The Abu Dhabi Zoo Effect VS. Sex and the City

  • They missed the real Abu Dhabi in Sex and the City II, and in the real Abu Dhabi, tourists and Arabs wouldn’t notice Carrie and her gang–there are plenty of scantily designer-dressed Western women seeking really rich men walking around here.  The women that get the head turns are the women you can’t really see.

They’re building a wildlife park in Al Ain, the small Emirati city that is the birthplace of the UAE’s founder, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.  In keeping with modern UAE tradition of over-the-topness, it’ll be the biggest wildlife park in the world when it’s completed in a few years.  

However, if gambling were legal here, I’d bet solid petrodollars that when it comes to Western tourists, not even the rarest tigers in the world will draw as much attention as another species here, the female Emirati homo sapiens.

High tourism season in Abu Dhabi is waning these days with the return of scorching temperatures, aside for certain subset of Europeans, the kind who go from a natural lighter shade of pink to red.  From the look of things, the more quickly and brighter red they turn in the sun the more likely they are to keep on coming with their beach towels.  And to maintain this crowd’s happiness off the beach, there has been a huge boom in tourism efforts in Abu Dhabi, of which Al Ain is part.

My colleague Sheena runs the tourism communication classes at our university, and part of the program is to take the students on official tours of Abu Dhabi, so they can see it through the eyes of tourists.  On our trip to Al Ain the other day, we discovered that the students were tourists, too. Many of them trace their heritage to Al Ain, but while they knew where their grandmothers’ houses and the mall were, they had never been to Al Jahili Fort or Sheikh Zayed’s home, the reasons busloads of lobster-shaded Europeans trek to Al Ain. The students’ interest in taking pictures of themselves rather than the museum displays initially came as a surprise to us, as they revere Sheikh Zayed, who died in 2004, so much that in school speeches they often refer to him as “our father.”

But Sheena and I quickly found their self-absorption a relief:  It was momentarily distracting them from realizing that they were providing the Western visitors with their best tourist sighting.

The cameras started flashing and the whispering and pointing began.  Our students, covered in their abayas and headscarves, were getting more head turns than the “Sex in the City II” ladies would have ever gotten from the local population if they had really shot the film here.

This always happens when we go out with our students.  Sheena taught me that in the tourism industry it’s called the zoo effect, i.e. when the native people are photographed like they are creatures on display.  It’s pretty inconsiderate behavior anywhere, but here you have to also factor in that these young women’s dress is designed so people don’t look at them. Most of them have been raised by their parents to stay out of photographs that could expose their faces to unknown men.

Yes, the locals want visitors to come and feel comfortable—for example, I’ve never seen any of them start taking photos of the tourists, so they could say something zoo-like as, “Here’s my shot of white people wearing short pants”—but there are also cultural limits hard to communicate politely. Which is why we miss our former assistant dean, who’d spent some time with the CIA, and used to do a quick “clean sweep” of tourist destinations anytime he saw a camera start to emerge, rather than face a student meltdown about having her picture taken by a stranger.

“Why do they always do that?’ one student asked the Austrian tour guide accompanying us once they noticed the cameras and hurriedly turned their backs to the tourists.

“Don’t you know you’re the number one question I get asked about on tours?” she replied.  “What are they wearing under the black is the most common question.”

The students blushed, somewhere between flattered at their star status and embarrassed by it.

On the way home, the Austrian tour guide offered them the mic.  “I have a fun job,” she promised.  “Just keep people entertained by commenting about things along the road they might find unique or special about Abu Dhabi.”

A girl took the mic, and kept saying, “Just as soon as something comes along, I’ll start talking.”  We passed a camel souq, a 4,000-year old archeological site, spectacular sand dunes and date palm groves, and she still said nothing.  Then she saw a man on the road.  “There is a man standing there,” she said.  “I think he’s hot and I think he’s waiting for a car to pick him up.”   Oh well, if she can’t see the camels for the palm trees, when the day comes that she is actually giving tours, she’ll probably have to answer so many questions about she’s wearing, she won’t have to worry too much about what’s out the window.

2 thoughts on “The Abu Dhabi Zoo Effect VS. Sex and the City

  1. I really find this post interesting as i to have gone through the same thing. I volunteered in the AbuDhabi film festival and tourists kept approaching me and my colleagues to take pictures with us . at times i was flattered but then it just became kind of annoying and did actually feel the Zoo effect !!


  2. I agree with the “Zoo effect”, i honestly do feel that i’m some creature on display whenever i pass by tourists. “Whatever is covered triggers attention” My mother always said that line. She is right, I’ve tried walking in public with my face covered and i noticed more heads turning than when i don’t cover my face. Along with Melissa, i’ve also volunteered at the 2009’s F1 race which was a huge international event, i got stared at and asked a lot of questions, visitors also posed next to my friends and i for pictures. I enjoyed it but the staring intimidated me a bit.


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