Dubai: When a sparkling metropolis rises from the desert in a little less than 20 years, it’s bound to attract some international headlines.
But not everything written about Dubai in the foreign press is entirely accurate.
Here, we try to correct some common misconceptions about how this world-class emirate is projected in the international media, starting from the most obvious inaccuracy — that Dubai is a country — to other more ill-researched "facts".
For those who live here, articles of this kind continue to grate and frustrate as they present a completely wrong picture of the achievements and progress of Dubai and the amazing opportunities, lifestyle, safety and security it provides its residents and visitors.
200nationalities make up the cultural mosaic of Dubai
We present the Top 10 fallacies on Dubai that are routinely published in foreign media and speak to foreign correspondents based in Dubai on how they view these misrepresentations.
10 things western media get wrong about Dubai
#1 Distortion: Dubai is a country.
Fact: Dubai is an emirate. Sure, journalists may always have a dictionary close to hand, but they certainly don’t have an atlas, it seems.
Even some of the esteemed broadsheets abroad have wrongly labelled Dubai as a ‘country’, despite the fact it is clearly one of seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, just as Texas is a state in the United States of America and Yorkshire is a county in England.
Earmarking other GCC countries into this collective is also a common mistake made by the Western press. Perhaps it’s because the United Kingdom is made up of four countries, that makes this so hard to fathom.
But if you are going to write about a place, at least do a little research on it before shooting off inaccuracies.
By opening that atlas on the correct page, you will also learn that Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates, and not Dubai.
#2 Distortion: Dubai is an oil-rich entity.
Fact: Oil actually only accounts for one per cent of Dubai’s income. It originally made its name as a pearl diving and trading hub, but the biggest sources of income today are real estate, tourism and finance.
Therefore, it would be wrong to associate Dubai’s longevity and modernity with a finite resource that industry specialists predict only has around 50 years left before it runs out, or internal combustion engines for transport become history.
Dubai was arguably the first in the region to foresee diversification was key, and it didn’t learn that lesson solely from oil, but from the pearl diving industry decades before.
When China started to mass produce plastic pearls, Dubai got undermined in the market, and twinned with the Great Depression, it soon realised that it had to branch out into other industries. Tax breaks tempted traders from neighbouring countries to settle here and it soon became one of the world’s biggest re-export ports.
#3 Distortion: Dubai is not sustainable.
Fact: Many of the reasons against this theory are listed above. But much like the emirate’s diversification after the pearl diving industry faded, and its refusal to rely on oil and gas, Dubai also came out of the 2008 global financial crisis with a renewed sense of vigour for sustaining itself environmentally as well as financially.
Driverless electric trains and trams now roam the city, and while there is still a penchant for flash cars, the push for electric has made the region one of Tesla’s biggest markets with over 40,000 electric vehicles expected on Dubai’s roads by 2030.
Then there’s the small matter of a 3,000 mega-watt solar park on the edge of the city, that once completed in 2021 will produce the world’s cheapest energy at 26 fils per kilowatt.
Jebel Ali currently produces 10 gigawatts of electricity and half a billion gallons of desalinated water a day from the same process of burning natural gas. On top of this there are projects like The Sustainable City, a zero energy development, that will surely become the blueprint for things to come.
#4 Distortion: There’s no spirit or culture, only glitz and glamour
Fact: This horrendously off-the-mark evaluation of Dubai’s appeal comes from international travel writers who arrive on a stopover and visit the mall or airport terminal expecting to find the real Dubai.
A cosmopolitan melting pot where people from over 200 nationalities coexist, may make the lines between indigenous heritage and incorporated traditions blur, but that’s no different from say Irish/Italian New York, and in fact surely only enriches the sense of vibrancy.
To find the real historic Dubai in fact is now easier than ever thanks to the relentless efforts to put the abundance of historic sites on the tourist map. Dubai is a marvellous sum of its parts, traditional and contemporary. Talking about culture, we are spoilt for choice.
From the Dubai Opera, to the stunning range of art galleries and events all over the emirate, arthouse cinemas like Cinema Akil, a vibrant theatre scene, literary and art festivals, the city’s creative output is staggering in its scope.
As for spirit, ask anyone who lives in Dubai or visits it and they will tell you thousand and one reasons to love it, and keep returning to it.
#5 Distortion: It’s not tolerant of other beliefs.
Fact: You don’t need it to be the Year of Tolerance to know that there has always been a freedom to practice your own religion here, a value that is innate to the UAE’s core principles.
The first papal visit to the UAE earlier this year in Abu Dhabi (same country, different emirate) and the unveiling to the public of the UAE’s earliest Christian archaeological site on Sir Bani Yas Island, only enforces this fact.
The first churches and temples were built in the late 1950s and early 1960s in Dubai, and religious celebrations, have always been respected and represented, all of which adds to the sense of culture and spirit, the likes of which is seldom seen in other cities.
#6 Distortion: Laws are ‘draconian’
Fact: During an interview with the BBC in 2014, His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, said with regard to the law, “We are not perfect but we are doing our best.
If there is any mistake we go in and try to change it.” Having only been formed in 1971, the UAE has developed at an unprecedented rate, but its society and laws remain traditional.
Within that there will be some cultural differences. However, the same structures that make Dubai and the UAE ‘strict’, also make it safe and give it the freedom to quickly change laws, as we have seen with the creation of fast courts and fines over prison sentences for bounced cheques.
In recent months attempted suicide has been decriminalised and drug addicts can now be sent to rehab without prosecution. As with anywhere though, if you respect the law, you’ll be OK.
#7 Distortion: Lack worker welfare.
Fact: There are mobile courts that drive around to local worker’s accommodation and construction sites to help workers who have issues with their employers.
The government has also insisted all salaries are paid through a bank so that companies can be monitored and fined if salaries are delayed. All this has sped up the process of justice for workers and put the onus on companies to improve their standards.
Workers’ accommodation camps and safety regulations are also routinely monitored with improvements enforced by the government. Heat laws during the summer make it illegal for workers to work during the hottest hours of the day, and a number of social initiatives ensure workers are supplied with more food, water, and hygiene products not just during Ramadan — a time of giving — but year round.
What’s often not seen is the impact places like Dubai has on towns and villages in other countries like India, Bangladesh or Pakistan, where shops and street names take Dubai monikers in recognition of how much the city has contributed to other economies thanks to work and remittances.
#8 Distortion: Lack of women empowerment
Fact: President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s decree to increase women’s representation in this month’s Federal National Council (FNC) elections to 50 per cent, shows that there is a drive for gender equality.
In 2011, there was just one woman elected and in 2015 there were eight, this year there will be 20, equal to the amount of male representatives for the first time in the UAE’s history.
Shaikha Lubna Al Qubaisi became the first female Emirati minister in 2004 and in 2015 Amal Al Qubaisi was made the first female leader of the Federal National Council, not only in the UAE but in the entire Arab world.
There have been several other firsts too in sport, aviation and adventure, to confirm that women in the UAE are making just as many breakthroughs as men regionally and their voice is being heard.
#9 Distortion: Everything is imported
Fact: Another falsehood linked to sustainability.
While it is true that the majority of produce has traditionally been imported (up to 70 per cent), the number of farms has grown from 4,000 to over 35,000, over an area of 105,000 hectares since 1971, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.
35,000number of farms in Dubai, over an area of 105,000 hectares since 1971
Within this the organic market has also grown with over 50 organic farms.
Hydroponic indoor vertical farming, which saves 70 per cent of water and allows for longer seasons while avoiding harmful chemicals, has also been installed in 87 farms. And water saving methods like sprinklers, drip and fountain irrigation have grown 91 per cent since 1999.
Therefore, it is far from accurate to claim everything is flown in from abroad. Least not when it comes to food security.
#10 Distortion: There is no sense of permanence.
Fact: The introduction of renewable 10-year visas this year for investors and special talents, now makes it possible for expats to commit their long term future to the UAE while allowing them to set up businesses here without the need for a local sponsor.
This shows the UAE is investing heavily in human capital and that will give investors and researchers confidence and time to focus their efforts here. New five-year renewable visas, which require property ownership worth Dh2 million or savings of up to Dh1 million, which were introduced last year, also now make it possible for expats to retire in the UAE, without the need for full-time employment to satisfy visa criteria.
All of this will make Dubai an even more comfortable and inclusive proposition for those who call it home.