It’s not a mirage, but neither is it entirely as it seems. On first impression, Dubai is an ultramodern, high-rise glass and steel metropolis. The breathtaking skyline sprouted out of the pale desert shore of the Arabian Gulf within the last two decades. During that short time, the city established itself as a global hub for business and aviation, evolving into a thriving international tourism destination, part Vegas, part Disney.
But first-time visitors who arrive expecting the city to behave and feel like a contemporary Western metropolis are in for a shock. Beneath its ritzy exterior, Dubai is essentially Arabian. The rhythms of daily life are dictated by culture, by religion and by the challenges of the climate.
For business travelers, the first adjustment is to the working week, which starts on Sunday and ends on Thursday, with Friday and Saturday as the weekend. Office hours usually run from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., with downtime in the heat of the afternoon before resuming from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
During the month of Ramadan (June 18–July 17 this year), businesses are legally obliged to reduce working time by two hours or pay their employees overtime.
Many restaurants close in daylight hours during Ramadan, and visitors are advised not to consume food or drink in public places (including within vehicles) until the fast ends at sunset.
Dubai’s local customs are fraught with potential pitfalls, especially when doing business. Meetings are often conducted with polite informality, and working breakfasts or lunches are common. Be cautious with small talk, and avoid contentious subjects such as religion or politics. Some local contacts will avoid shaking hands with members of the opposite sex, so it’s better to respond to introductions rather than initiate them.
Adapting to the subtleties of the local culture poses just one of the issues business travelers must cope with. Another is dealing with the heat, especially during the ferociously hot summer months (May to August), when temperatures can rise to 120 degrees with 95 percent humidity. Each day becomes a progression from one air-conditioned haven to the next, spending as little time outside as possible.
Breakfast meetings provide one way to evade the worst of the heat. The Ivy Dubai, the local incarnation of the celebrated London brasserie, offers a high-end option. Located on the ground floor of the downtown Jumeirah Emirates Towers, the restaurant serves British-style breakfasts (featuring real bacon and pork sausages — rarities in Dubai) 8–11 a.m. on weekdays.
In recent years, downtown’s center of gravity shifted to Business Bay, an area set around a manmade creek immediately south of the landmark 211-floor Burj Khalifa. For an informal breakfast venue in Business Bay, head to El3ezba, which serves European and Egyptian specialties at breakfast. Good luck pronouncing the name. The swankiest breakfast location in Business Bay is probably Kitchen6 at the JW Marriott Marquis Hotel, which lays out an extensive international buffet from 6 a.m. Reservations are required.
The district commonly referred to as New Dubai, southwest of downtown, incorporates the Jumeirah Palm island development as well as Dubai Media City, Dubai Marina and the high-rise strip known as Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR to locals). Eggspectation in JBR, the best of the informal breakfast options in the area, offers all things egg. The palatial, marble-and-chandeliers Imperium, at Jumeirah Zabeel Saray on the Palm Jumeirah, remains an excellent (if expensive) pick for brunch meetings.
Sheikh Zayed Road, the main highway through downtown, offers an abundance of options for lunchtime when, especially in summer, colleagues might prefer a snack over something more substantial. The quirky café/restaurant Zaroob serves a wide range of Arabian cuisine. The pastel refinement of Shakespeare and Co. in Al Saqr Business Tower (there are other branches elsewhere) provides a calming setting for a light lunch or, if you have a sweet tooth, afternoon cake.
For a formal lunch with no expense spared, the award-winning At.Mosphere on floor 122 of the Burj Khalifa is the city’s premier venue, guaranteed to impress. You’ll find legendary Japanese Wagyu steaks on the menu.
Moving around the city by vehicle is not always straightforward. At peak times, the usual 15-minute drive from New Dubai to downtown can take up to 90 minutes. Frequent traffic accidents and extensive road work compound the problems. The metro is not always quicker (it takes about an hour), but at least the journey times are consistent.
To ward off the stress of getting around, try to base yourself in the area where most of your meetings will take place. In New Dubai, The Ritz-Carlton is a fine option. Originally it sat in glorious isolation, but now the skyscrapers of JBR overshadow it. With a broad beachfront, it offers an ideal choice for combining R&R with business. Set up a luxurious base at The Oberoi Dubai in Business Bay, with easy access to downtown.
At the end of the day, thoughts turn to a popular tradition among expatriates: sundowners. The city has an ambiguous attitude toward alcohol. Although there are many bars and you’ll even find alcohol sections in some supermarkets, officially anyone wishing to buy alcohol must have a license. But licenses, only issued to non-Muslim Dubai residents, are not available to visitors — which means that if, as a visitor, you drink in Dubai, you are technically breaking the law.
In practice, tourists drinking at bars or in hotels generally do not encounter problems, though if you get involved in any kind of misdemeanor and the police suspect you’ve been drinking, you could be charged with drinking without a license.
Bearing that in mind, you’ll find plenty of places in which to enjoy your favorite drink while watching the sun go down. One of the most impressive is 360°, located at the end of Jumeirah Beach Hotel’s marina walkway close to the iconic Burj al Arab Hotel. Happy hour starts at 5 p.m.
As the sun goes down, the city’s glittering skyline lights up: reassuringly familiar and yet exotically mysterious. That’s Dubai.
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