Desperate in Dubai (United Arab Emirates or UAE)

book coverby “Ameera al-Hakawati”

courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore


The author’s name is a pseudonym. I imagine it would have to be, for her own safety. This book is a beach read, a summer treasure, a ginormously trashy guilty pleasure. It peels back some veils…literally.

Guilty. Pleasure.

The four wealthy Emiratii women in the book are all in search of fun. (Truly, they’re looking for meaning in their lives, through love, but they’re not allowed to have any meaning despite religion, and some of us just aren’t religious.) So they pursue dating, drinking, drugs, and sexual pleasure. And man, do they feel guilty about it. Not only from a religious and familial and moral standpoint, but from fear of being caught. Getting caught is no joke. One of the women’s cousins has died in an implied honor killing. If you play with fire in Dubai, you not only can get burned, you can get dead. This woman’s own parents and two brothers stop mentioning the dead girl’s name, paint over her room, and pretend that she never existed.

As the book begins, we are introduced to four different women:

  1. Lady Luxe, a highly-sexualized member of a wealthy and powerful Emeratii family named only as the “X”s who disguises herself with a blonde wig, blue contacts, and the name “Jennifer” to go clubbing
  2. Leila, a Lebanese woman who left the bombs and sirens for what she hoped would be a safe marriage in a foreign, sun-drenched country
  3. Sugar, an Indian woman with a painful past that will keep most Arab men from marrying her
  4. Nadia, newly-married to a once ardent British husband who has grown indifferent over the past year

hotelTheir lives, their lovers, their pasts and their futures all intertwine in clever and dangerous ways. Soon the stakes stack up higher than the skyscrapers of Dubai. Despite the disturbing underpinnings of women’s lives in the UAE, this was a fun poolside read filled with high-end wining, dining and shopping. Name brands and looking good fill up almost all of the women’s time…but each is becoming increasingly desperate to land a rich, good-looking, lenient and loyal husband. The first two are no problem; the latter two a big one.

Honey, Where Are Your Girlfriends?

hotel dininig roomThe women seem to have zero role model presence in their lives: No older women they can look up to. Their mothers are either dead, divorced and returned to the West, or just absent. To their fathers and older brothers the girls are commodities, objects, or just nothings. The only constructive relationships they have with men seem to be with their younger brothers, who are unfortunately powerless to protect them. And their “friends” are eager to betray them for the first man who comes along.

luxury perfumeIronically, the women also treat the men as objects sometimes: Lady Luxe, a.k.a. Miss X, a.k.a. Jennifer, calls her crush Mr. Delicious, while Sugar names hers Goldenboy and Nadia calls hers Prince Charming. It’s a way of trying to balance out the power differential, of pretending that it doesn’t matter so much. But it does. It really, really does.

This is a romance novel, pure and simple, so I am not critical of the fact that it isn’t a social critique. However I did find it curious that none of the four women in the story ever even think of enriching their lives with art, charity, hobbies, pets, sports or any of the other options available to people, especially wealthy people, to occupy their time. All their waking time is spent taking care of their bodies–massages, spas, salons, plastic surgery, makeup, clothes, eating, drinking, dancing, sex, repeat ad nauseam. Their souls, their psychic selves, their self esteem–all that is invisibly dying. Two of the women have jobs, but they don’t seem fulfilling in any way. One woman has won an award for Abaya Designer of the Year, but she’s mostly running this business to impress her father, rather than for any sense of self-worth or satisfaction.

poolLady Luxe, out of all the women, is greedy for consumption–she wants more. Always more. More travel, more experiences, more men, more sex, more more more. If you think America is a disgusting example of conspicuous consumption, wait until you read about the UAE. As with any capitalist system, those on the bottom get stepped on, and the darker your skin, the worse you are treated in this place.

Sugar, for example does not want to admit that she is from India, because in the UAE, that usually means you are a maid and you clean toilets for a living.

The Good Girls

hotel pool viewNot all the women of Dubai flirt with danger; dice with death. Lady Luxe’s two wild cousins, Moza and Rowdha have made good marriages and despite being educated in the UK, aren’t too discontent with the Arab world. They live in Saudi Arabia but come to Dubai frequently to visit.

“Contraty to the stereotypes of Arab women miserable at the mercy of vindictive Khaleeji men (Khaleej is Eastern Arabian Peninsula culture), both sisters were relatively content with their choices; Moza’s husband  happily helped his wife to open her own beauty salon in Jeddah, while Rowdha’s encouraged her to complete her MBA at Harvard.

“Rowdha was never at want for anything, but did wish she saw her husband a little more often. But his time was limited, especially since he had recently taken a new wife when she refused to bear any more children for fear of ruining her figure. She was far from upset by the marriage though, polygamy being a reality in many Khaleeji women’s lives.

eating outside“In fact, she enjoyed the extra freedom it afforded her. Having mothered two children, her duty was fulfilled and she was more or less left to her own devices. She spent her summers in Chelsea with her children, her autumns on the Upper East Side, her winters in Riyadh and her springs in Montmarte. Her kids, currently homeschooled by a range of tutors and raised by a score of maids, were left relatively unaffected by their mother’s tendency to take flight whenever it took her fancy.”

Constructive Criticism

mosqueI could have used some italics and footnotes as the unfamiliar Arabic language terms are sprinkled through the text like sultanas in cake; you never know when you’re going to bite into one and have to stop and Google.

I could figure out halaal and haram foods, and all the words for the clothing used to cover the female body: hijab, abaya, shayala, etc. But what in the world is meant by:

  • and if she got extra revenge out of it, well that would just be the syrup on the knafah (the icing on the cake)
  • wearing a grotesque T-shirt that smelled vaguely of jibneh (a feta-like cheese)
  • Do you hear that? The adhaan, you mean? (Call to prayer)
  • she has joined them as they race home from shisha evenings (in the UAE, there are many shisha restaurants where the double-apple or the mint-grape shisha is smoked…it is pipe tobacco, sometimes in a water pipe)
  • says the guy whose career in government is as menial and unimaginative as his noo-noo (well, okay, I got THAT one…Lol)

sunsetThe book could have used an American editor–I found some prepositional phrases that were a bit off, such as Leila feeling like a “cat on heat” and Sugar having once “stepped on dog poop”–in both cases the correct useage would be IN…and the tenses aren’t always consistent. Sugar’s narrative, for example, is usually in present tense but sometimes drifts into the past.

All together, however, this was a very enjoyable read, and I felt the whole time like I was immersed in the top layer of the UAE.

UAE manFive Facts You Didn’t Know About the UAE

  1. shamal winds: special winds that blow off the desert in spring and fall
  2. the Ruler, briefly mentioned in the novel: the UAE consists of 7 separate Emirates, each with an absolute Monarch. The ruler of Abu Dhabi, the capitol, is the head Monarch.
  3. Thanks to the oil boom of the 1970s, indigenous Emeratiis make up only 1/5 of the population.
  4. sharia law: in the UAE, alcohol use, premarital sex, and adultery are all legally punishable by flogging, and/or death
  5. according to the DK World Atlas I purchased in the 1990s, the UAE is “known as an advocate for moderation in the Arab World”

povertyRating: Five Cowboy Hats to the author on your debut novel, (Although not the slimy cowboy who went with them) . Stay safe, “Ameera”.

Poverty in Dubai: it does exist, and it’s a stark contrast.


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