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Nomadic utopia: will Dubai’s many worlds ever find a common cultural identity?

A city dominated by expats tries to fully imagine itself.

In November 2017, the magificent, spotted Louvre Abu Dhabi finally opened. The museum has courted controversy from the get-go, not least because the Abu Dhabi government has reportedly leased the iconic French brand for the enormous sum of €400m for 30 years.

To those following the cultural development of the region, however, the expenditure is no surprise. Abu Dhabi is following in the footsteps of Dubai – a city experienced at planting Western cultural cuttings into its Middle Eastern soil.

One of Dubai’s oldest art galleries, the Majlis Gallery, was founded in the historic Bastakia district in 1989 by British expat Alison Collins. More recently, the sprawling and amusingly alien “Irish Village” in Dubai has managed to create such an authentic Irish pub experience – replete with dark-wood pub benches under green-and-white Guinness umbrellas – that it won the 2016 award for “Irish Pub of the Year”, beating off competitors from Ireland itself.

NYU Abu Dhabi and the long-awaited Guggenheim Abu Dhabi are part of the same cultural movement. And while that culture may seem confusing and eclectic, it’s taking root in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and may come to define this region of the world.

So, what are the characteristics of this new culture? What are its strongest influences?

A union of port cities

It’s not easy to classify Dubai’s culture. It’s a city of many different worlds: the dirty, cramped living quarters of its South Asian labourers; Bur Dubai’s tea stalls and Indian restaurants crowded with taxi drivers; giant hoardings of Bollywood celebrities; old-school dhow rides and sheesha cafés; the manicured but cheerful European-style JBR Riviera; the city’s flashy lights á la Vegas.

To most, this cultural mish-mash seems inauthentic and unsustainable. An article in The Telegraph protested about Dubai: “Either you’re a playground for tourists or you’re a deeply conservative Islamic state. […] you can’t be Ibiza and Saudi Arabia at the same time.”

But perhaps the tendency to pick and choose the best of various identities – Eastern and Western, despotic and liberal – is part of the city’s genetic code.

Mishaal Al Gergawi, an Emirati intellectual who was recently quoted in the New Yorker, believes that the United Arab Emirates, a federal monarchy made up of multiple emirates, of which Dubai and Abu Dhabi are just two, was always an “impractical” idea. “Seven emirates, six rulers, sceptical colonisers and ambitious neighbours. . . What were the odds, really?” he wrote in 2014.

But, Al Gergawi continues, the Emirates managed to come together, and stay together. “Taking different things from different places, [the UAE] remains within the concept of a union of port cities: always pragmatic, seeking peace and developing commerce, and at first tolerating and eventually thriving on cultural multiplicity.”

The third-culture kids

If Dubai’s culture imports “different things from different places”, what are the identities of its residents, who may not hold citizenship but can spend their formative years, if not decades, living there?

Expats make up more than 80 per cent of the population of the UAE, with 60 per cent from a South Asian ethnicity, and Persian, English, Hindi and Urdu all common languages. Will residents continue to identify with their native cultures, or do they adapt to Dubai’s hybrid culture?

Kings’ School Dubai, considered one of the best schools in the city, has been analysing the issue for a long time, because its diverse student body hails from all over the globe – from the Emirates themselves, but also from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, France, Jordan, and 69 other countries.

Most of these students are what sociologists would call “third-culture kids”.

Third-culture kids don’t fully relate to the cultures they were born into, having left home young. Nor do they connect entirely with the local Emirati culture in Dubai.

Instead, these children develop a hybrid third culture. They attend friends’ Diwali, Eid, and Christmas parties. They hum along to world music, even if they can’t interpret its lyrics. And, according to the Kings’ School’s blog, their diverse accents frequently converge into a unique “mid-Atlantic twang.”

Dubai’s adults also show many signs of this third culture too, be they expats who’ve left their home towns to rediscover themselves, or the region’s rulers who have slowly been adapting to a more liberal, more Westernised form of Islamic life.

Kings’ School Dubai’s headmaster Alan Williamson notes that third-culture kids in his school tend to have many close friends, instead of just one best friend. As he puts it to me: “You may move away next year, so I need two or three other friends.”

It is easy to be disdainful of Dubai’s easy-come, easy-go, tax-saving residents, and wonder if such a nomadic population could ever settle down long enough to develop a culture. Williamson, though, argues that the transient nature of Dubai’s population engenders its own culture – and a positive one, at that.

“I think it builds a really strong, happy community,” he says. “You know you might just be here for four or five years. You need to make the best of it. And that goes for staff, parents, and students.”

He cities the example of a city-wide challenge called ‘Dubai 30x30’ (its shiny brochures were lying on his office desk) which urged residents to be physically active for 30 minutes a day for a month. “In London,” says Williamson, “that would just fall flat on its face. Nobody would do it. But here, everybody was doing it. Everybody buys in.”

Mall-wise 

A common complaint about Dubai’s lack of a unified culture is that Emiratis and expats rarely “hang out” together at the city’s many restaurants, bars, or nightclubs. “The reality in Dubai is that most of us live in an expat bubble,” Annabel Kantaria wrote in The Telegraph recently. “Yes, our friends may come from 200 other countries – but do we have many Emirati friends? Unlikely.”

Even on the virtual meeting grounds of social media, cultural unification is rare. A friend of mine who moved from Mumbai to Dubai some years ago notes that wealthy, dolled-up Emirati girls document their lives publically on Instagram. But they are almost never on dating apps like Tinder, which tend to be populated by Dubai’s expats. In other words: look, but don’t touch.

Williamson, however, says his student body isn’t divided by cultural differences in drinking and partying because “alcohol and drugs don’t dominate the youth culture here, as they do in many other parts of the world.”

“The children here are lovely,” he continues, smiling, “in terms of how naïve they are. They’re not that street wise. They tend to go to malls together.”

Malls, in fact, are one of the only and strongest cultural unifiers of the region. Dubai Mall, Mall of the Emirates, and their ilk are perhaps the only public spaces frequented by all members of this third-culture city: locals and expats, tourists and residents, men and women, the old and young, the rich and the slightly less rich. The offerings at the mall are correspondingly lavish: Dubai Mall includes an aquarium and underwater zoo, more than 200 restaurants and cafes, including hipster joints like the Cereal Killer Cafe and upmarket cupcake shop Hummingbird Bakery. 

Living in the present

It’s hard to say if the bulk of Dubai’s residents ever see the city as home. Most expats can’t earn citizenship, even if they settle down permanently. And while a great number of nationalities work in Dubai as employees and managers, business owners invariably remain Emirati.

But what about third-culture attitudes to nationality and “home”? Do the children of Dubai think of it as home?

“I come from a really small rural area in Scotland,” Williamson says. “When I speak about home, I know exactly what home is. But I don’t think third-culture children recognize home like I do.”

He describes how some of his pupils say they come from “England,” but when pressed to specify where in England, they have no response.

“Their parents probably left home when they were two or three, and that child, in a fascinating way, doesn’t feel overly attached to any country. For them, home is wherever they are. You have to make the moment you are in real, and strong, and stable. Home is Dubai now, but home might be Singapore next.”

If this set of traits applies to Dubai’s adults too, no wonder it’s difficult to pin down the city’s culture.

Because no matter how one defines culture – a unique set of behaviours and traditions ingrained into the people of the nation; the group of histories and events that a nation chooses to identify with – it is always rooted in the past.

In the case of Dubai, however, most expats seem to practice the ideal of “living in the present”. Dubai’s modern cultural markers aren’t particularly visible or tangible, and they aren’t pegged to the past: old cobblestone streets, or pierogi recipes passed from grandmother to granddaughter, or kitschy memorabilia from old movies.

Instead, the culture of Dubai is more psychological, a utopian vision shared by its nomadic residents, at times naïve, but reportedly happy. And while this modern culture brewing in Dubai may seem invisible, it exists all the same.