Dubai has a certain vibe – it's part of what makes the city special

There's more to the emirate than the nightlife or the food scene

Marina Walk Fountain, Dubai. Antonie Robertson / The National
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What makes a city great? It's one of those eternal questions to which easy answers abound, and yet it is one that deserves deeper reflection.

Fountains are nice. Public squares, lovely. Who doesn't like glorious, clean public transport systems and trains? Cycle tracks. Trees, lots of them, many different kinds – frangipani, orange-blossom, eucalyptus, native species. The shopping, all sorts. Supermarkets, the large ones with endless aisles of biscuits from all over the world. Parks. Places to walk around. Personally, I adore awnings – those canopies casting generous helpings of shade to pedestrians. It gives a city a certain charm, born as it is out of consideration to those on foot.

But all the little facets apart, people can take years to discover their own accurate, fine-tuned responses to a city, and what exactly it is about them that they crave, or don't miss, when in a different one.

I've spent a decade and a few months in Dubai. I tell people who sometimes ask me if I like living in Dubai that yes, it's been more than good to me. And they're doing a lot. I can see it change and evolve. I've learnt to appreciate a whole bunch of things about it. And then I go on to list a few, always including the food scene, the best I would say anywhere in the world. But enough has been written about that.

Dubai is a friend. Abu Dhabi is an acquaintance I don't mind running into

My colleague Dean Wilkins – who incidentally wrote this lively piece on his experience being an Airbnb host in his heyday – more recently joined the age-old Dubai versus Abu Dhabi debate and stood in defence of the latter, even as he admitted choosing between the two was difficult.

I write this from Abu Dhabi. But unlike Dean, who has the advantage of having lived in both emirates, I can't claim to properly "know" the capital. Not like you do when you live here. I know it, sort of, yes. The odd weekend by the mangroves (don't care for the term "staycation"), glorious massive Kinokuniya, the second-hand bookshops right by the place in the middle of town where you get the Dh1 chai, the best quiet malls on weekend mornings if you're trawling around early enough, the odd flight in and out of the AUH airport, and perhaps the aspect I love best, scoff if you will, but the brisk, efficient, I can't praise them enough – visa appointments at BLS. And then there's my swanky office.

Despite my perfunctory knowledge of the city, I do appreciate Abu Dhabi's greenery, the colour of the water and bridges that bring me to office and back home to Dubai. It is just that Dubai is a friend. Abu Dhabi is an acquaintance I don't mind running into.

When I moved to the UAE in 2012, I found a poky but central apartment that fit my budget in Dubai Marina, with a view I liked, and I haven't lived in a different neighbourhood since then. When tourists get off at Marina to take pictures of the beach and skyline and Cayan Tower – the twisty one, I sometimes offer to take their pictures for them, especially the couples struggling with selfies. Sometimes I tell them where to go sightsee and what to avoid. I know Dubai well enough and have only grown to appreciate it more each year, despite the changing metro station names, and they could do better with awnings. My neighbourhood, I appreciated from day one. The restaurants, the shortcuts, the best sunset views and the best exercise tracks depending on the time of the day, I am familiar with all of these.

My taxi stories are not unique. When I first moved here, I liked that many of the Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani drivers, all Urdu speakers, seemed to reply: "Mushkil nahi hai" ("it's not difficult") to any question I asked. I thought about that particular word order as a title of an art project. Something there about how a language of a city ebbs and alters to fit the needs of its inhabitants, no matter where they're from. How else would a Tagalog speaker start saying "Tayeb" for "OK"? I find that adorable. I hear that in Dubai but it's a pan-UAE quirk.

Recently, over the Eid break, in public places, visitors and locals enjoying the festival had the chance to observe the traditional Emirati dance, the yowlah, in which men stand in a row, holding swords or sticks, their weapons and move in step, symbolic of a united front in battle. In hindsight, that served as a neat metaphor for the following week, when the city's various departments worked continuously, in lockstep and staff literally weathered the most irregular weather event in 75 years, to hold fort and make sure the city returned to its usual self promptly. That airports were back to normal quickly, main roads cleared and pools of water pumped out in record time. The behind-the-scenes efficiency and hours that would have been needed to pull off such an enormous task hasn't gone unnoticed.

Everybody appreciates staples in a city that make it run, the solid set-up of the unglamorous but essential stuff called infrastructure: good roads, good schools, good public transport, good hospitals. Beyond that we're in subjective territory: good dining-out scene, good night clubs, good public tennis courts, libraries, good tailors.

All of those factors, to my mind, though are where things get interesting, if a bit nebulous. That is the leap people make when they talk about the vibe of a city. What do we talk about when we talk of vibes? A chill vibe or a hectic vibe. In coffee shops with small cactus plants, you sometimes see neon pink signs that announce in cursive writing: good vibes only. Indeed. But electrification doesn't ensure a vibe.

Cities have vibes. Maybe the less millennial crowd will choose "soul" as a proxy for vibe. Or character. Let's stick with character. It's what the Abu Dhabi bus terminal has. And the bylanes of Deira in Dubai, where you can buy a gram of saffron cheaper than in supermarkets, or the Creek Harbour. Those have character. Teams working together and overcoming floods and storms is character. It's found in unlikely places. And it's often just a question of paying attention to any corner of your neighbourhood, whether in Umm Al Quwain, Ajman, Abu Dhabi or Fujairah, Sharjah, Al Ain or Ras Al Khaimah or Dubai. Me? I just happen to like living in Dubai and noticing its character.

Published: April 22, 2024, 2:00 PM