Finding the real heart of Dubai

After years of trying to be the biggest and brightest, Dubai is finally prepared to think small — and focus more on those little things that help a city become a real hometown.

By Jamie Lafferty
Published 11 Aug 2016, 11:00 BST, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 14:27 BST
Deira Spice Souk, Dubai.

Deira Spice Souk, Dubai.

Photograph by Getty Images

One Cafe by Life'n One could be anywhere in Southeast Asia. It's the sort of place where would-be hippies hang out to eat raw food, read and strum ineptly at guitars. The kind of cafe a person can drop in to, dodge the chaos of the city outside and find a vegetarian version of food they miss from home. There are cacao smoothies, gluten-free pancakes, quinoa bread and yoga classes.

The cafe frames a well-established garden, with its customers waiting out the heat of the day in the shade. There's a barefooted girl with dreadlocked hair dozing on a suspended wicker chair; there's her baggy-trousered boyfriend, his face a constellation of piercings, updating a journal while leaning on a satisfyingly chunky wooden table. Nearby are shelves of books, which look like they've been there for decades. Sitar music gargles out from an unseen stereo. The fact no one's smoking a joint is perhaps the only surprise.

Yes, One Cafe could be anywhere in Southeast Asia, but it happens to be in a suburb of Dubai. Yes, that Dubai — the one with the gargantuan shopping malls and the 'seven star' hotels, where the police drive customised sports cars. Dubai, the biggest city in the UAE, which for the past 45 years has developed almost completely unhindered, slowing down only briefly for the global financial crisis of 2008.

That was when I first arrived in the city, when it was still fixated on building the biggest, highest, best version of everything. I lived in Dubai for two years, leaving shortly after the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, opened for business in 2010.

Now, it's possible to travel all the way up to the 148th floor of that monolith, to the At The Top Sky lounge, for a view out across the city to the warm waters of the Gulf, or to the near endless desert. When I did this on my return to Dubai after a four-year absence, I was unable to discern many alterations to the skyline. But during my time away, there had been change — a lot of it. There's now a fully functioning metro system and an astonishing plan to seed clouds to encourage rainfall. The biggest change, however, has been that the city seems to have gained a better sense of what people want in a hometown. Now, if you know where to look, you can find independent cafes and fairs, markets and galleries, people making things.

OK, so the summers are still stifling, but in the two years since I returned, I've seen the emergence of more things that speak to me. These projects aren't the result of colossal government or corporate funding, but rather the work of individuals who simply want to make things a bit better — a bit more normal.

Consider the entrepreneurs at Ripe food market, which has grown exponentially since its 2011 launch. Now at multiple locations across the city, it brings farmers and traders together to sell organic fruit and vegetables. Alongside them are fancy coffee brewers, a satirical poster maker, evangelical juice pressers, 'waffle artisans' and a purveyor of tipis for children. It's only really a craft-beer stall and several clouds away from being the kind of thing you'd find in east London. In the temperate winter months, Ripe is held in parks around the city; during summer, it moves inside.

Or there's Alserkal Avenue, a burgeoning arts district and the most obvious example of how far Dubai has come creatively. Located in the heart of Al Quoz, a dusty industrial zone more commonly populated by such beauties as the Modern Concrete Products Factory, Alserkal shines like gold in an ashtray. Here, old warehouses have been converted into art galleries and studios. You can come for photography courses with Gulf Photo Plus, or take a seat in A4 Space cafe and meet other creative types. Regardless of the heat outside, there's almost always some kind of event or exhibition going on inside one of these cavernous buildings.

When I visit, I notice an Indian man with an excellent moustache standing alone near A4 Space, under a faded sign which reads: 'Shrey Sahaj. Smart Uniforms. Smart Impressions'. It looks as though he and his business are about to be swallowed up by relentless, trendy progress. But it would be a shame if that kind of place disappeared from Dubai entirely, because if the city has a soul, it's surely South Asian. For all the new creative projects, the majority of the city's population have little interest in whether or not they can buy a kale juice or take a sculpture class.

At least 42% of the population is Indian, 21% Pakistani. Add the Bangladeshis, Nepalis and Sri Lankans, and well over two-thirds of the emirate comes from that corner of the world. At sunset on weekends, car parks and construction sites are converted into ramshackle cricket pitches — the sport is a big deal. Bollywood is a big deal, too, as is Diwali, the Indian festival of light. If you head up to the historic Creek, you'll find a few Hindu temples — and a Sikh one. Inside the creek-side textile, spice and gold souks — favourite destinations for cruise ship passengers — are theatrical traders, merciless haggling, and absolutely no sense of personal space. It's a dazzling dance of colour, smell and sound. I found that I never really understood Dubai until I visited India.

Centre of the world

There's been a version of this semi-organised bedlam going on here for hundreds of years, almost always with traders from Persia or India. But in the early days, the United Arab Emirates was not united at all. The area had been settled, in so much as there were people living here, but not in the sense that it was peaceful or organised. Most maritime maps marked it as The Pirate Coast, owing to the number of cutthroats who made their fortunes raiding ships passing in and out of the Gulf.

In 1853, the British convinced a number of coastal rulers to commit to peace and over the following 80 years or so, the newly christened Trucial States enjoyed a period of relative peace and prosperity, with a flourishing pearl industry encouraging trade with Europe. It lasted until the Japanese worked out how to synthesise pearls, at which point the natural market immediately collapsed.

Two world wars and the rapid erosion of the British Empire put further strain on the region's fragile stability. But then, again with British assistance, oil was discovered and once more the region lurched in a strange new direction. Money has since flowed out like a newly tapped well and, although Dubai is not particularly oil-rich (the majority of that fortune belongs to Abu Dhabi), its population has exploded from around 59,000 in the year the UAE was founded in 1971, to over 2.5 million today.

The whole world now comes to Dubai. It's said that two-thirds of the global population can be reached in a seven-hour flight. As a result, there's a wide spectrum of cultures and ethnicities. The variety of cuisine is incredible: try boiled sea cucumber in a Chinese hotpot, or have fish and chips on the beach; lunch at Samarkhand, an Uzbek cafe, then head out to master chef Pierre Gagnaire's Reflets for dinner.

Unlikely culture clashes happen every day. I have an Australian friend who'd never seen snow before he arrived to work in Dubai, but then learned to snowboard in Ski Dubai, before taking a week's holiday to Lebanon to hit the slopes.

Thanks to Dubai, I have friends from Singapore, Georgia and Cape Verde — but I don't have any Emirati friends. Making up 10-15% of Dubai's population, Emiratis are an endangered species in their own land. Dubai is technically an Arabian city, but in truth, it was built by and for foreigners. So while Emiratis dominate the government, military and police, opportunities to mingle with them are rare. For newcomers, learning Arabic is virtually impossible — besides, it's much more useful to learn Hindi, Urdu or Austronesian Tagalog. However, English is the lingua franca and virtually all of the 2.5 million people in Dubai learn to speak it.

To get a better sense of who the city's real locals are, I contact Frying Pan Adventures (FPA), a popular walking tour company run by sisters Arva and Farida Ahmed. Lifelong residents of Dubai, they're Indian and no closer to an Emirati passport now than their parents were when they arrived 40 years ago. Still, this is their hometown and they're keen to help people explore it.

"I've grown up here and feel strongly about showcasing what I feel is the authentic, no-frills, unpretentious side of the city," says Arva, who personally leads three or four tours a week. It took joining one of FPA's excellent food, culture and photography tours for me to visit the Deira district's Naif neighbourhood, a place I was previously only dimly aware of.

Naif is home to people from developing nations all around the world. This is a part of the city where men wearing kameezes gather under streetlights, conducting conversations over unbroken handshakes. Where women in salons laugh and gossip. A community majlis (council) hosts a confluence of cultures, surrounded by a giant halo of garish shop fronts with woeful typography: Hao Hao Tailoring sits next to Flower Breezes Trading, which sits next to Adbul Rahim Ali Mohammed and Sons.

There are chai sellers, shwarma shavers, a waterseller with a wheelbarrow. The streets are tight and hot, the concrete alleys acting like radiators. Old air conditioning units hang from buildings, threatening to shake themselves loose. Many of Dubai's tens of thousands of Africans live around here too, so there are also Ethiopian coffee shops, market stalls selling kaleidoscopic dresses, and barbers offering bombastic hairstyles.

People cycle like they're invincible — and drive like it, too. There are scrawny stray cats, un-emptied bins and competing aromas from street vendors. There's a gun shop and perhaps not coincidentally, Dubai's oldest jail. Arva encourages her guests to take photos of it all and to interact with the residents, to learn more about lives far removed from the Dubai the world knows.

This neighbourhood is very close to the Creek, one of the city's most heavily touristed areas, but Naif is unrecognisable as Dubai. Its residents come from rural Iran and India, Kenya and Ethiopia. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan. China. Uganda. Sudan. They're not Emiratis, nor will they ever be. But they're Dubaians. This is their town.


Getting there and around
Emirates flies to Dubai from Glasgow, Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham, Gatwick and Heathrow. British Airways flies direct from Heathrow.

Dubai has had a metro system for the past seven years, with stations around the city. Taxis are abundant and relatively cheap; Uber has also grown rapidly. Driving is recommended for experienced, confident drivers.

When to go
Between April and October, temperatures regularly exceed 40C. In July and August, it may exceed 50C. Temperatures come down in September as humidity arrives. From November until March, the weather is largely perfect. Ramadan has a number of restrictions — in 2017, it's projected to run from late May to late June.

More info

How to do it
Elegant Resorts has five nights at the Ritz-Carlton in a Deluxe Room from £1,345 per person. It includes breakfast, economy flights, private transfers and UK airport lounge passes. 

Published in the September 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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