UAE and Oman: Expectations vs Reality

I promise this is the last post about my recent trip to the UAE and Oman! I wanted to take some time to talk about some of the observations I made on the trip, some things I learned, and other things I found interesting as compared to what my expectations and perceptions were before I visited. Before I left, I got a lot of concerned questions and comments from friends, family and coworkers, most of which centered around the theme of “Are you CRAZY? Aren’t you worried about terrorists??” and “Don’t they hate women over there? You won’t be safe!” I was very confident that I would be safe in the UAE and Oman (they are some of the safest and most politically stable countries in the world) but I wasn’t sure how I would be received as a (blonde) woman and an American, since those reactions have been different in each of the countries I have visited so far. I was excited to find out, though! Note: these are my opinions based on my experiences during my trip. By no means am I attempting to speak for all people who visit, or all countries in the Middle East, or all Muslim nations!

I did not expect it to look like this. That was an excellent bonus.

1. Expectation: The dress code is noticeable and applied to women only

Reality: You would barely notice the dress code if you weren’t paying attention

Although it is not required in most places except malls and mosques, laws and customs in both the UAE and Oman require both women and men to dress modestly – meaning you are covered from your shoulders to your knees. Lauren and I erred on the side of caution always and never wanted to draw unnecessary attention to ourselves or offend anyone. Many of the websites and blogs I read said that you can wear whatever you want, particularly in Dubai, and while that might be true, you would definitely stand out and honestly kind of look silly. Some women do wear abayas (traditional overgarments) and headscarves, but plenty of people wear street clothes as well. In Dubai and Abu Dhabi, you honestly would not notice that people are dressing “modestly” aside from the men and women in their overgarments, because everyone else dresses very fashionably. It’s not weird looking or out of place at all. In Oman, men and women both dress more traditionally than the UAE, but again, we never felt weird or out of place. I personally was glad that we stuck with t-shirts and maxi skirts with the exception of our dolphin cruise, but there were only tourists/ex-pats on our cruise and therefore no one to offend. That said, I don’t think anyone would have said anything to us either way.

These outfits were totally appropriate for the mall (one of the more conservative places) and we fit right in

2. Expectation: Women are segregated into separate facilities by force

Reality: Separate facilities are a choice and are pretty excellent

As soon as we left the airport in Dubai, we noticed that there were pink taxis and discovered that there are optional separate taxis for women and children. Women can take any taxi they want, but if they prefer, they can hire one of the pink taxis, which are driven by women. We didn’t opt for that but I thought it was awesome! The subway also has separate cars that are only for women and children. Again, women may sit anywhere they choose, but they have the option of standing away from men, who are fined for violating the law and entering the car. This was seriously the best thing ever. It was SO nice to be able to sit down (or stand) and not have to worry about being rubbed up against, stared at, whatever. I would love it if we had this in the U.S. No offense, male readers, but some of your gender are not representing you well.

I think in the U.S., we hear about separate facilities like these and think women are forced to ride in separate cabs or metro cars, and at least in the UAE and Oman, this is not the case. Is it in other countries? Probably (I haven’t been to them!), but the point is that we felt nothing but respected and honored by these rules. Lauren and I both came away from the experience feeling like women received a lot of respect and were almost placed on a pedestal in both countries – not what we expected to find at all!

Hanging in the women and children only metro car! The best!

3. Expectation: Most of the people in the UAE and Oman are from there

Reality: A huge percentage of both countries’ populations are expats and guest workers

In addition to the expats that many people know about, there are also a ton of migrant workers in the service industries in both countries. In the UAE, nearly every server, shopkeeper, tour guide, hotel employee, etc. that we spoke to was from another country – usually India, Pakistan, or the Phillipines. Our guides explained that many Emirati people are very wealthy and the country was originally full of nomads, so the Emiratis do not like to live in cities and do not need to work in the service industries. I was expecting lots of European expats, but was really surprised by how diverse the population is in both countries. Nearly 25% of the population in Oman is made up of expats! We loved talking to everyone and finding out where they were from, why they moved, and about their lives back home. Some of our favorite experiences from the whole trip!

4. Expectation: Like most countries except America, the cars are tiny

Reality: It’s like being in the USA

One of the first things many Americans notice when traveling abroad is how tiny the cars are by comparison to what we have here. That’s certainly been my experience everywhere I’ve gone so far. Not the case in the UAE and Oman! Full-sized pick up trucks and SUVs were everywhere, and hey, why not? Gas there is subsidized and about 50 cents per gallon. Oh right, climate change. That little thing.

5.  Expectation: People would have negative opinions of Americans due to our foreign policy issues in the Middle East

Reality: Everyone just wants to ask about New York City

Everyone always asked where we were from, and people were very excited when we said we were from the U.S. As always, they said “Oh, from New York??” and we had to disappoint them and be like ehh….not exactly. People are very into New York. I don’t think a ton of Americans travel in that part of the world, at least not as often as people from Europe do, because people often seemed surprised to see us. Our guide in Oman, Khalid, told us that he loves having Americans on his tours because they are always so friendly, and a British expat that we sat next to on the flight back from Oman asked us lots of questions about American culture and then told us Americans are the most polite people in the world. A BRITISH PERSON SAID THAT. I was just as shocked as you undoubtedly are. He was serious.

The owner of this shop was from Pakistan and spent a good half an hour giving us samples and talking to us all about his village and asking us questions about New York. We should probably learn more about New York before our next trip.

6. Expectation: Omani people are traditional and not super welcoming

Reality: Omani people are the friendliest people in the world

Ok, I actually did not think Omani people would be unfriendly at all (I had no reason to think that whatsoever), but I definitely did not expect them to be this wonderful. I think I say that about every country I visit, but in all seriousness, every Omani person we met was the nicest person ever. Endlessly polite, accommodating, kind, and enthusiastic about their country. It was easy to see how much they love their sultan and their home and are excited to show off all the wonderful things that Oman has to offer. I know that it is not a popular tourist destination (at least for Americans) but it should be! I have never felt more welcome anywhere that I have been so far, and that is the honest truth. GO TO OMAN RIGHT NOW.

We bought shirts from this guy and he was like “Selfie?” and we were like “Obviously”

7. Expectation: There is no alcohol allowed except in hotel bars

Reality: There is no alcohol allowed except in hotel bars. On a related note, both countries are really into juice.

Because both the UAE and Oman are Muslim countries, alcohol is very tightly controlled. There are no liquor stores, restaurants don’t serve alcohol, and the only bars/places where you can buy alcohol are inside hotels. Despite going out quite a few times on our trip to Japan, we did not go to any of the bars in the UAE and Oman.  We did drink a ton of fresh-squeezed juices, which are advertised on the restaurant menus as “cocktails.” Bless. I’m not a huge juice person – Lauren is – but sometimes she would order one that was so good I had to get it myself. For the low price of about $8 (!), you too can drink the delicious juice. At that price, it might as well be beer.

8. Expectation: It’s a desert, so it must be a dry heat and therefore fine

Reality: It is indescribably hot. It is humid like South Florida in August. It is the literal weather definition of hell.

I grew up in South Florida. I lived in central South Carolina for 6 years. I have traveled to 49 states and 15 countries and you guys, Dubai is the hottest place I have ever been. It is like being on the surface of the sun…and we were there in October. It was over 100 degrees with 95% humidity and a UV index of 10 EVERY DAY. There are no clouds, and it is 40 degrees hotter than that in the depths of summer! Honestly, I have no idea how or why anyone lives there. We started sweating from the second we walked out of our hotel and did not stop until we showered (sometimes for the third time) before going to bed at night. It is ridiculous. Basically, if you go in any month but January, just embrace the fact that you will never stop sweating and all of your pictures will be terrible. There is no way around it.

“Oh, it’s hot. You know what’s a good idea? Let’s go to the top of the tallest building in the world, closest to the sun, and see how hot it is up there. Good idea.”

9. Expectation: I had a completely open mind and would form my own opinions

Reality: It is easy to let other peoples’ perceptions of a place color your experience when you’re there without even realizing it

I got a lot of heat about my trip before I left, and many people were concerned for my safety, primarily because I was visiting a predominantly Muslim country and we hear so much negative news. I’m pretty good about keeping an open mind, and I honestly wasn’t worried at all – after all, both the UAE and Oman are very stable, wealthy countries with low crime rates. However, on our first morning in Dubai, Lauren and I visited the gold souq (market). It was a Friday morning, which is the holy day for Islam, so most of the shops were closed. However, a few were open, and the male shopkeepers and some friends were hanging out outside the stores. As we walked through, we were two of very, very few tourists and attracted a lot of attention from the shopkeepers trying to get our business and asking us to come into their stores. I was immediately overwhelmed and found myself panicking and walking as fast as possible to get the hell out of there. At the hotel later, I thought about my reaction and why I had felt unsafe. No one had said anything offensive or lewd to us, and no one had touched us or tried to grab us. Yes, they were aggressive, loud, and demanding of our attention, but really, it was more something that should have been annoying than scary. I realized at that moment that, without even knowing, I had been internalizing all of the negative comments and questions I got about my trip. I thought I was keeping an open mind, but really, I went in with my guard WAY up, and I overreacted. I made a point to relax when we returned to the souqs the next day and evaluate the situation from a logical perspective, and we were never unsafe. Was the behavior something we would approve of or expect to see in America? No, but it wasn’t dangerous, either. I learned how easy it is to let other people’s opinions impact your experience in a place, and I will definitely be aware of that in the future. I hate to think I would not give a place a far chance based on the opinions of people who had never even been there!

10. Final Thoughts

I’m not totally sure what my expectations were for the UAE and Oman. I did not have much experience with the Islamic religion or Middle Eastern cultures, especially living in the South for most of my adult life. What I found was that I was pleasantly surprised by how respected and safe I felt the entire time. I ended up actually really loving how it felt to be dressed modestly, especially in an abaya, and I felt so comfortable with a head scarf on that I wore them without needing to sometimes while I was there. I just liked how it felt to be seen as a person rather than an object. I also loved how friendly everyone was and how welcoming people were upon finding out that we were American. If anyone acknowledged tension between the U.S. and their home country (like I said, many of the people we spoke to were from Pakistan and some from Afghanistan), they frequently made the comment that “the people of our countries are great friends. Our governments sometimes are not,” and then laughed. And it’s true! The light in people’s eyes was genuine and we did become friends.  I never felt unsafe or disliked or targeted or anything else.

I got a little attached to the head scarf and wore it even when I didn’t have to

Before I left, many people told me that they had no interest whatsoever to go to the Middle East and didn’t understand why I would want to go. With all the negative press we see and with the turmoil going on in some of the countries in that region, part of me understands why. But my overwhelming takeaway from this trip was that it’s a waste to categorically exclude a country from your travel list because it happens to have a certain predominant religion or be located in a given region. I would have missed out on an incredible trip if I had skipped the chance to go to the UAE and Oman just because of where they are on a map or the religion of the people that live there – and hey, they have a lower crime rate than the US! So I guess the point here is that if you’re interested in visiting a place, do your own research and form your own opinion. Let your mind be open and let the people surprise you. You never know what you might find!