Last updated: 06:00 PM ET, Thu July 07 2016

Cultural Connections in Dubai

Destination & Tourism | Katherine Vallera | July 07, 2016

Cultural Connections in Dubai

Photo by David Cogswell

The day after terror struck Paris, I left for a MegaFam in Dubai. An agent seated next to me on the flight expressed bafflement over packing and expectations.  We contemplated if the events in Paris would impact our journey to the Middle East. This wouldn’t be my first experience with Muslim culture, but for many agents it would be an awakening.

Our first lunch was at the Sheik Mohammad Centre for Cultural Understanding. We entered a room blanketed by ornate Persian rugs and ornamented with pillows and cushions. Our group took seats around a long array of platters overflowing with hummus and al machboos. Men dressed in traditional dishdash orbited the room serving Arabic coffee rich with saffron and cardammom.

A young woman dressed in a long black abaya picked up the microphone. The audience’s first response was uncertain silence. Her name was Dahlia Kayed; she was a full-time university student and speaker for the cultural center. Kayed taught about the UAE and Islamic culture. She started by explaining it was customary for the youngest men in Emirate families to serve so women could entertain. Many agents (mostly female) nodded in approval.

Once the ice was broken, Kayed invited us to participate in a Q&A. Her demeanor was personable, approachable, and remarkably open.  We eased into the experience when someone asked if Emirati men wore underwear beneath their robes, prompting laughter. The answer was no, they prefer ventilation. Another agent inquired about personal grooming.  Kayed explained both men and women shave almost everything for religious and hygienic purposes.

“Under arm hair in [Hollywood] movies,” teased Kayed, “It grosses me out!”  We were engaged and intrigued. Kayed emphasized that she had no intention of imposing her culture on us, just as we wouldn’t impose our culture on her. We came to Dubai to learn, not only about accommodations and attractions, but about their customs.

“There are so many things you don’t know about this culture,” commented Christian Moreno of American Express, “You go by the media, and then once you get here, you get to experience. It’s different, it’s eye-opening, it’s amazing.”

The conversation went on to dispel stereotypes about whether women are allowed to drive, and if homosexuality is a deadly offense. Kayed answered that the UAE mustn’t be confused with Saudi Arabia, where stricter laws are enforced. The UAE permits women to drive, and tourists of all sexual orientations travel to Dubai. However, public displays of affection are taboo between couples of both the same and opposite genders.

The conversation transitioned to women’s attire. Kayed clarified that it’s against Muslim faith to cover one’s face while praying. She modeled a clothe mask and described it as a fashion accessory to make the eyes appear larger and nose straighter. She modeled a veil and explained that it was worn by upper classes to protect their skin and hide their identities. Other women follow suit of the rich-and-famous, hence the face covering trend in Arab fashion.

Kayed created a comfortable atmosphere where even the most pressing issues could be addressed. That’s why it felt like a weight was lifted when someone acknowledged the elephant in the room.  Emotions were high following the Paris attacks, and terrorism was fresh on everyone’s minds. I anticipated the tourism board would avoid the subject entirely.  Instead, I commend them for providing a safe venue for discussion. 

“It’s about politics,” remarked Kayed, “Its way bigger than us. The UAE is trying to do its best in battling Islam’s name or association with extremism.” The nation’s objection to terrorism is clear.  I’ll never forget how the hashtag #PrayForParis and images of the symbolic Eiffel Tower were projected on screens at the entrance to Burj Khalifa.  Kayed expressed compassion not only for France but for the victims in Syria and other nations.

“These groups, the Taliban, Isis, Al Qaeda, were not started by us,” she continued, “We don’t have that kind of weapons to give them...[Violence] is just not something that’s happening here. We don’t have home grown terrorism. People can’t get radicalized here because everyone’s happy.”  Kayed disclosed how UAE citizens receive free healthcare and education, and their literacy is in the 97th percentile.

“It makes a big difference,” Kayed went on, “We’re trying our best as a country to show that we do not stand with terrorism…but we can’t do it alone...We need to educate! The more schools we build the more that extremism is going to die out.”

“We think that they’re extremists but they’re not,” added Anne Hickerson of Boarding Pass Inc, “I think it’s simpler than we want to believe and they have a middle of the road way of thinking. If we would all do unto others as we would have done unto us, then we would have a better world.”

“The UAE is probably the biggest donor of aid,” Kayed speculated, “We’re building schools and hospitals all over the world.” She illustrated that the principles of the Islamic moral code are the driving force behind this charity, “God says ‘if you give more, you will get more in return.’”

This generous output must be paying off for Dubai, a city that erupted from the desert into a stunning, must-see destination.  Where else can one ascend the world’s tallest building, go skiing inside a shopping mall, enjoy overwater bungalows, then ride jeeps through the desert in the same day?  Dubai’s a thriving, modern metropolis where everything’s bigger and better. It boasts a breathtaking skyline decorated with towering, architectural marvels standing as a testament to Dubai’s infatuation with cutting-edge technology and advanced engineering. 

It’s become a highly desirable destination. With permanent residents emigrating from all over the world, only ten percent of Dubai’s population is native Emirate. It’s a melting pot, an ever evolving society of Arab customs fused with multicultural influences.

“The diversity here is amazing,” observed Moreno, “I’ve talked to people from all major continents. This can be the gateway to a peaceful world.”

“Dubai’s growing so quickly, we can barely catch up,” Kayed described, “The sand in Dubai had become worth more than gold.” 

“I think it’s the future,” Hickerson discerned, “The commerce, the openness, the newness.”  Tourism’s at the forefront of this development.  Yet, there’s more depth to sightseeing than meets the eye. Many agents’ erudition was more profound.

“I’ve gotten more in touch with the culture,” remarked Carianne Nicholson of Mann Travels, “It’s definitely not what I thought it’s wonderful!”

“Travel is transformative,” writes Jessica Herring of Dubai Tourism, “We have the ability to change the narrative about the Middle East.” There’s no denying the bombardment of violent media coverage painting an ominous climate between the West and Islam. This affects our industry immensely as consumers become paralyzed with fear.  We have an opportunity to tell another side of the story.  We can remit knowledge that’s well rounded and broadly perceptive. In a way, travel agents are ambassadors for peace.  We’ve the power to bridge the gap between truth and sensationalism, thus restoring faith in humanity and goodness.

“There’s so much misinformation out there,” another agent remarked, noting she’d reassure clients with her first hand experience, “It’s really about comfort, they’ll be more comfortable coming here.”

I heard the word “comfort” uttered repeatedly throughout the MegaFam. This is key because our objective is to create comfortable travel experiences.  Comfort goes beyond butlers and gourmet service. It means understanding culture and overcoming fears of the unknown.  It means leading others on a journey that might change their perspective so they feel confident in seeing the world for themselves.

“I think that [understanding the culture] makes me more open to discussing it with clients,” Hickerson contended, “That it’s not dangerous, that it’s fun, there’s so many things to do [in Dubai. Clients] want to be places where they feel comfortable and this is a place they’d enjoy.”

After returning home, I heard from clients now reluctant to honeymoon in France. I considered how I’d restore their sense of comfort.  As Hickerson surmised,

“We have to travel or we’re never going to get anywhere. If we don’t travel then we let [terrorism] win. That’s the bottom line.”

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