How BBC’s 'Inside Dubai' compares to 1995 documentary 'Club Expat'

It was a time when life revolved around Dubai Creek and Pancho Villa’s was the coolest club in town

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The BBC’s documentary Inside Dubai: Playground of the Rich has portrayed a brash view of life in modern Dubai.

The glitzy show follows some of the city’s wealthiest residents, influencers and bloggers as they glide through the “man-made oasis” snapping selfies, partying and living the high life dressed in Dolce & Gabbana.

But the series references another BBC documentary from the 1990s that catches the emirate at a very different time and pace. It was a world when life revolved around Dubai Creek and Pancho Villa’s was the coolest club in town.

The 1995 Club Expat charts the fortunes of several British residents, from the “newcomers” to the “self-made man”, who have made a home in the city. It largely portrays a privileged, and white, perspective of the 20,000 British in Dubai who “dream of becoming rich quick”.

“People would say the problem with Dubai is there’s no culture here. That’s totally untrue. Tom Jones is coming,” muses one.

But the 1995 documentary also contains hard truths, even then, for anyone who comes to live in the emirate – and it shows the streets are not paved with gold.

Four young British women wonder why single men are paid more money than them, while the cost of rent has already forced one to another emirate. “The price of rents are colossal,” says one. “The amount of money you have to pay for accommodation.”

The cost of living comes across repeatedly. “People work hard and they play hard. But in Dubai, compared to some other places in the Middle East, it is very easy to spend your money,” says another.

Another British resident said the cost of living has “tripled” in her time there and workers have to share accommodation because of the rising rents.

Club Expat also profiles the earlier generations that came to work in Dubai, such as Bill Duff, an adviser to the late Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed, and the last of the generation who served in the outposts of the British Empire during its twilight and then moved to Dubai.

“We came over in 1969,” says “The Old Colonial”. “It was lovely because we’d been in East Africa for years. It was very friendly … It is still friendly but it is much more cliquey because it is so big and you can’t know everybody. We’ll go to a party now and find we won’t know a soul. In the old days you’d know everybody.”

By the 1990s, only a handful from this cohort remained. But she stresses that while the lifestyle is better than back home, the days of big salaries are over and newcomers need to temper the dreams of getting rich quick.

“A lot of people come for one tour and I think the idea of them making a lot of money has gone now because with the course of events things have got much more expensive,” she says.

“A lot find after they’ve been here a bit and go back to the ordinary, normal life in the UK, it can be a bit difficult to come down to.”

This sentiments are shared by “The Newcomers”, a down-to-earth couple who dream of returning to Britain one day but are surprised by the luxuries of life in Dubai.

“A lot of people have said it is difficult to go home,” they say. “We lived a fairly straightforward, simple life back at home and we intend on doing the same here. But there is so much going on that you get sucked into it, really.”

Club Expat then, for all its faults, portrays the opportunities but also the huge challenges of life in the city. Whether Inside Dubai will do the same remains to be seen.

Updated: January 13, 2022, 6:21 AM