False Reality in the Real Housewives of Dubai

Premiering on June 1, the much-anticipated Real Housewives of Dubai (RHOD) promised to give American viewers an authentic taste of the “City of Gold.” Not to be confused with other international spin-offs, it is the Bravo network’s first original attempt at going international, and it serves as a breaking of Housewives norms.


Cast member Sara Al Madani explains that prior to 1966, Dubai was "nothing more than a few buildings and sand dunes." Eighty eight percent of the population are expats (people who live outside of their native country), which may explain why Al Madani is the only native Emirati person in the show apart from performers and shopkeepers we see the cast interact with. Her minor role, however, does not allow much exploration of cultural dialogue.


In the domestic Housewives franchises, there is a sense of connection to the featured city. It would not be Dallas without the rodeo or Salt Lake City without Sundance and skiing. Cast members tend to be lifelong locals and have businesses or charitable affiliations in their home cities. This is not the case in Dubai, and thus the surface-level wild parties and subsequent drunk arguments are all viewers get to see. Dubai is branded as “a place people come to reinvent themselves” by housewife Caroline Stanbury, but the cast feels stagnant and isolated from the rest of the city. Dubai’s business-oriented culture prides itself on entrepreneurship and innovation, but these women are not business moguls. Cast member Lesa Milan’s self-proclaimed “maternity clothing empire” is not enough for any of the housewives to mingle with outsiders. Milan and Stanbury argue during the reunion of whether her business is even legitimate and in operation.


The always-critical Stanbury emigrated to Dubai in 2016 after the cancellation of Ladies of London, a less-successful Bravo production. Since she is the only recurring cast member from a previous franchise, Bravo gave her a major role in RHOD and this was a mistake. She is not the same Stanbury viewers recognize as the outspoken main cast member of Ladies of London. She is awkward and out of touch, and her impromptu wedding to her boytoy and struggle to conceive a child via in vitro fertilization with him are not relevant to the wider context of the show- whatever that may be.


Stanbury’s bachelorette party in the first episode is one of few opportunities to learn anything relevant about Dubai. Since sexual novelties are banned by obscenity laws, the housewives play a game of wrapping ropes tied to hot dogs around their waists and attempting to squat over long-stemmed bottles to slide the hot dog inside. It is a very charming display to see the women find comradery through a lack of penis-shaped balloons and lollipops, but not enough to carry viewers through the next thirteen episodes.


Then, the post-bachelorette party. Stanbury is rarely invited to events with the other housewives to whom she has no social connection, and the dynamics resultantly fall flat. She is too boring for her surroundings, but since she has been designated “head bitch in charge,” viewers have to suffer through seeing her and husband pose for awkward Tiktoks and drink their awkward smoothies. The women have no common bond or enemy in the way Salt Lake City’s first season focused on critiquing the Mormon church. Dubai’s critique only goes as far as lamenting over hot dogs.


RHOD intentionally misses opportunities to be critical of the wealth gap in Dubai but instead uses cliche shots of camels, sand dunes, flashy gold jewellry, and the Burj Khalifa paired with Arab-inspired instrumental music to fade in and out of scenes. The housewives even had to clarify that the season was not sponsored by the UAE government as a tourism promotion, insisting that if they were sponsored, they would be even flashier and have more wild, raucous parties.


Responding to viewer questions is a component of all Housewives reunions. This season’s segment featured disgruntled and confused Emirati women who were unfamiliar with the franchise and complained that their lives as “real” housewives were not accurately portrayed.


Modern Dubai was not built by the ultra-rich Emiratis, who mostly live in the historical district called “Old Dubai,” but rather migrant workers from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and the Philippines, who live in poverty. While millionaire expats and Emiratis stay divided in their respective districts, the migrant workers have their passports stripped and wages withheld. They are not shown by RHOD cameras as they ride in cattle trucks between their 14-hour construction shifts in Dubai to labor camps in nearby Sonapur. The “melting pot” metaphor regurgitated throughout the season is only true if you are an expat meeting other expats from nations as wealthy as your own.


Ratings speak for RHOD’s lack of authenticity. Not a single episode of the premiere season broke a million viewers, even the reunion episodes hovered around half a million, less than half of what The Real Housewives of New Jersey raked in per episode last season. To catch up, Bravo must face the reality of what they are promoting. Dubai is more than a theme park for business moguls. It is a city bound toward collapse if human rights abuses toward its workers continue. There has been a severe class division since its expansion in 1966 that has grown from technological advances and a lack of consistent city planning. For every new “bigger and better” tourist attraction, old buildings and highways are demolished to make room. Dubai’s landscape is constantly changing, at the expense of the people responsible for building it, who have no say in the planning process and are worked to near death.


It is unfair to call such a program “real” and shows a disappointing waste of potential. Bravo could have taken on a more digestible international project if they were not willing to be critical of their location and stand up to the UAE government’s propaganda, but it would be a shame to end RHOD so soon. I would love to see a cast of mostly Emirati women speaking on the true culture of Dubai. Following part 2 of the reunion, which premiered on September 7, there has been no talk of renewing for a second season. Renewal seems unlikely since none of the drama thus far has been severe enough for any of the housewives to leave the show and be replaced by a new cast member. This is what tends to drive interest in other Housewives shows as the cast is always rotating. Showing the bloodshed necessary for the lavish skyscraper parties these housewives attend would be a much appreciated start for season two. Replacing Stanbury would help just as much.

 

Vasiliki Vlastaras is a junior in the College studying Government and Modern Greek.