I first saw Dubai at night.
The skyline was glowing from the brightest of lights, the buildings taller than any I’d ever seen before (I was raised in a small English seaside town). I sat right up next to the window, eyes wide, staring — Dubai is not a city that does things by halves. The tallest building in the world, the biggest mall in the world, cocktails made with dehydrated gold dust… if there’s a record for something, chances are the city holds it or is in the process of trying to break it.
But there’s more to Dubai than just decadence. With an expat population of nearly 90%, it’s a melting pot of different cultures and nationalities. The Courtyard Playhouse is the perfect example of this — we have company members from Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, Italy, France, Belgium, South Africa, England, Wales, India, Australia, the US, Canada… I met more people from all over the world in my first two weeks at the Playhouse than I did in my first 22 years on the planet.
‘I must admit, I was nervous… but I quickly learned than almost everyone here is an expat and was new at some point,’ says Jessica Pratt, who’s spent five years in Dubai so far. ‘People are friendly and willing to lend a hand and get to know you. I’ve met people from all over the world that I never would have met in my home country [Australia].’
The mix of influences makes Dubai more liberal than you might expect — just look at the all-you-can-eat, all-you-can-drink brunches on a Friday — but the city is still part of a Muslim country, and there are rules.
Clothing needs to be modest when in government buildings, covering your shoulders and knees (elsewhere you can see all sorts of clothing being worn and of course swimwear is permitted on the beach). It’s important to avoid any public displays of affection or using bad language. And you can only drink alcohol in licensed venues, or at home if you have a residents license, which means it can be quite expensive — but you do get to visit the fancy hotels where all the bars are found, so it’s not all bad.
Dubai has thrived over the years because everyone — locals and expats alike — is tolerant and respectful towards each other. ‘Dubai is a very safe city,’ says Jessica Pratt. ‘I feel safer here walking around at night time than I do in my own country.’
The weather in November during the conference is a gorgeous 25-30˚C. If that’s too hot for you, fortunately it’s cheap and easy to find your way around Dubai using public transport. There are plenty of taxis on the streets, although the drivers don’t always know where they’re going unless it’s a hotel or a landmark (Google Maps will become a firm friend of yours).
If that sounds like too much hassle then there’s Careem, Dubai’s version of Uber. And for the ultimate budget option, the overground metro runs alongside the main motorway, Sheikh Zayed Road, and costs as little as three dirhams per trip — the equivalent of 63p.
So where to go? The views from the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, are of the I-can’t-believe-I’m-here variety, and a desert safari is well worth it for the adrenaline rush of dune bashing and the sight of the sunset over the sand, which is spectacular. If you want to find out more about Dubai’s history, the Dubai Museum chronicles the city’s development and shows how people would have lived in years gone by.
Not surprisingly for a city that develops so quickly, the landscape can change in the blink of an eye. ‘When we first moved here the view from our balcony was just sand for miles, and now you can see Motor City, the shopping area, the go-karting place… it’s pretty insane,’ says Georgia McLean, who’s been living in Dubai for twelve years now. ‘I like that there’s so many different things to do, and so many different cultures and nationalities in one space.’
And that’s exactly what will happen at this year’s ITI Conference and Impro Fringe — impro fanatics from all over the world will be under one roof to celebrate and learn from each other. Bring an open mind, a big bottle of sun cream, and get ready to experience a truly unique city.
And maybe arrive in Dubai at night.
– Beth Tolson