The Real Housewives of Dubai is the eleventh (!) official iteration of Bravo's flagship franchise, not counting all-star seasons like Ultimate Girls Trip, foreign-produced series like The Real Housewives of Melbourne, or non-regulation series like Ladies of London. As it happens, Ladies of London offers Bravo fans a convenient jumping-on point to Dubai, as one of its stars, Caroline Stanbury, is one of the six socialites at the center of this new series.
The fact that one of the stars of a London-based Housewives-ish series is now at the center of Bravo's first foray into West Asia says a good bit about the flavor that The Real Housewives of Dubai seeks to adopt. Judging from the premiere episode, the show is an intentional melange of cultures swirling around in the United Arab Emirates' most extravagantly luxurious city. The six women at the center represent Emirati, British, Kenyan, Jamaican, Lebanese, Jamaican, and American cultures, in one form or another, and the convergence of Arab and Western cultures is meant to paint Dubai as the "new world," or at least as the new vision of global wealth.
The social map of The Deal Housewives of Dubai doesn't revolve around Caroline Stanbury, although she definitely looms large. She explains that she moved to Dubai seven years ago (pause for everybody to count how many years it's been since Caroline moved to Dubai on Ladies of London) and since then she divorced and is now married to 27-year-old hot piece Sergio. "I feel like the cat that got the f*cking cream," she says, and it's hard to disagree.
While Caroline's "hen party" (a belated bachelorette to celebrate her offshore nuptials) is the social event of the first half of the episode — particularly since it excludes Kenyan-born supermodel Ayan and sets up conflict for the rest of this episode and beyond — the hub of this particular cast seems to be Nina Ali, the show-described "mommy influencer" and CEO who's the only person who (for the moment) gets along with everybody. If Nina is the binding force, then Ayan is the agent of discord. If anyone's poised to be the show's breakout character, it's Ayan as she repeats the phrase "I'm a badass bitch" in four languages and frequently references her own incredible good looks. She's not lying — Ayan is stunning, statuesque, the absolute real deal. She's also incredibly good at picking fights; in the first episode she's already sparring with Caroline Stanbury and Caroline Brooks, the American entrepreneur and "spa enthusiast" whose ascendance to the hights of Dubai society she views as a monumental achievement.
Aside from the usual personality conflicts we've come to expect from this franchise, The Real Housewives of Dubai seems at least a little aware of its place within a unique global convergence of politics, culture, and wealth, and that the very existence of this show is, in a way, emblematic of everything that makes Dubai both fascinating and problematic. Human rights groups have already protested the show on account of misogynist and homophobic laws in the U.A.E., and indeed Caroline Stanbury mentions how she and Sergio had to get married in Mauritius because local laws forbade a divorced woman legally marrying. There's also the very obvious socioeconomic issues at play. Western expats moving their money into the new skyscrapers and developments in Dubai (only 12% of the population in the city is local, we're told) is painted as progress, as is the stark difference between the Old Dubai and the New Dubai. There's a sense of manifest destiny to it all that doesn't sit entirely right.
On the other hand, we get surprisingly candid and bracing moments like when Lesa Milan, the Jamaican-American fashion designer, talks about how she feels "safer" raising her three young Black boys in Dubai than in America. One imagines most of the social commentary will be delivered via parenting segments like when Nina and Sara, a native Emirati tech entrepreneur who's the newest addition to this social circle, talk about raising their kids with either English or Arabic spoken at home.
It's probably a lot to hope that a Real Housewives show will have much of substance to say about wealth and culture in the Arab world, and Dubai will probably, like all the other shows in this franchise, live or die based on the drama created by the women. If that's the case, Dubai seems… okay. The animosity between the Carolines and Ayan seems plenty real, and other Housewives iterations have gotten by on far less in their first seasons. Whether things continue to heat up in the desert remains to be seen.
The Real Housewives of Dubai premieres on Bravo Wednesday June 1st, 2022 at 9:00 PM ET.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.