Natasha Smart grew up in Oman, Qatar and Dubai before moving to Manchester to study. Here, she reveals what the Middle East is really like
After living as an expat in the Middle East for over eight years, I knew my upbringing wasn’t like everybody else’s, but I didn’t realise just how different it was until I arrived in Manchester. Due to my father’s occupation I have lived in over five different countries and, despite being British, had only visited England twice before moving here to study Business, Finance & Economics.
I wasn’t quite sure how people would react to me telling them I lived in the Middle East, but I found out pretty fast. During my first week as a terrified and naïve fresher, I was asked if I lived in a mud-hut, and whether I rode a camel to school. I’d like to say these comments were made in jest but in reality I think they were genuine questions!
I have lived in Oman, Qatar and Dubai, but Dubai is perhaps the place which has caused the most controversy over the last couple of years. Dubai often conjures up images of sparkling beaches and soaring skyscrapers, but quite a few people I have spoken with are of the opinion that it is “artificial” and lacking in depth. At first I thought this stemmed from jealousy, but later realised that the way Dubai is often presented in the media means that there are many misconceptions about the place. In reality, there are many places you can visit to experience a bit of Dubai’s history such as the Dubai Creek in Deira, which served as a port as well as assisting their fishing and pearling industries in the 1930s. Nearby Al Bastakiya, a historic residential region, gives you an insight into traditional Middle Eastern architecture.
The most common question I’m asked after telling someone I live in the Middle East is, “don’t you get arrested for holding hands?” In a word, no. We all remember the “sex on a beach” incident a few years ago where a British couple were arrested and briefly jailed for being caught in an extremely compromising position after meeting at one of Dubai’s infamous boozy brunches. Dubai has certainly undergone an incredible transformation over the last decade, but it does struggle to strike a balance with its reputation as a cosmopolitan, glamorous holiday destination while also upholding its strict religious values. Such conflicting ideals means that tourists can, understandably, get confused. This isn’t helped by the British media’s portrayal of Dubai. In one well-known paper, a journalist accused expatriate mothers of being “too drunk” to look after their children, who in turn were out-of-control and hosting wild house parties. In my opinion, there’s absolutely no truth in this. Articles like this are often written by ill-informed journalists who – in most cases – have never visited the place.
It might sound obvious, but the most important thing to remember when visiting Middle Eastern countries is to be mindful of your surroundings. You don’t have to cover your entire body but at the same time don’t turn up to a shopping mall in your bikini – it’s all about reaching a happy medium. Respect and be aware of Middle Eastern culture, and in return the locals will respect you.
However, I’m not saying Dubai is perfect. There are many teething problems which still need to be dealt with: there is a vast disparity between the super-rich and the poor, and the 2008 financial crisis hit Dubai very hard, exposing cracks in its façade. It was apparent that its rapid growth had finally caught up with them. Many expatriates fled the country as there was lack of solid legal infrastructure to protect them, and the majority of newly-built skyscrapers were left empty due to an over-supply.
Dubai divides opinion, but it is undeniably surreal. I have seen a small cheetah in the front of a Range Rover, a Lamborghini police car and on one occasion my year weren’t allowed to go to our local shopping centre when GCSEs finished because there was a bomb scare. Although it may not have been a conventional upbringing, I wouldn’t change my time in the Middle East for the world and thoroughly recommend anyone to visit this unique part of the world.