I make Mario’s acquaintance in Dubai. He’s the Regional Sales & Service Manager (Middle East) for a large Italian multinational company and I’m supposed to train 12 of his people operating out of the dazzling city-emirate on an unsurprisingly hot October week.

Mario is from Sicily and speaks very good if accented English. He’s fortyish and full of energy, and his people here like him. They’re mostly Indian and, while culturally and physically different from this husky, blue-eyed guy, they respect his authority and direct manner—however different it may be from their own way of working. They have moved to the UAE at some stage in their past and they know their 3-hour flight on IndiGo from India to Dubai carries hardly any jet lag but a massive paradigm shift.

Mario’s a guy who made the grade in his Sicilian friends’ eyes. He’s got a high-powered job in a large conglomerate, he lives in Dubai as an expatriate, drives a large SUV with a burbling American engine under the hood and lives in a ritzy company-paid house that puts him at the top of the pecking order.

Yet, Mario’s a no-frills guy and does not push his weight around, I watch him interact with his team out of the corner of my eye because that’s what I do and it makes my life interesting.

In a way, I envy him. Twenty years ago, I tried to convince my then employer to open a branch in Dubai and make me the Country Manager. I submitted a business plan and outlined the advantages they could reap by opening up in the UAE, but they never did and I left the company a year later.

Still,  I never stopped believing it would have been a very smart move and a lucrative opportunity for me, too. In 5 years—I then figured—I could have made the company and myself a pile of money.

Back to my friend Mario. I just go ahead and ask him, “So, how do you like it here? Is this a plum assignment or what?”

“This place is the dumps—he says—and it’s pretty tough on the family. The job is great but it’s taking a toll on my wife and kid. We have a child—he goes on—and the poor thing spends most of his life in air-conditioned environments. He can hardly go play ball in the backyard in this climate, can he?”

I think back to my childhood, those endless blue-sky days spent running around, riding my bike to undeveloped parts of town, crossing invisible boundaries or crawling under barbed wire into someone’s property. All of this is denied Mario’s child and it’s something I never considered.
Even a ride to the Emirates Park Zoo must be planned, it’s 80 kilometers away in Abu Dhabi and you have to be careful of the child’s exposure to this unrelenting sun. On top of this, his wife doesn’t work and she’s spending a lot of time in the house. However glamorous the location and the furnishings, it’s a gilded cage for her.

This leaves me with a new take on Dubai. I never planned my move in such detail, never made allowances for a wife and child. I was single (again) at the time and only thought in terms of unlimited opportunities for dating—which, truth be told, are still remarkably present in today’s Dubai.

At the end of the training day, I shake Mario’s hand goodbye and thank all participants for their active participation (it’s truly been awesome). I am flying out of Dubai in the early hours of the following morning, so I have a few hours to myself. I decide to visit the Mall of the Emirates, one of the few malls I haven’t seen yet.

But I come back empty-handed. Everything’s too darn expensive if you don’t live here.