The longer I was in the UAE, the more I realised that this nation – a growing country and culture in its own right – had various facets which reminded me of different countries I had previously visited.
On the bus from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, the towns in between the two largest Emirates’ of the country sat amidst the barren desert, spatially spread across the sand. The unforgiving sun and the dry air reminded me of Namibia, another country very much surrounded by desert. Driving from the capital of Windhoek towards the coast, towns along the way were also compound like – separated by beautiful, golden sand.
The markets of Abu Dhabi and Dubai were nostalgic portals to my homeland of Singapore, where most of weekends were spent walking with my grandparents through wet, fish markets. The smells of freshly caught fish and ripe fruit made me feel right at home amidst the raucous conversation between vendors and customers.
The Old City – Bur Dubai – brought me back to the Chinese island of Hainan. The island similar to the outskirts of Dubai, is going through its own process of globalisation causing a tension between local life, and avenues to change. The buildings are old, and the roads bumpy and more chaotic. But there is a beautiful connection that exists to the nations past, built on the back of immigrants and a desire for something better.
However, the cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi were like nothing I had ever seen. In almost every piece prior to this, I marvel at the incredible architecture and the seemingly unlimited riches on display. I always try to compare them to other cities, but I have come to the conclusion that there is just nowhere in the world like it.
As I strolled through Al Bastakiya, a homage to Dubai before its rise as a world power, I had a strong sense of melancholy.
The UAE, a nation following in the footsteps of South East Asian powers such as Singapore, desperate to become a country that was the envy of the world was to me, losing its identity.
And the crossroads the UAE has arrived at reminds me of one final country; Japan.
Japan, a nation characterised by technological advancement and capitalism, still maintains a deep connection with its past. Temples and shrines coexist with the new temples and shrines of global civilisation. This provides citizens with a point of connection much larger than themselves, defining progress as a collective movement rather than as an individual goal or target.
The vast abundance of riches in the UAE, so dramatically skewed to one side of the spectrum means that progress is no longer collective in nature. In pursuing a nation built on economic riches, the character of nation is defined by the way in which its citizens from all walks of life are treated.
Having spoken to labour workers and cab drivers on which the UAE has built itself upon, there is still a long way to go.
Ryan Cheng is the founder of The 88, and is passionate about telling stories surrounding travel, culture and identity.
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