Here are 10 takeaways from my visit to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, for New York University Abu Dhabi Candidate Weekend, March 3-6.
10) Emiratis themselves are very much the minority in their own country. I saw almost no Emiratis while I was there (aside from other candidates), and one of the local candidates joked to me, “The only place an Emirati would help you would be Sephora, and that’s because she wants the employee discount.”
9) The super cars that have become symbols of the UAE are nowhere near ubiquitous. In lieu of Ferraris and Lamborghinis, I saw plenty of Dodges, Toyotas and Jeeps.
In fact, I think the Country Day parking lot boasts a higher Mercedes Benz-BMW-Audi ratio than Abu Dhabi. The only place I saw the namesake super cars was in the porte cochere of the Emirates Palace.
8) Almost all of the labor is supplied by Southeast Asians, but you will hardly see them working. Speaking Arabic isn’t as useful as Urdu or Indonesian in these parts in terms of getting something you want.
However, you won’t see the majority of the workers upkeeping the country around the clock. The vast majority of them (construction workers) come out from their hostels after sundown – eerily, the fourth call to prayer is almost an alarm clock for them – to go to work. (Local candidates told me that this case is particularly felt in the summer when the climate makes daytime anything all but impossible.)
7) The country is (a manufactured) lush! Similar to California, green plantings (palm trees, grass and very bright flowers) sprout out of the ground everywhere, and there is a large agricultural-date industry. (Most dairy products are made in the UAE as well.)
6) The rest of the world keeps up with our politics frequently. I was stunned to find that candidates from Romania to Nigeria were all well versed in U.S. politics and policy, far more so than anyone at Country Day would be.
This is equal testament to the outside world and education system of non-American countries, and also NYU Abu Dhabi’s ability to pluck well-versed and accomplished students.
I also took it upon myself to apologize for being an American and hence adding to the cultural zeitgeist that was propelling Donald Trump’s international renown (all 23 times he was mentioned to me). Ironically, I found that the overseas students knew more about U.S. public policy, politics and the election than many fellow Country Day students.
5) Humidity. Far from being the arid place I thought the United Arab Emirates would be (I loaded up on chapstick and lotion before I left), Abu Dhabi was a more humid and hospitable place than Sacramento.
4) Islam is most likely the most beautiful religion you’ve ever seen. Yes, I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and you can’t really compare religions based on their architectural manifestations, but I will take the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque over Notre Dame Cathedral any day (and not just because the former has air conditioning.)
3) American ignorance. More Americans than international students asked whether I was American. Despite the fact that we are the “Melting Pot of the World,” it seems like the U.S. still has a lot to do in the department of accepting people for people and not for types.
Furthermore, several of my toiletries were thrown out of my luggage by USA TSA stationed in Abu Dhabi on the way back. Ironically, I was allowed to travel into the country with those same toiletries, so apparently global security isn’t exactly equitable.
2) Globalization has destroyed the souvenir industry. While I was waiting for my departure from Abu Dhabi International, I wanted to purchase some trinkets for friends, particularly ones that would represent some of Abu Dhabi’s most famous landmarks: Ferrari World trinkets for senior Serajh Esmail and a magazine about Yas Island Circuit for Uncle Dan.
Want to know what I found? An Hermes boutique, Burberry scarves, Burger King, and a Johnnie Walker store (for all your liquor needs). Also, an entire section of the airport devoted to watches and Givenchy cosmetics.
Question to all airport designers: If I wanted to buy a Birkin bag, wouldn’t I just go to Paris? The only thing remotely Abu Dhabi-esque that I found was a sad faux-souk tent tucked underneath the escalator.
1) You must visit the UAE. Having visited Abu Dhabi, I can now say that not seeing the UAE during your lifetime would be a cardinal sin. The culture, the people, the lifestyle are so special. So put this oasis on your travel list, Uncle Dan.
—By Manson Tung