What it’s like to grow up in Dubai, the city of gold

It’s like living in a bubble


It was the summer of 2000 and I was six years old when I moved to Dubai. It was a very different city back then. There weren’t any big skyscrapers or luxurious shopping malls – instead, it was sandy roads and a few buildings. Drive down Sheikh Zayed Road (one of Dubai’s prime roads) in those days, and it wouldn’t be jammed up in traffic.

I had a fairly humble upbringing. I went to a small private school which was a 10 minute walk from where I lived. The school followed the British curriculum, so our first language was English, which we were taught alongside Arabic, with the options of Hindi, French or Urdu as your second language. Since the UAE is an Islamic country, girls and boys could only study together till year four, after which point they were separated into different classes. So although both males and females attended the same school, they studied separately. I think this accounts for the large proportion of shy guys from the region.

During Ramadan, our school days were shorter – and that was a dreamy time, something that eager students looked forward to all year. Besides that, I don’t imagine that school life was very different to how it is in the UK.

Student life, however, is very different. Alcohol and clubbing aren’t big student pastimes in Dubai. Unlike cars, alcohol is heavily taxed and you need to have a licence based on your annual salary to purchase alcohol. Clubs exist but on the whole they aren’t visited by students. Instead, students spend a lot of their spare time with family and friends or playing sport. Few kids drink or smoke: certainly not as openly or as commonly as they do in the UK.

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Me on my 18th: In case you were wondering it’s just water in the glass

On the other hand, spotting Ferraris or Bentleys with “rare” plate numbers is common. There’s almost no direct tax in Dubai, which makes cars relatively cheap. So, if you’re a gear head, Dubai is your Mecca. Every year there are several motor shows that display some of the world’s most exotic cars.

Similarly, Dubai is for you if you like to spend on clothes, watches, gold, and electronics. Again, due to the almost non-existent direct taxes, these items are comparatively quite inexpensive. Furthermore, most desirable brands have some sort of presence in Dubai.

The weather there is quite hot almost all year round – at times, it’ll go up to 55 degrees. As a result, we have air-conditioned bus stops. But they have manufactured the other extreme: there’s an indoor ski slope in the Mall of the Emirates where temperatures of negative two are maintained. It hardly ever rains, but when it does all the students are delighted since we get sent home.

I’m Indian by origin but I never really felt like an expat in Dubai because a large proportion of the population is of Indian or southeast Asian origin. Moreover, Indian culture, from films to food, is largely embraced in Dubai. Many large scale events and functions, from Bollywood film awards to sporting events like the Indian Premier League, have been showcased in Dubai. When India won the Cricket World Cup in 2011, SWAT had to be called as the police lost control of the streets due to the sheer numbers of Indians celebrating.

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That’s me on TV during a IPL game

When you’re in Dubai you’re living in a bubble. There’s literally no place like it in the world. Fancy cars, monstrous malls, towering skyscrapers… You really don’t have anything to compare it to, until you get out. I didn’t live in a very posh place, but where I lived the best food of any cuisine in the world was just a phone call away.

I thought Dubai was a lovely place to grow up. Crucially, it is a place where values are given as much importance as education. I think in many ways you get the best of both worlds: the chance to live in a modern city and to experience a humble upbringing.