the UAE is Islam, there is freedom of religion. Still, this country only officially recognizes the following religions: Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Bahaism.
When I got a job and applied for my working visa in Dubai, one of the fields you had to tick in the online form was “Religion”. When the admin who was filling my form asked me what my religion was, I replied “atheist”. Such an option or “other” didn’t exist and, to get a visa, I had to choose a religion! I chose Christianity, although I have been fed up with my initial religion for years, but I guessed it would be consistent with my country of origin, and I knew even then that the UAE likes that.
4. I see your true COLORS, and that’s why I love you (not)
The UAE is a racist country, sometimes playing it subtle and some other times being too awkwardly open about it. This is not the UAE’s fault by the way. It is the collective prejudice of all the different cultures that get mixed up in Dubai.
Ever since I started dating someone from a different race, I noticed this differentiation way more than before. So much that sometimes, eating at a restaurant, after my Indian partner pays the bill, I have heard staff saying things such as “Thank you M’am. Please come again M’am”. As if ‘Sir’ was invisible.
Work discrimination based on country of origin is ridiculously common. Where else in the world would you read job ads that include sentences such as:
“Seeking maid. Filipino only”
“Indians please abstain”
“Job position for Arabs only”
With work discrimination comes salary discrimination. There is an unofficial rule that the job market in Dubai seems to follow: a person should get double the salary that he/she would earn in their country of origin. This should be enough to justify someone to move but… how does this make sense when everyone living in the same city would have the same level in expenses?
This changes it all from here onwards. Depending on your race and country of origin, you will be more inclined to live in certain parts of the city that you can afford according to your job category. You will eat at certain places, you will use certain means of transportation. And you will feel outraged and, not so unlikely, be racist yourself, not by discriminating others directly, but by developing prejudices that will end up serving as fundament to racist and ethnocentric behavior.
If you ever have trouble with a local, it will probably be your fault. You don’t want to be in a car accident that involves an Emirati, even if he/she was the person colliding with you. In many cases, the law will tend to help the local person, in detriment of the other, no matter who’s fault the event was to begin with. Depending on your nationality and race, you might be better off. If you are white (specially US American or British) you will probably do fine. If you are from Southern Asia… good luck to you. For everyone else: it’s 50/50.
Add to racism the legally backed homophoby and you’ll understand that gays must remain inside the closet! Simply put, homosexuality in Dubai is a crime. If you can get into jail or deported for public display of affection being in a heterosexual couple, you can only imagine what would happen to you if you are gay. Jail time, deportation (if you are an expat), death penalty… you wouldn’t want to find out.
5. It’s NOT a DEMOCRACY
Once again, religion comes to play in a country that, just like its neighbors, bases its political ideologies in Islam.
Not being a democracy, the UAE doesn’t allow political participation of its residents or, even, citizens. More over, there are no workers unions and demonstrations are not allowed. You can’t possibly be an active participator in building the society you are supposedly a part of. For better or worse, you pretty much don’t have a say.