Dubai is a city that was built up from nothing. Just 30 years ago it was simply a desert with a few buildings built in random places, but now is the fastest growing city with some of the most incredible sights. Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the man responsible for the transformation of Dubai, was heard uttering the famous line, “My grandfather rode a Camel, my father rode a Camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a Camel.” He wanted to build a trade city that wasn’t completely dependent on oil.
And build he did. The Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, is located there along with an indoor skiing facility and artificial islands. The extravagance and a crime rate of near 0% make Dubai very attractive for expatriates and the city has a reputation for being one of the most liberal Muslim cities in the world.
But underneath the gleam and sheen of a well-polished city lies some dark and sobering facts about the city. Sure, the crime rate is surprisingly low but the reason has more to do with the harsh penalties. Such as a British man who was charged with carrying marijuana in the amount of less than a grain of sugar. Oh, and authorities found it on the tread of his shoe.
Harsh laws, institutionalized corruption based on status, racism, and slavery are what built the city of Dubai. So here are the 20 darker facts of the fastest growing city in the world.
20. Definitely no happy hour in Dubai
Heat and drinking outside go hand in hand — but don’t expect to go on benders in Dubai. In order to get your drink on, travellers and expats can have alcohol at licensed areas, but if you appear even a bit tipsy once you leave the premises you’ll get charged. Foreign residents who live there are faced with even more issues when it comes to drinking at home. See, you can’t just go out and buy alcohol because you’re of drinking age, you need to get permission from your employer in order to get a license that allows you to drink at home.
19. Absolutely no drugs allowed. Period.
Dubai has a zero tolerance policy towards drug possession so if you take them, you do so at your own risk. That sounds like it makes sense but the policy goes beyond just the regular illegal narcotics. You can be thrown in jail for some over-the-counter medications, such as codeine-based painkillers, which has happened to travellers in the past. Other travellers have been incarcerated for having failed drug tests and for having marijuana in their system after traveling from Amsterdam where it is legal. Considering it could take up to 90 days for THC to exit your system you could be thrown in jail for something you did legally in another country months ago.
18. PDA Will Earn you Jail Time
Public displays of affection can make some people uncomfortable and you would expect that a place like Dubai would make something like PDA a crime — which it is. Hence, if you like kissing your significant other you could definitely land yourself in jail. A British couple was once incarcerated for locking lips in the back of a taxi in Dubai. That should give you a good indication of how little you’re allowed to touch your significant other in public. Even a peck on the cheek is something that can land you in court. Holding hands, which is a bit of a grey area, has also gotten couples in trouble.
17. Cover Up Them Knees and Shoulders
Shoulders and knees need to be covered up or you might be fined. Dubai has very little tolerance for nudity in public places — that should go without saying — but they do take it one step further. Women aren’t allowed to wear tight, short, low-cut, skimpy, and/or suggestive clothing in public spaces. Swimwear is allowed on the beach or other designated swimming areas but show your shoulders or knees on the street and you may have the police taking you away. Not to discriminate against only women, men are also subject to these rules and need to keep a shirt on when they’re jogging, for example. So at least they don’t just police women’s bodies. Which is nice. I guess?
16. Keep Your Gay Pride under Wraps
People who are gay, bisexual, or transgendered need to really stay in the closet in Dubai. Anything outside of a normative, cisgendered heterosexual relationship is considered a crime and is punishable by the law. That’s not to say there isn’t an LGBT culture, there is, but you put yourself in harm’s way. Underground gay clubs do exist in Dubai but there are frequent police crackdowns making it a highly dangerous activity to partake in. The only silver lining here is that because of the no PDA laws, everyone has to equally hide their sexuality so yay for that.
15. Be Careful Where You Drop Your F-Bombs
You don’t need me to tell you that the Middle East takes their religion very seriously. Depending on the region, strict Islamic rules are applied and adhered to, and it certainly is a big deal if you are thought to be “disrespecting” Islam in Dubai. Consequently, making any remarks against Islam in Dubai is considered blasphemy and is a serious offence there. Despite their progressionist slant, Dubai is arguably a theocracy that places a lot of power and important on religious doctrine and dogma. You can’t even say the Lord’s name in vain, even accidentally. So, saying something like “God damn it” is considered swearing and can be a punishable offence. A while back, a tourist was caught by an undercover police officer for saying “what the f**k” and sent to jail. What the actual f**k, indeed.
14. Don’t You Dare Get into Debt
There are no bankruptcies in Dubai. I don’t mean that you can’t go into debt beyond your means, I mean that if you do you’ll go directly to jail. You must be very vigilant about your bank account, and keep close tabs on whether or not you are in the danger zone. As soon as it becomes clear someone can’t pay off their debt — or just misses a few payments — their bank accounts are frozen and they are forbidden from leaving the country. What they can expect next is, you guessed it, months or years of jail time followed by deportation. The problem is so bad that many expats end up leaving everything they own in Dubai behind, sometimes totalling millions of dollars, and fleeing the country before the cops can catch up to them.
13. Premarital Sex May Be Fun But It’s Also Very Illegal
Like we’ve noted before, any non-heterosexual relationship is illegal in Dubai. If you’re going to have sex you better be doing it with someone of the opposite gender. But if you’re not officially married to them then you’ll still be breaking the law. Premarital sex is a criminal offence in Dubai which means that some people have gone to jail for being physical with the person they love — or for cheating on their spouse. Of course, this is a hard law to enforce so many people do it anyway, but several women who have reported being raped have found themselves arrested and incarcerated for having sex out of wedlock.
12. Non-Arabs are Non-People
You would think that a place where 83% of the population is comprised of immigrants that there would be very little racism — but you would be wrong. South Asians are treated as second class citizens regardless of whether they’re blue collar labourers living in work camps or white collared employees. At airports the well off South Asians are still grouped with the poor in separate lines at airports, for example. The racism is blatant and so institutionalized that even if a South Asian works in a respectable field in Dubai they can be expected to make a far lower salary than a white or Arab person in the same position or even a lower position.
11. Big Brother Has His Eyes on You
Freedom of speech is guaranteed under the constitution of the United Arab Emirates — on paper. In reality, however, the government and courts wield a lot of executive power to silence dissent and imprison journalists. The press laws in Dubai are the most restrictive in the Arab world, censoring both domestic and foreign publications as well as banning whatever media they like. Most of the media companies are owned or are closely affiliated with the government so they’re unlikely to run stories that criticize the government or ruling families. Even the privately owned companies practice extreme self-censorship where editors will censor their journalists so as to avoid prosecution.
10. Dictatorship Runs in the Family
With rampant human rights violations and uncompassionate draconian laws, you have to wonder where the government gets their morality from. If you guessed that it is because all the families that rule the UAE come from piracy, then you should pat yourself on the back. These families used to rule the Persian Coast, which was known as the Pirate Coast between the 17th and 19th centuries, until the sheikhs signed a peace treaty in 1853. The Al Maktoum family has been the defacto ruling family in Dubai since 1833. There are no elected leaders, legislative institutions, or any political parties since then. What they say basically goes.
9. Dubai Cares Not for Mother Nature
Dubai has more than 20 golf courses with some of them requiring 4,000,000 gallons of water each day to keep green. The problem is that the city was built where there is no drinkable water meaning they must take the water from the sea and desalinate it. The process produces a ton of carbon dioxide emissions, costs more than gas to make, and they only store about a week’s supply. If global warming causes the sea level to rise, then a lot of the artificial islands and property on them could fall into the water. That’s a better case scenario from a financial collapse which would see people unable to purchase water and then die of dehydration.
8. The Luxury Car Graveyard
Dubai is known for its excessiveness, but, as we’ve already explored, if you find yourself in financial straits there are some serious consequences. Both ends of that spectrum have led to what is known as the luxury car graveyard. Those poor souls who find themselves unable to dig out of their debt and flee the country end up just abandoning their luxury cars at the airport. Those cars eventually get impounded and abandoned in a graveyard filled with exotic supercars. As for those doing well in Dubai, when a new model of a car comes out that they want to purchase, they just abandon the old model at the graveyard instead of going through the hassle of selling the old one
7. Dubai is a Hotbed for Car Crashes
With all the fast supercars racing around in Dubai, accidents are prone to happen. When they do, you would hope that some good samaritan will come around to help — but there’s a really good incentive not to. If you stop to become a witness at the scene of an accident, you could end up being blamed for causing it in the first place. Worse yet, if someone dies and you were the last to touch them, then you are automatically arrested and charged as the cause of their death. Regardless of whether you had anything to do with the accident or not.
6. Boys Club Promotes Institutionalized Favouritism
If you are wondering how someone who witnessed a car accident could end up being blamed for it then you have to understand “wasta.” Loosely translated, it basically means the amount of authority or influence someone might have. If you find yourself in an accident because the other party ran a red light, for instance, you could learn that they may have enough wasta to have the evidence changed in court. That red light might magically become green in court — effectively making you responsible for the accident. Who someone knows, where they work, and what nationality they are directly affects their wasta level and can help keep them out of jail.
5. Women Are For Sale
You would think that a country which is so tough on sex outside of marriage and public displays of affection would be equally as tough on prostitution. On paper you would be right, it is illegal. But the reality is very different. While you won’t catch any scantily clad women on the street (as per the decency laws), the clubs and hotels in Dubai are rampant with sex workers from countries all around the world. Owners of these establishments even encourage prostitution by offering the girls perks like free food and drinks because they attract high paying men to their clubs while police turn a blind eye.
4. A City Built on Slave Labor
Dubai is one of the fastest growing cities on the planet. A good quarter of all the cranes in the world can be found building some of the largest structures in the world there. As a result, a good 50% of the population there are workers that are hired from other South Asian countries like Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. The living conditions for these workers, on the other hand, are horrible. Most of them live in squalid work camps on the outskirts of Dubai. Worse yet, the labourers are expected to work in temperatures up to 122 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer for up to 14 hours a day.
3. They Will Snatch your Passport Away
So if the workers are so isolated and are living in terrible camps, you may wonder why they don’t just leave. The most obvious answer is that they are so poorly paid that they can’t afford the flight back home. I know, that sounds completely insidious and horrible. Most workers who come to Dubai are automatically in debt with the agents back home who got them the job in the first place. In order to combat anyone from just quitting and leaving the job in Dubai due to the conditions, their passports are taken away from them as well. So even if they somehow managed to afford the ride home they still can’t leave the country.
2. Labor Laws Are Non-Existent
All of that is what happens to workers on a good day. There are no labor laws protecting the workers who build the city with back breaking work. Those labourers who work 14 hours a day are legally required to have breaks in the sweltering heat. However, that’s never enforced and they more often than not have to work the entire shift without stopping. Even worse, there are more than a few workers who are paid infrequently while others just don’t get paid at all. Some maids who are hired from South Asia find their lives completely controlled and are instructed about who they can and cannot associate with as they work seven days a week for years at a time.
1. When the Recession Hit it was Bad. Especially for the Poor.
Combining the poor treatment of workers with financial catastrophe made things go from bad to worse for the labor force. While expats facing financial ruin abandoned their luxury cars in airports as they attempted to flee the country during the 2008 recession, the workers were faced with even bigger problems. Electricity to several of the work camps were cut off and many of the workers just stopped being paid altogether as the work continued. Then when the companies went belly up, their passports were not returned to them but the debt to their agents remained. They weren’t being paid, but they also couldn’t leave Dubai. A complete nightmare scenario.
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