Sharia and skyscrapers: Capturing the parallel worlds of the Emirates

Tricia Escobedo, CNNPublished 22nd May 2015
(CNN) — There's no Photoshop going on here: Those are Muslim women draped in traditional head-to-toe black coverings huddled in front of an endless row of vending machines.
This image captures what photographer Philip Cheung calls the "parallel universes" of the United Arab Emirates -- a Persian Gulf nation that boasts about its modern achievements while maintaining strict laws on dress code, debt repayment and free speech.
Look familiar? It's where they filmed the latest Fast and Furious film, "Furious 7."
"What's interesting about the UAE is the speed at which it is developing and adapting," Cheung said. "It's a place like no other in the Middle East, where you can see residents or citizens of the country living the lifestyles of the West or the local Bedouin lifestyle -- and sometimes both."
Cheung spent three years capturing the contradictions of Emirati life in a collection of photographs called "Desert Dreams." His images show how the country -- which consists of seven Emirates, including Dubai and Abu Dhabi -- balances modern growth and Arab culture.
"Foreign and local cultures come together to form a surreal environment at the intersection of tradition and modernity," he said. "I wanted to document this change."

Rapid growth

When Cheung moved to Abu Dhabi in 2007 from Beirut, Lebanon, he said he "noticed how fast the landscape had changed in just one year."
Photographer Philip Cheung
Photographer Philip Cheung
Philip Cheung
He began this photography project in 2010, the same year as anti-government uprisings began unfolding across North Africa and the Middle East. The so-called Arab Spring movement never took root in the oil-rich UAE.
"In my experience, there isn't a sense of any unrest or frustration toward the rulers," Cheung said. "As I spent most of my time in the UAE while living in the Middle East, I can say that Emiratis are a deeply patriotic population and revere the royal family with great admiration and see them as leaders of the nation."
Most of Cheung's photos have an element of mismatch: something or someone who doesn't quite fit with the location. Tall dinosaur replicas hover over a dusty, inactive construction site in his image of the Falcon City of Wonders on the outskirts of Dubai.
"The Falcon City of Wonders is a planned residential, commercial and entertainment city that had been delayed being built after the 2008 global financial crisis," Cheung said of the photograph. "Not even the oil-rich Dubai was able to escape the adverse effects of the global financial crisis."
Construction on Falcon City has recently resumed, he added.
The UAE's economic boom is heavily reliant on foreign workers -- so much that Emirati citizens make up only about 15% of the population.
In one of Cheung's photographs, a foreign laborer sits alone in a ratty armchair in the middle of a dilapidated concrete lot, with gleaming skyscrapers decorating the Dubai skyline behind him.
"As the population of the city grows, so does its need for new residential and business structures, which sometimes rise out of old, outgrown neighborhoods," Cheung said of the image.

Biggest, fastest, tallest

And despite its desert climate, the UAE is also home to the world's largest natural flower garden, aptly named "The Miracle Garden."
"It has 45 million flowers," Cheung explained. The Emirates gets less than half an inch of rainfall each year, so the gardens are kept alive with recycled water.
The harsh, arid climate of the region is evident in Cheung's photograph "Sandstorm," which shows workers obscured by the blowing desert sands as they make their way to Yas Island, a man-made island in Abu Dhabi.
"It is a multipurpose entertainment, leisure and shopping center which holds the Yas Marina Circuit, which has hosted the Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix; Ferrari World, the world's largest indoor theme park; and most importantly, IKEA," Cheung said.
While it wasn't his intention to directly point out the contradictions of life in the United Arab Emirates, there's no escaping the very different worlds that coexist in this small, rapidly growing country.
"Within a day, you can move seamlessly between cool marble interiors to dusty labor camps, meet affluent VIPs and poor laborers," Cheung said. "This dichotomy is a part of what forms the character of the UAE."