Photo Series ‘Desert Dreams’ Documents Shifting Landscapes of the United Arab Emirates

road in dubai
A road on the outskirts of Dubai.

Change is inevitable, even in some of the most culturally resolute places. With rapid development enveloping some of the most closed societies, we are witnessing some of the most rapidly changing cultural landscapes, shifting to embrace a transforming world. Philip Cheung, a freelance photographer in Toronto was offered to shoot for an Abu Dhabi newspaper in 2007, a job that eventually led him to bring his profession to the Middle East for five years.

sheikh zayed portrait
A portrait of the late Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the United Arab Emirates, on highway E-11 in Dubai.

“It was a very spontaneous move,” said Cheung to TIME in an interview. Hardly knowing anything about the country, he began learning what he could as soon as he arrived. This keen interest helped him as he put together a photo series entitled Desert Dreams that depicted the fast changing United Arab Emirates lifestyle and the opening of its doors to global influence.

abandoned neighborhood al-satwa
A laborer rests in an abandoned lot in the Al-Satwa neighborhood of Dubai.

“In 2008 and 2009, I spent some time taking pictures in Mussafah, an industrial town and a suburb of Abu Dhabi. It was known for its labor camps, home to many of the country’s labor force. A year later, when I returned to Mussafah, once a small, bustling city within a city, full of shacks, low-end restaurants, convenience stores and makeshift markets — it had completely disappeared. The camp had been demolished and the laborers were moved to better housing,” said Cheung.

red carpet abu dhabi for VIP
A red carpet prior to the arrival of VIPs at a groundbreaking ceremony at the proposed Nuclear Plant in Braka in the Western Region of Abu Dhabi.

The all powerful Oil Industry drives the UAE economy and has brought radical change to both the cities and suburbs. 85% of the population is made up of foreigners and expats, and many transient visitors. Cheung’s images show sharp and contrasting cultures of both traditional local Bedouin culture, and evidence of an international business community, blending together and redefining themselves.

ice land water park abu dhabi
A cleaning person at the Ice Land Water Park in Ras-Al Khaimah, an Emirate in northern UAE.

“My focus for the project is space — as a holding environment for human interaction or the remnants of it. People, especially the expatriates, are present in many of the images indirectly as the foreign influence on this evolving space.” It would be interesting to see how the UAE will hold on to its culture and traditions, while development continues to sweep through the land.

airplane on tarmac in UAE
A visitor at the Emirates National Auto Museum which holds the personal collection of vehicles and aircraft of His Highness Sheikh Hamad Bin Hamdan Al Nahyan (aka The Rainbow Sheikh).

See the transformation as Cheung saw it through his lens here.

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Patricia Ramos

Patricia Ramos

I am a freelance photographer who is no stranger to smudged lenses, long hours in front of the computer, heavy camera bags (and the back aches that ensued) and missing lens caps. If you know what I'm talking about, you probably have as much love and passion for photography as I do.