My study abroad experience is based in Jordan, but it includes an international excursion component. The topic of my program is “Geopolitics, International Relations, and the Future of the Middle East,” and in my case the international excursion was to the United Arab Emirates. The purpose behind it was to gain a different perspective on several geopolitical concepts that are important to the Middle East, from regional conflicts to the way different governments address transnational situations. Jordan and the UAE offer two good lenses through which Middle Eastern politics and diplomacy can be analyzed. Jordan is an important middle player, often seen as an “oasis of stability” and the peace broker of the region. On the other side, the United Arab Emirates has a larger economy due to their oil reserves, and they also project their power across the Middle East much more than Jordan, whether through military, economic, or cultural action.
We came back from the UAE around three weeks ago. Although I love Amman with all my heart, it was kind of a relief for me to be in Dubai, as I was missing the “big city” vibes. Also, I’ve always wanted to visit Dubai, so I was really excited for our trip. In terms of city vibes and entertainment, Dubai certainly delivered. I am a big fan of skyscrapers and skylines, so I was definitely enjoying my time there. I really don’t know how to start describing the Dubai Mall… It is so big! We had a couple of hours there and I can surely say I barely saw 10% of it. Our first time in Downtown Dubai culminated with the dancing Dubai Fountain show, with the Burj Khalifa in the background, which was mesmerizing.
Nightlife in Dubai was also something else. I am from the Dominican Republic, and that combination of Latin America and the Caribbean means I know how to party. I am a big fan of nightclubs, both big and small, and dancing the night away with a group of good friends. After deciding we could not leave Dubai without partying, some friends and I decided to go to BOA, a club located in the V Hotel in Downtown Dubai. As soon as we got there, we knew we were in for a treat. The elevator up to the club, which was located on the 32nd floor, had couches inside so people could seat and panoramic windows so you could see the skyline while going up. When we got out of the elevator, we arrived at the lounge part of the club, and we just started chatting with some people at the bar. Everything changed, however, when some curtains that went from one wall to another were opened and revealed a club area with capacity for over 1,000 people. Since we were there for the opening, we were able to go downstairs and secure a spot next to one of the bars. The DJ played a lot of good music, including multiple Latin songs, there were dancers on stage, the people I talked to were amazing, and I got to enjoy a good Cuba libre (rum and coke) and a couple of Coronas. Cuba libres are something I usually have when back home in the DR, so it definitely helped wave away a few underlying feelings of homesickness! After partying until 3am, we went back to our hotel, but two of my friends and I were very hungry so we embarked on a quest for food. We found this great Moroccan restaurant a 5-minute walk from our hotel that was open 24/7. I can’t describe how it feels to have a kebab sandwich, some fries, and a delicious cup of mint tea at like 4am after a night of dancing. In case you hadn’t noticed, it was a wonderful night…
Okay, partying scene aside, the rest of the UAE besides Dubai was also mesmerizing. We went to Sharja, which is regarded as the “cultural capital” of the country, and visited a couple of museums on the history of the UAE and Islam. We also went to Abu Dhabi, home to the amazing Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. That place was beyond incredible… the great amount of attention paid to every single detail of the structure, the significance behind every one of those details, and just the grandness of it all was a lot to take in. While in Abu Dhabi, we also had the opportunity of visiting the Louvre Abu Dhabi. They were holding an exhibition focused on Rembrandt and his style, which was very interesting. They also had Egyptian, Greek, and Roman artifacts, and objects from many other places. I have not visited the Louvre in Paris, but from what I’ve heard about it, I can definitely say that the Louvre Abu Dhabi does its name justice!
However, the highlight of my week in the United Arab Emirates was indubitably meeting His Highness Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Ali bin Rashid Al Nuaimi, also known as the “Green Sheikh,” a member of the royal family of the Ajman emirate. His Highness is very passionate about environmental sustainability and youth empowerment. We got to learn more about what he does through a lecture he gave us while in the reception area of his house. After the lecture, we proceeded to go to a desert camp with him in order to spend the rest of the day there. I had the great opportunity of being in his car while driving to the desert, which allowed me to talk with him about topics such as politics, development, and his interesting life.
Upon arrival at the desert, the Sheikh’s financial assistant took me dune bashing in a 4×4 jeep, which was a formidable experience. We then proceeded to play volleyball, participate in some other group games, and ride camels while watching the upcoming sunset. One of the most important moments of the whole trip came right during sunset, when we were given around 15 minutes to simply wander off into the desert by ourselves. In my case, I went through a fence and walked far away from our camp. After reaching a point at which I felt comfortable, I sat at the top of a dune, dug my hands into the sand, and tried to take it all in. The vastness of the desert made me feel so many emotions that I couldn’t stop a couple of tears from running down my cheeks… it was definitely an emotional and spiritual experience for me. Who would imagine that in a desert, usually described as the emptiest places on Earth, I would feel at my fullest.
Our next step was dinner alongside the Sheikh, who invited me to sit at the head of the table with him. After dinner, I had a deep conversation with him about what we both do, our hopes for the world, and the similarities between Arabs and Latinos/as. He hugged me multiple times and called me a son of his. Members of royal families are usually portrayed as overtly-rich people who do nothing and exist just to take pictures and throw expensive weddings. While those are not completely unbacked assumptions, that generalization can’t be applied to everyone. His Highness never made me feel like I was inferior to him in any way, and his meaningful work with youth and the environment certainly helped bring my hopes for a brighter future up. In a world were leaders that can be taken as examples to follow are more and more scarce, it’s nice to meet someone who is actually using their position for good. We spent the rest of the evening by a bonfire, looking up at the starry sky, and debriefing all the awesome things that had happened over the course of the day.
In the end, my week in the United Arab Emirates left me with a lot. I got to visit places I had been wanting to go to for a long time, from the Dubai Marina and Downtown Dubai to getting to see the Burj Khalifa, the Burj Al Arab, and the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. I also got to have one of the best partying nights of my life. But not everything was sightseeing; I got to experience a transformative journey of self-discovery that gave me new perspectives on life, and did I mention I met a member of the Emirati royal family?