Think you have to jump on a plane to see another side to the Middle East?
‘This town,’ I sang in my best cod-Jamaican accent, ‘is coming like a goats’ town.’ I’m sure The Specials wouldn’t thank me for appropriating ‘Ghost Town’ for the sake of a bad pun, but it was true: here, in some tiny village just south of nowhere, goats ruled the day. They were everywhere, gnawing on shrubs, sniffing around drainpipes and, at one spectacular point, making superheroic three-foot leaps into fetid bins.
As we studied our map to work out where in the UAE we were, a truck – the only sign of life we’d seen for half an hour – drove by. It was full of goats. We didn’t see who the driver was. Maybe the goats had started carjacking too.
If you’re not from the UAE, it’s easy to forget that all this strangeness is just a short – or, if you get lost, a frustratingly long – car ride away. For most Western expats I know, travel in the UAE never goes much further than the occasional ride to Abu Dhabi or a jaunt to the east coast. And that means taking the direct route, flying like an arrow to your destination and never stopping for anything but a bottle of water from the gas station. Even visits to other emirates don’t go much further than the next spa.
No wonder, then, that so many Western expats view living in the UAE as basically like living at home, but with better weather and more to complain about. I know people who’ve flown off to other, less developed places in the Middle East so that they can see what it’s like ‘to be in a real Middle Eastern country’. Aside from the dubious logic – what, it’s not ‘Middle Eastern’ if people aren’t living in desert shacks and riding to work on camels? – they seem to have forgotten that much of the UAE isn’t a tarmac-and-glass jungle full of five-stars.
On my travels through the UAE, I’ve seen houses smaller than the rusting satellite dishes that sit atop them. I’ve seen an elderly woman trying to shoo away a camel that was pressing its head up against her kitchen window. I’ve seen a kid not much older than seven walking along happily with a handgun the size of his forearm. I’ve seen cows deciding that a road would make an excellent place for a group sleep-in, forcing battered Ford Cortinas to trundle over the sand and rocks around them. Seriously; get yourself into a 4x4 and out of Dubai. Find yourself a little wadi so you can camp out in the wilderness and check out some of the little villages you pass through. You never know what you might find. Even if it’s mostly goats.