The Ethics of Visiting Dubai

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Dubai Skyline

I was fully prepared to hate Dubai.

Before arriving, I had read up on the reality of this shiny Gulf city. Johann Hari’s famous feature in The Independent, though published in 2009, was resurging online and painted a picture of Dubai as a fairy tale gone wrong, a desert oasis hiding a poisonous core.

Dubai would be a quick stopover, I decided. I’d visit with friends, celebrate my birthday, and hunker down and work before flying on to Japan. Just a quick stopover.

Dubai does some awful things.

It’s hard to decide what’s worse: the UAE’s terrifying laws that more or less blame women for getting raped, or the deplorable way that some of their guest workers are reportedly treated.

Human rights. Some of Dubai’s guest workers, many of them from the Philippines and South Asia, are reportedly promised positions with high salaries — and when they arrive, their passports are confiscated and they are forced to work under torturous conditions for less than what they would earn in their home countries.

It’s a deplorable practice. And yet guest workers are what keeps Dubai’s constant construction going, an ongoing process that some have likened to a skyline built by slaves.

Draconian laws. You hear of an occasional couple in Dubai being arrested for public sex, and that reads as, “Well, they should have known better” — but what about the Norwegian woman who was prosecuted for being raped? Many laws here have to do with an interpretation of Islam that likens women to second-class citizens.

LGBT rights. Yeah, right.

Environmental footprint. Some people argue that it’s getting better, but the city faces major issues over long-term sustainability.

And on top of all that, Dubai is a place that some describe as a cesspool of materialism, frequented by people with insane fortunes spending money in the most ostentatious way possible. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it should add further reason not to visit, right?

Old Dubai

And yet I found myself genuinely enjoying Dubai.

The architecture was fascinating — like Mars in the future. It was warm. It was spotlessly clean. The cabs were air-conditioned and I didn’t have to badger taxi drivers into using the meter. Coming from Eastern Europe, the differences were apparent.

Later on I headed to the “old” side of town — well, as old as a town that was a fishing village 40 years ago can get — and found fascinating streets, delicious food and absolute eye candy in jewelry stores.

Dubai Gold

The landscape? Far more than I expected. A short drive from the city found us amid spectacular red sand dunes and craggy mountains.

What was wrong with me? I had heard such terrible things about Dubai — how could I enjoy it?

Because every country I love does something I hate.

My own country, the United States, refuses to take sensible action about gun violence.

South Africa allows trophy hunting.

Italy’s government is a mess.

Thailand treats its refugees like they’re less than human.

Malta’s refugees aren’t treated much better.

Cambodia still has a major problem with the child sex trade.

Turkey? Gezi Park.

Each of these countries has some serious problems. But that hasn’t stopped me from visiting them. I’ve found that in these cases, the good outweighs the bad.

At the same time, every traveler has different standards. I know people who refuse to visit Japan and Iceland because they hunt whale. It’s a deal-breaker for them, but it’s not for me.

Dubai Gold Souk

The only country I refuse to visit is North Korea.

At this point in time, it’s impossible to visit North Korea independently. That’s not what keeps me away. You can’t visit Iran or Bhutan independently, but I’d be eager to visit either country as part of a tour group.

The only way to visit North Korea is to go through a tour controlled by the government. Much of your money goes to the government; all you see is what the government permits you to see; you are accompanied by government-appointed guides at all times.

Now, consider the implications of that. In addition to brainwashing their population and starving their citizens, North Koreans are put in horrifying prison camps, often for unjust reasons. Additionally, it’s common for the family of an offender to be imprisoned as well, regardless of their innocence.

Visiting North Korea is tantamount to putting money in the hands of a government that tortures innocent people.

There are plenty of other countries that have terrible governments — but it’s possible to spend your money close to the ground in those countries, staying in locally owned guesthouses, buying souvenirs from local merchants, taking transportation that is not run by the government. These practices keep money where it belongs: in the hands of the citizens. This option does not exist in North Korea, and that is why I refuse to go.

And once again — everyone is different. I have friends who have visited North Korea — Earl, Becki, and Nellie are a few of them — and I honestly don’t hold it against them in any way. They’re wonderful people, thoughtful travelers and brilliant writers, and they made the decision that was best for them.

In fact, Earl recently wrote a piece about the ethics of visiting North Korea and how he feels that the positives outweigh the negatives. Likewise, my friend Tom, who lived in South Korea for years, wrote a piece about why he refuses to visit North Korea.

Does this mean that I’ll refuse to visit North Korea forever? Not necessarily. Things could change in the future, and my mind is open to changing. However, I’ve seen many arguments in favor of North Korea tourism, and none of them convinced me.

Hatta and Mountains

Going Beyond the Dubai Stereotype

I am not an expert on Dubai. I was there for a week. The only thing I can do is report on my personal experiences.

However, I found myself experiencing a different side of Dubai, a side that defied many of its stereotypes.

While in Dubai, I met many expats from all over the world — none of them fitting the stereotype brandished in Hari’s piece, the stereotype of drunk expats rejoicing in the fact that their household staff will do demeaning work for them.

Most of the Dubai expats I met came here for a great work opportunity or the chance to earn a tax-free salary for a year or two and pay down debts or save up for a house. Yes, tax-free, and the job opportunities here are often surprisingly good. Someone pointed out that a journalist can head to the Gulf and climb the job ladder far more quickly than he or she could at home.

I saw a land filled with dramatic desert scenery, the kind you’ve always dreamed of experiencing yourself.

Dubai Sand Dunes

I met expats from developing countries who are far from exploited and starving. Upon learning that I was a travel writer, my massage therapist, a woman from the Philippines, told me that she once had another travel writer client — and during the massage, she found a lump in her breast. The lump was thankfully found to be benign, and the travel writer gave her a glowing review in one of her publications.

She loves the desert heat, the rewarding work, and she sends her family plenty of money each month, she told me.

Probably my favorite part of the trip? When my Indian cab driver’s phone rang, blaring the Titanic score. He picked up his phone and swayed in his seat, savoring the trademark penny whistle melody for a few moments, then answered it. “Titanic,” I said when he hung up, catching his eye in the rearview mirror. We both started laughing.

And you’d never guess what it was like at the salon, where I enjoyed a few spa treatments as a birthday gift. The salon was for women only, and the windows were covered. Veiled woman after veiled woman came in, whipped her veil and robe off, and got her hair done.

Not what I expected — not remotely.

There are clearly disturbing reports from some of Dubai’s work camps, and this is reprehensible. While conditions have reportedly improved in many of them, much more needs to be done.

But that’s not to say that everything that you’ve read about Dubai is the full picture. Go to Dubai with an open mind, and I guarantee that it will surprise you.

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64 thoughts on “The Ethics of Visiting Dubai”

  1. I’ve always been put off visiting Dubai for the negative reasons you outlined, although I want to visit to see ‘the other side’. That’s just my way of travelling. North Korea is a heavily debated country to visit, and there really is no right answer to it. Money in the hands of the government vs education and slow openness to the outside world.

    As you say, you have to make your own choices. I visit these places as I always become so engrossed in politics and social change – just how I purposely travelled as ethically as possible in Myanmar and promote travel there in a way that puts limited funds into the hands of the government.

    As writers, we can show both sides, and I’m glad you touched upon the serious issues behind the huge growth and materialism of Dubai.

  2. I know that this one point isn’t what your post was about but I have to step in… we don’t kill baby seals (whitecoats) here in Canada. It’s an illegal practice. (FYI: The Sea Shepherd organization are a bunch of crackpots). We do have a seal hunt but it’s not the same thing as many protest groups would have you believe. Here in Newfoundland we use the oil, the pelt and eat the meat (which is free-range organic if you consider it).

  3. Very nice, thoughtful piece on travel ethics. I actually feel the same way on the human rights issue–if your travel dollars contribute towards a private citizen’s living, I’m all for it, especially in impoverished areas where many are trying to eek out a living. But I definitely draw the line when your money goes directly to state-run tour groups that help prop up an oppressive regime and legitimize it to the civilized world.

  4. Wonderful to read a travel piece that actually considers the ethics of visiting a given country and not just how great the food and beaches are. Well-written and balanced.

  5. Nice article. We also just published a detailed article explaining why visiting North Korea is different than traveling to most other places. (See link below).

    We agree that each destination needs to be evaluated on its own merits. With respect to Dubai, I couldn’t help notice how quickly the government reversed Marte Deborah Dalelv’s “extra-marital sex” conviction after the story of her rape broke in the international press.

    That pardon suggests Dubai really cares about maintaining a favorable international opinion (and the tourism and investment dollars it brings.) And because it cares about keeping its press favorable, global opinion makers, like you, can help influence its policies on women’s rights.

    It would take a coordinated effort among bloggers and other journalists to have an impact, but it’s worth thinking about.

  6. I’ve heard some pretty superficial things about Dubai, but I still think that it’s worth exploring as you noted. But as you suggested, I would probably spend 2-4 nights there as a layover en route to another destination. And that jewelry – wow! My husband loves jewelry so he’d probably go nuts in Dubai!

  7. It’s nice to see a counter point to that somewhat horrifying Independent article. I would definitely be open to visiting Dubai but not without some reservations knowing that there is a dark side to all the shiny new construction and rich expats. I love your description of being in the salon and getting to be a part of the exclusive women’s only world and seeing the women relaxed and uncovered 🙂

      1. What a fantastically written post, Brian! Seriously well done. I have to agree with both you and Kate — while as travelers I can see how it would be appealing to visit a place few westerners have gotten to see, I just can’t imagine supporting such a government by handing them my money. Sorry to use the harsh comparison (and no offense to Earl, whose heart I know is in the right place), but that would be like handing money to the Nazis in Germany so you could visit west Berlin while they spent your money maintaining the death camps they’d never allow you to see. I just can’t think of an argument that would ever justify that for me…

        1. Thank you Katie. We obviously agree with your analogy. That idea also prompted us to start a charitable fundraising drive to the International Rescue Committee – a refugee aid organization founded in 1933 at the suggestion of Albert Einstein to assist Germans suffering under Hitler. We thought it a better way of using our travel dollars than giving them to the North Korean government.

    1. Honestly…I don’t think I could handle reading a whole book about it. I’ve read about North Korean prison camps in articles online, and it’s made my stomach turn. I think everyone should be informed about the reality of these places, but I don’t think I’ll be looking for that book.

      1. Understandable. I mention it’s worth the read not for the depiction of the camps, but for the way it helped me better understand the psychology behind it – the way the citizens (or in this case a boy who was born in the camp) are brainwashed by the government. This is what gives me little hope of tourism ever really having a positive impact on change in such a country.

  8. This is exactly how I feel about visiting Saudi Arabia. I haven’t gone and I don’t know if I really want too. I study human rights as a part of my schooling and it makes me really standoffish about visiting Saudi Arabia. Great article and I agree about North Korea. Maybe when there is a less government controlled tourism atmosphere I will go.

  9. I’ve definitely been hesitant about visiting Dubai for the exact reasons you mentioned in the beginning. However, I try to have an open mind, especially while traveling so it’s definitely a place I won’t cross off my list. Loved this post. Very thoughtful and great writing.

    Happy travels 🙂

  10. Great post. It shows the pros and cons of travel. I will not travel to North Korea to be led around, but if it does changes, I would definitely consider visiting. I will be checking out the linked blogs of those who have traveled for more perspective. It is always good to keep an open mind.

  11. It’s interesting, so I just got back from North Korea 2 weeks ago. I went through Koryo Tours,, I think you’d be surprised to learn just how little of your money actually goes to the government. In the pre-tour briefing, they go into depth about where exactly your money goes, and most is to your guides, and the people who work in the hotels, and the shops, and the restaurants that you go to. So really, the vast majority of your money goes to the hands of the citizens, exactly where you’re stating that it should go. Nobody’s going to argue with you that the North Korean government is terrible, but I think your statement “Visiting North Korea is tantamount to putting money in the hands of a government that tortures innocent people.” is misinformed.

  12. As you point out, if you want to avoid any country where they don’t have crazy laws, you’re going to have a hard time leaving your house. I just heard an Australian government official suggest boycotting the US because of our gun laws. Can’t say I’d blame them. It’s one of the reasons I spend as little time in my home country as possible.

    1. One thing I worry about when I’m home is getting seriously ill and having my health insurance company finding loopholes so they don’t have to pay. I just found out my last checkup WASN’T covered by my company because I hadn’t had insurance with them for a full year! Can you believe that?!

  13. I work for an NGO in Cambodia and one of our programs is to raise awareness of safe labor migration. More and more Cambodian men are either trafficked to Dubai for construction work or just get exploited so much that it is hard for them to ever return to Cambodia. That’s why it is important that you raised this issue. The more people read about it, the more people will complain about it and one day things might improve. Great post!

  14. I was pretty ignorant about these issues when I went to stay with a friend in Dubai many years ago. From a traveller’s perspective, though, I found loads to enjoy there, including a dune bashing trip, the scariest water slide ever built and tours of the souks and mosques. It’s a very interesting city with a crazy juxtaposition between locals and expats, rich and poor. I’m glad it exceeded your expectations 🙂

    1. I did a radio interview there and when I was done, they had this amazing book on adventure travel. You won’t believe everything that you can do in the UAE! Just about every adventure sport on the planet — surfing included. I was shocked.

  15. I hate reading about the “dark” side of Dubai. It almost makes me feel guilty for wanting to go there someday.

    But, like you said, every country does something terrible – some are just a little worse than others.

    If the opportunity arose to visit Dubai, I think I would definitely take it.

  16. Great post, Kate! Honest, unpretentious, and quite insightful. It takes a lot of courage for western women to immerse themselves in MidEast culture. I totally admire what you do. Bravo!

  17. Dubai looks after its minority Arab population very well e.g. house subsidies, free health etc but they treat foreigners in the complete opposite way! For a foreigner to own a business/income stream in Dubai, they have to have a local sponsor (this is not always the government but a local citizen) who will then demand extortionate amounts of the businesses profits for doing nothing. Plus they have no rights, if you go to the police to complain they will simply deport you…shows how desperate the Indian/Pakistani migrants are to live in these conditions. Their treatment of woman isnt unique to Dubai, it is the same in every Muslim country

    Anyway despite that I loved Dubai as well, the beaches, malls, hotels, watersports and perfect streets one of my favourite countries!

    1. I think what you mean is its Emirati population, Jon. Yes, the Emirati and a minority and they are WELL taken care of by the government. Jobs couldn’t be easier to get, and they get free education through their Ph.D, among other things.

      And no — women are not treated the same in every Muslim country. The UAE is very different from Jordan, Indonesia, and Morocco, for example.

  18. I think the situation in North Korea is slowwwwwly improving, and things are becoming more open, but until there’s a marked improvement in human rights for the average citizen, then I still won’t be visiting.

    Dubai…honestly, I have no interest in visiting. I flat out refuse to visit any countries that have the death penalty for homosexuality, even if it isn’t readily enforced, and the UAE is one of the few countries in the world that still has it, down there with the likes of Mauritania and Nigeria.

    1. I agree 100%. I won’t visit any country where women are second class citizens and subject to sharia and other draconian laws and practices like female genital mutilation.

  19. In my opinion, the difference between the ethics of visiting a country like Italy that has crazy fucked-up politics, or the US with that gun problem is that in Dubai I would feel like I’m enjoying all that luxury but I’m actually standing on the blood of the workers, treading on them all the time. Also, I’m not a fan of all that bling!

    1. Well — and I’m only saying this to play devil’s advocate — couldn’t you argue that by visiting the US you’re encouraging a system that refuses to make it possible to live on a minimum wage in most parts of the country?

  20. Great post! I’m based in Doha, Qatar for the next few months – where there are many of the same issues – and am off to Dubai for a visit this weekend. I feel like these topics are the ones that are discussed in hushed tones by expats here when they are sure no one is listening in on their conversation.

    While I am really, really enjoying my time here in Doha, it’s with the constant moral quandary knowing that many people here are not as lucky as I am. But I’m not one to boycott a country either. I strongly believe in the use of engagement to bring about change in a society – though I say that as a white, married, privileged female traveler and I know not everyone feels the same.

  21. Politics play a huge part in my decisions of where to travel. The truth is that while every country or state has wonderful people in it who do not represent the negatives of a country overall, by visiting a country you are indirectly funding the economy of the nation as a whole for better or worse.

    Americans are often surprised that their country is fairly low on my list of places I want to go, and even more so when I state it’s for political reasons. I’m not Anti-American, but I do have issues with a lot of the politics in the red states, and so I would probably never visit there. I have friends from Texas who are obviously great people in my books, but I don’t want to spend my money in a state that has so many stances I disagree with. Quite a lot of countries that I want to visit have similar attitudes to those I object to in US ctiizens (guns, homophobia, racism), but I find that in a country with such access to education, that is such a pioneer in technology, that interacts so much on the global stage and that prides itself on freedom and democratic Western principles, those attitudes are a problem for me more than they are in- for example- Honduras.

    With a lot of the countries that rank lowish on my travel list, it’s not so much that I find the country abhorrent and there is nothing good about them. Every single country has its good and bad people, and its shameful and admirable practices. It’s just that with so many places in the world to visit, they have to be narrowed down somehow, and so striking off countries that make my conscience feel iffy is an easy way to begin.

    Eventually I hope I will get around the visiting the countries I find morally uneasy, so that I can see both sides, like you say Kate. This is a great post 🙂

  22. Kate, you bring up an excellent point about the ethics of visiting North Korea. For years, I’ve been wanting to go there because it just seems like a fascinating country to visit but I ignorantly never made the connection that whatever money I pay for the tour goes directly to an outrageously oppressive government.

    In just a few paragraphs about North Korea, you’ve managed to change my mind about visiting this country!

  23. My grandmother (yes she is on a permanent Gap Year at the moment) went to Bhutan last year and loved it, she saw so many amazing things, her photo’s are incredible and she just keeps telling everyone who she can to go. Very randomly after she had been to Bhutan it was in KL in Malaysia and we met to young men from Bhutan working in a pizza restaurant, they were so lovely and if they are an indication of what the people are like I can see why my grandmother speaks so highly of the place.

    Interesting article, personally i really want to live in Dubai, tax free salary is very attractive, even for a short time,

  24. intepretation of islam that likens women to second class citizens??
    what are you talking about. its not fair to summarize a religion based on your assumptions of the islamic law u think is being followed in duBai.
    FYI no other religion gives women more respect than Islam. if you have doubts, ask me. im more than happy to help you and provide information 🙂

  25. You had such an experience. Glad you were able to enjoy Dubai. I am getting ready for my Dubai trip this year. I’ve read a lot of blogs about great destinations. Indeed your article add something for me to do. Thanks. By the way, I am a natural food enthusiast and would like to taste something new every time I travel. I also heard from my Lebanese friends that Filful Beirut is opening in Dubai. Iwant to squeeze this in my schedule. Do you have any good recommendation for a 3-day travel?

  26. I am planning on visiting Dubai this year, and have been reading up on it as much as possible. Came across your write-up on a search, and it has given me the exact view I needed. Frankly, most of the articles out there seem to have been written to scare the average traveller, or else make so light of the issues that we know exist that they do not seem too trustworthy. Which are the best souks to visit? Spice souk and Gold souk, yes. But any other hidden gem?

  27. it makes no sense whatsoever to say that you loved Dubai “because” there are other imperfect countries in the world.Possibly you love a lot of places DESPITE their faults, but you can’t justify your approval of one thing by reference to other things you approve of, regardless of whether the approval is qualified or reluctant. As I see it, it’s not just that Dubai is worse than other countries – slavery, systematic oppression of women and theocracy, to begin with – it’s that they also don’t have that much that is good to compensate for it – all they have is rampant consumerism, utter disregard for sustainability and the environment, and an appreciation of money above all else. Other countries have actual values beyond profit and ostentation – they are functioning societies with goals other than ever-increasing consumption. Other countries have democratic processes, ie there are ways for the citizens to change what’s not working. Other countries are more than grotesque and vulgar playgrounds for the ultra-selfish, ultra-wealthy elite. I would not visit Dubai – I don’t want to give a penny of my money to the fat cats behind the hotels and malls of Dubai, and I don’t want to condone the lifestyle or the values on display there. Not to mention that I can think of better things to do on holiday than shop.

  28. All I got out of this article was a bunch of double standards, hypocrisy and diversion tactics to justify your own selfish travel needs. How typical of a journalist.

  29. lol! you visited dubai, a city, like many around the world, devoted to please you as a westerner, then you hate on it for the most mikcky-mouse of silly reasons (all of whicih exist in every country, US AND japan included!) because apparently you’re free of crime, social injustices, women quality (yep, americans DID vote for MRS Clinton in not 1 but TWO consecutive elections!!). Typical us going “hey, our white egos are the best!” I visited all these placed you did & more but unlike you & most of the lovely, arrogant folks from where I hail (US or some west european country, Canada & Australia included). Glad to see the same old comments of “yea duuude, they r evil, we r so full of total justice & equality and ummm.. donuts!”

    UAE & neighboring Qatar have the (ready for FACTS, democracy people?) the least %s of crime AND corruption of ALL time!! Freaks & spoiled brats they are like the rest of us, but hey, they are light years ahead of all of the world (including no so-glorious, child-perverts Japanese!)

    Salute to democracy and the troops y’aaaaaaall!

  30. While the deplorable things that you have written about Dubai is true, it is still to consider it a safe place for women travelers. Despite the law being stringent, a couple of untoward incidences do happen. Then it is the same in most parts of the world. You just cannot imagine what’s going in a person’s mind and how he or she will react with tourists. But people here do respect women. They fear their god and have deep reverence for thier culture. In the end, it’s a personal choice whether to travel to Dubai or not.

  31. Great review!
    I’ve visited Dubai during Ramadan and I was a little bit annoyed with restrictions and habits that are rather strict during this period. With all respect to local rules, sometimes a little bit more understanding and condescension to tourists is desired.
    So, if you have a chance, it’s better to visit Dubai some other days than during religion holidays.

    1. I disagree with that, Eugene. If you’re a guest in their country, you shouldn’t expect them to change their traditions for your convenience.

      Now, if Dubai shut down all food establishments in the nation from sunrise to sunset, that would be a different issue, but they made it possible for Westerners to eat if they needed to. It was a bit inconvenient, but not insurmountable.

  32. Every country has the beautiful and the grotesque, yes. The problem with your comparison is that in most of the countries you mentioned, governments make decisions that are often not the will of the people. In Dubai, the worship of money is what allows modern slavery to exist and is all of the reason for overconsumption. That problem is deep and is part of the culture of modern Dubai. Just as in the U.S., the problem with gun violence lands squarely on the shoulders of the people, I believe that action from Dubai’s citizen could end many of the human rights abuses discussed. Are there wonderful things and people in Dubai? Sure. Will I spend a dime there that will put upon the altar of wealth. No.

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