If you live in Dubai or visited once, you probably understand what I am talking about. It is the sand pit that decorates its post cards with a couple of boastful architectural pieces, like Burj Khalifa, and Burj Al Arab. No more, no less. A very shy museum scene when compared to the largest cities of this world, barely any cultural aspect that reflects itself on the buildings and streets, and you rarely come across locals anyway. But hold on to that, because the city with a brief past is holding onto something much bigger for our near future, especially for us, Arabs.
I’m an Arab woman. By that I mean that I speak Arabic, and I grew up in the Levant region. It also means that I can easily associate my roots to a rather conservative place with lots of traditions.
I grew up in the 90s. Some time between the scandal of a beauty pageant runner-up leaked sex tape, and Saturday morning coffee chats of housewives on the balconies, about the couple who lived together before marriage and how the neighbor’s brave daughter left the country to pursue her education in Paris. I remember us watching western pop culture eager to one day be able to live that ‘freely’. From Michael Jackson to Madonna, Britney Spears to Marilyn Manson. Looking back, it is hard to recall a day where my generation did not have a drive to one day be able to leave the nest and live in a place capable of offering the magic of a concrete jungle, where we can finally unwind away from the aunt who wanted you to meet her doctor’s daughter who could make the perfect future wife, the neighbor who knew your moves along each step; and the summers that used to come and go having girls waiting to finally find their better half, somewhere along the trips of the Lawrence-of-Arabia kind of relative visiting to seek marriage from some immigration land. My generation wanted a concrete jungle that could close the gap between the desire of freedom and independence, and the reality of living it, a jungle within the Arab world where they could finally breathe away from our typical Arab social transactions.
And that jungle was Dubai.
In the late 90s, Dubai started attracting the Arab youth mostly due to its lucrative job offers and benefits packages. And as the emerging trend became mainstream, as it has become an aspiration of almost every graduating kid to come work in New York of the Middle East, so has our culture back home and among us Arab expats started shifting. We, people who moved here have been changing. We may not feel it now. But it is happening. We are slowly and gradually relating to a more modern, urbanized lifestyle. Our moms and relatives too. They still discuss their sons and daughters, but If you listen closely, their conversations, just like ours, have been changing. And here is how and why:
5- For the first time in the history of the region, single Arab women are running houses and living alone, as independently as it could get. And It is perfectly safe. Aided by the government’s commitment to empower women and provide them with equal opportunities, the status of women within the UAE has flourished in parallel with the country’s growth since the federation was established in 1971. It is evident across the UAE that women today constitute a vital part of the nation’s workforce and actively contribute to the country’s government and economy. I am particularly speaking about all the Lebanese, Jordanian, Syrian, Egyptian, Kuwaiti and other single women who have moved to Dubai to work and pursue their dreams, and started running houses on their own. They are fully fledged, self-dependent single individuals, and the repercussions of this independence on the sociological and demographic landscape are many; Is marriage still a priority? Are our relatives back home being affected by our independence? Do we still fear judgment in a society where the neighbor is a complete stranger? The answer may not be as black or white as I would love to state it, but the colors are certainly changing. Not just for women though, because men are living alone too. And while my brother and yours could have easily relied on their parents until they got married, this is no longer UAE’s Arab expat men’s typical situation. They now rent or buy their own apartments in Dubai. There is an increasing sense of responsibility versus a traditional dependency and a sense of nurturing. They come back and share with the family the fun as well as the pain of doing the laundry, and the need of simplified recipes of Mouloukhya, Mousakkhan, and Kouchari. An individualistic vs. a communal society.
4- Arabs who live in Dubai are more than ever responsible drivers. If you have been to Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, or Jordan, you know that one word describes driving in there: ‘crazy’. The nature of the system has made it in many of our Arab countries just OK to break the law. Over speeding, drinking while driving, not wearing the seat-belt; sometimes not even passing the driving license, yet being on the road. This is merely prohibited in Dubai. And while new-comers find it atrocious at first, over time the law is becoming the nature of our culture for us expats in here. I know for a fact that the Lebanese people drink and drive in Lebanon and it’s OK, since getting caught is not a biggie, while in Dubai most Lebanese take cabs at night. Just as much as speed tickets are painful, so is being caught under influence. So going out, having fun, and respecting traffic laws. This is who we are becoming.
3- Dubai is offering a melting pot in the workplace like no other country in the entire region could do. The exposure to a panoply of nationalities is taking us out of our bubble and giving us each a solid reality check: ‘we are all very different, and that’s Ok’.
2- There is no Arab nation that holds respect and appreciation to its rulers as much as Dubai residents. Regardless of what may be your opinion about any Arab’s political system, liberalism vs libertarianism, capitalism vs. communism, democracy vs. dictatorship, I have not seen a country in the whole region where everyone, nationals and expats, love and admire the country’s rulers as much as Dubai residents do. There is a common consensus that Sheikh Mohamed and his family have done a lot to this place and with each event they keep proving that they are ready to do and give more. Just screen the social media sentiments and you know it is a reality and not just a marketing stunt.
1- We are living in a mobile place, and more than ever getting rid of self-destructive comfort zones. Due to the nature of the housing scene in Dubai, you get to move a lot. If you ask any resident of the emirate, they have at least lived in two neighborhoods over a couple of years, or moved into 2 or 3 places. The mobility we are getting used to is not something we grew up having. Unless your dad had worked as a diplomat, you probably grew up in one of your parents’ houses for the first 25 years of your life, and it is particularly because leaving the nest is not too common back home. While stability may be of value to nurturing relationships and building familiarity with your town, it also means comfort zones. Comfort zones can be very destructive; making it hard to explore new adventures, meet new friends, or move to the next level of your life. I am so happy to say that Dubai, due to its purgatory aspect, made it very easy for me and many of us who live here to become quite detached and ready for the next adventure. We move out frequently, friends we meet here suddenly decide to leave or go back to school, and new people keep coming.
Even passengers – every passenger is contributing to this change.