My friend Puneh from Tehran loved it, but Nazir couldn't stand it. She lived in a house in Dubai complete with lilac bushes and European aspens in the front yard, gardeners who kept the lawn manicured and neighbors from Europe, the Middle East and North America, who drove Volvos, Porsches and Jeeps.
"So many interesting people," says Puneh, an art dealer. "I felt so free, as a person, as a woman and as an individual."
"This pompousness, this manufactured perfection. There is nothing real about this city," says her friend Nazir, an artist. "I could hardly breathe anymore. I wouldn't have been able to paint a single painting there."
Nazir lasted in Dubai for eight days, precisely the duration of his first show, before fleeing back to Tehran. After that he would spend long hours talking to Puneh on the phone, begging her to come home. She did -- and regretted it. What she gave up was a life in the most modern, fast-paced, flashy and superficial city in the Middle East.
When I went to Iran to visit the two of them and returned to Dubai with a high fever, I was surprised to be greeted by Filipino nurses, who immediately took me to the airport clinic. A Syrian doctor insisted that I stay there overnight while I was given infusions and he waited for the results of my blood tests. When I left the clinic, the Indian receptionist couldn't understand why I was asking for the bill. "The bill? What bill? The Emirate of Dubai is paying for your treatment."
A Watertight Security System
Like most people who live here, I got myself an "E-card," which allows me to bypass the passport control at the airport, where I simply place my index finger on a sensor, a door opens and I walk through. Before I pick up a visitor from the airport, I go online, type in his flight number and my mobile phone number -- and receive a text message every half hour updating me on the flight's arrival status.
Water and electricity bills, dentist appointments, road toll -- everything reaches me via my mobile phone. When there is an accident, the police record mobile phone numbers before they write down the vehicles' license plates. The mobile phone serves as a universal identity card in Dubai.
The inventors of this relatively watertight system refer to it as "passive security." It is unobtrusive, at least until something arouses the suspicions of the local authorities. "Although your wife has a German passport," an official at the agency that handles foreigners told me, "her name doesn't sound German. Please go upstairs. Colonel Ahmed is expecting you." A fellow journalist who used to report from Jerusalem was asked for her opinion on the Iraq War before she was permitted to retrieve her belongings.
Profilers and officials trained in examining documents work in the transit area at the airport, keeping an eye out for suspicious characters. There are people in prison in Dubai who were found with 0.02 grams of marijuana in their pockets.
A Strange Equilibrium
Dubai is not a city where I feel observed or monitored, and it has none of the annoying routines of places like Cairo, Beirut or Amman, with their metal detectors at entrances to public buildings and armed patrols in shopping malls. On the other hand, any hint of nudity in the copies of SPIEGEL for sale at newsstands has been blacked out, and anyone wishing to read the German tabloid Bild online is greeted with this message: "The content of this Web site is incompatible with the political and moral values of the United Arab Emirates." Paradoxically, print copies of Bild are for sale in Dubai supermarkets, for the equivalent of $4.
The city is an exciting place for a Middle East correspondent. Nowhere else in the region are there so many young, ambitious and well-educated North Africans, Syrians, Lebanese, Iraqis and Saudis who have turned their backs on their repressive countries. Dubai is a global village, but even more than that, it is an Arab village.
Journalists working for international media face no restrictions, except when they want to report on the sensitive issue of the country's neglected guest workers. Dubai is a practical place compared with Cairo and Beirut, the traditional posts for Middle East correspondents not living in Israel. It offers direct flights to places like Casablanca and Kabul, and it is unlikely to be troubled by civil war anytime soon.
An odd cultural equilibrium has developed in this city of 150 nations. During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, eating, drinking and smoking in public are strictly forbidden, and innocent European offenders are politely reprimanded. On the other hand, the supermarkets sell pork, and anyone interested in wine or whisky can drink to his heart's content in the international hotels.
Polite and Superficial
On my street there is a mosque run by Egyptians to the right of my house, as well as a Palestinian convenience store, an Indian flower shop and two villas owned by wealthy Emiratis. On the left-hand side, eight houses are clustered around a garden area shared by tenants from Iran, Germany, Egypt, Lebanon, France, Congo, Hungary and South Africa. On Fridays the street is lined with the limousines of wealthy Arabs and the bicycles of Pakistani workers, all men who have brought their sons to the mosque for prayers. The lingua franca is English, manners are civil and even the Yemenis obey the rules of the road, which are every bit as strict as they are in Europe.
"In the end," says Abd al-Aziz al-Ali, the human resources director at the state-owned airline, Emirates, "cultural conflicts are usually resolved with common sense: avoid provocation and emphasize commonality." He should know. His company employs people from 120 different countries. According to al-Ali, there have been only 12 disciplinary cases since Emirates was founded in 1985.
The standard salutation in malls and hotels is "Hi, Sir," or "Hi, Madam" -- evidence of the influence of Asia, where Dubai, a service-oriented city, recruits its personnel. The tone in Dubai is polite and, like the city as a whole, relatively superficial. But anyone who takes the trouble to dig more deeply realizes that the klatsch of cultures is more pronounced here than almost anywhere else in the world. Every nationality and ethnic group represented here has its reputation. There are jokes about Lebanese women and their plastic surgeons, arrogant Iranians, the boozing British, the difficult Indians -- and the Germans, who supposedly haggle over every taxi fare.
As much as Dubai offers insights into the peculiarities of different cultures, hackneyed prejudices stand little chance of surviving here, where the polar opposite is always just around the next corner.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan