Dispatch, Dubai: Multiculturalism, Mideast style


Destinations editor Eric Moya visited Dubai during a Study Mission sponsored by Dubai Business Events, the city's official convention bureau, to showcase the latest attractions, hotel offerings and meetings venues. View a slideshow from his trip.

My dad is originally from the Philippines and became a U.S. citizen after joining the Navy. During his two decades of service before retiring in 1978, he naturally visited countless ports, one of which was Saudi Arabia. He recalls overhearing dockworkers there talk about him in Tagalog, debating whether the dark-complexioned passerby with jet-black hair and a crisp sailor's uniform might be a kababayan, or countryman. (He answered them in their native tongue, prompting an excited response from at least one of the workers.)

Filipinos might have been somewhat scarce in Saudi Arabia back then, but that's certainly not the case now: According to the latest statistics from the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration, over 400,000 Filipino citizens are employed in the country. The situation is similar in the Saudi playground of Dubai. In that city of about 2.5 million, estimates put the Filipino population at about 20%.

Dubai is, in fact, a city of expats, with estimates placing the Emirati population at about 10% to 15%: Europeans, South Asians and others from abroad account for the rest, mostly lured by the promise of lucrative employment in a variety of fields, from technology to hospitality. A friend of mine, originally from England, has lived in Dubai for years, enjoying a career as an arts and features writer with one of the area's English-language newspapers.

Signs of Dubai's multinational makeup are everywhere: American fast-food and clothing franchises stand alongside Lebanese, Indian and Filipino restaurants and British-style pubs, offering most everyone a taste of home -- with perhaps some notable differences.

That the city is likely to feel equal parts familiar and foreign to a large cross-section of visitors is no doubt a huge advantage in the meetings and incentives market as well as to leisure vacationers, and that's undoubtedly by design.

During a Dubai Events roundtable presentation, for example, a representative of Dubai Parks and Resorts outlined the offerings of the theme park complex due to open in October: Legoland will share space with a Bollywood-themed section and a Hollywood-inspired attraction featuring characters like the Smurfs and Shrek.

This something-for-everyone penchant couldn't help but remind me of Las Vegas, and while some might take issue with the comparison, the commonalities are hard to overlook.

It's particularly true in regard to nightlife. For one thing, nightclubs in both cities are located primarily in hotels. Part of this, of course, is to spare the beautiful party people from standing behind a velvet rope in unforgiving desert climates. But in Dubai's case, it also has to do with liquor laws: Typically hotels, and the clubs and restaurants within, are the only businesses that can serve alcohol.

Club Seven at the Park Regis Kris Kin Hotel is one such venue. Dropping by on a weeknight, the place was packed. On stage, a group of about a dozen singers took turns singing a variety of pop tunes, mostly in English but some in Tagalog. That, and the beer towers filled with San Miguel, confirmed it was primarily a Filipino crowd.

I've never been to the Philippines, and I can't speak Tagalog. But at a table with friends hailing from England and Finland, I, an American born of Filipino and Chinese parents in the Navy town of Groton, Conn., felt a sense of kinship in this most international of cities. Not kababayan, exactly -- but close.

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