We have been in Dubai now for three days. Giant buildings, check. All of them still under construction, check. An odd drained feeling from constantly walking between 110degree sunlight and 45 degree air conditioning, check. But what I think everyone has been most surprised by is the sheer diversity of this city. Several of us came with previous experience in and interest in the Arab world, eager to see what promised to be a uniquely high-profile and different Arab city. What we didn’t quite count on is that Arabs are a huge minority in Dubai, and that it is just as much an Indian, East Asian, and African city as a Middle Eastern one.
Two blocks from our hotel, dhows line up on the Deira wharf. Some of them are for personal and tourist use, and are so ornately carved they look more like antique furniture than ships. But farther down the wharf, the dhows are stacked three deep and stacks of boxes and crates sit on the walkway – tires bound for Iran, refrigerators heading for India, and I’m told sometimes they’ll load up a few cars to take to Somalia.
There is no lingua franca here. Though I had read that only a minority of Dubai’s inhabitants were native Arabic speakers, I still expected it to be in daily use by others. Instead, the Urdu, Hindi, Farsi, Tagalog, Chinese and Russian speakers resort to bare-bones English to communicate with each other.
We’re trying to wrap our heads around this diversity in class. In our conference room overlooking the Emirates Towers and the Burj Dubai (the uncompleted tallest building in the world), we’ve talked about the pressure put on Dubai to emphasize the Arab elements of its identity. Meanwhile, some students from the nearby American University of Sharjah, originally from Nigeria and Zanzibar, paid a visit and emphasized what a tall order that is, pointing out the window to a housing project filled with Zanzibaris with Omani passports (or sometimes no passports), allowed to stay in Dubai since the Sixties. If it sounds confusing, it is – and the dizzying swirl of skyscrapers, traffic, and the biggest of everything in the world is nothing compared to the diversity of people passing through and settling here.