An American Muslim Abroad, Or, Things I Saw in Dubai

An American Muslim Abroad, Or, Things I Saw in Dubai

The United Arab Emirates, or UAE, is the only functioning federation in the Arab world, composed of six states that joined together in 1971 and a seventh that decided to come along a year later. The two primary emirates are Abu Dhabi, the capital and wealthiest of the seven, whose territory is 87% of the whole country’s, and Dubai. Dubai is the second of the two, but easily the more famous. In the past fifteen years, the city has grown from a small trading port to a world-class, global city, one of the most dynamic and diverse metropolises in the world.

While we make much of the rise of China and Turkey, for example, consider that these are societies with long histories, including great stretches as dominant regional or global powers. Dubai, on the other hand, has come up from out of nowhere and accelerated past much of the Middle East. Of course the city is frequently derided for being shallow, superficial, overly concerned with wealth, and interested only in the material. In many ways, it reminds the historically-minded of how America was derided in the 19th and early 20th centuries. (There’s good and bad there, as any new capitalist conglomeration would feature.)

Dubai is the biggest city in the UAE, with 2.1 million people. Recently I heard that some 13,000 people move to the city each month, which can be best described as clumps of skyscrapers along massive highways, some 6-8 lanes in each direction. But though it’s called the United Arab Emirates, the population is overwhelmingly South Asian, especially in Dubai—they form the service and labor class, but many South Asians are wealthy professionals and businesspersons. Dubai and the UAE have historically been more a part of the Indian Ocean economy than the Arab world, which is barely a coherent economic concept (countries like Turkey belong as much to Eastern Europe as the Middle East; the Gulf more to India and East Asia than to Arab and Berber North Africa). 

On a recent trip through the region, via Istanbul, I took some pictures to capture some of the spirit of the place for lack of a better term. When you bring that many people together, chasing after money and the chance to strike it big—again, think American Wild West, for better and worse—you get… things that surprise you.  

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Haroon Moghul is a Senior Correspondent Haroon Moghul is a Fellow both at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law and with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. Haroon is completing his doctorate at Columbia University and is the author of The Order of Light (Penguin, 2006). He’s been a guest on CNN, BBC, The History Channel, NPR, Russia Today and al-Jazeera.