Toddlers squealed, the sea roared and a portable speaker abandoned on the shore played a love song. Perched on a giant inflatable hot dog, a child paddled through the shallows.
This could have been any beach anywhere on a summer weekend, if you closed your eyes tight enough to shut out the light of the moon. But it was midnight on a recent Monday. The lifeguards were working a night shift, and blazing spotlights were trained on the water, staining it an eerie, luminescent turquoise.
Even at this hour, it was 90 degrees, with 79 percent humidity. That is pleasant, relatively speaking, for summer in Dubai — a city of glistening skyscrapers and bustling ports in the United Arab Emirates, an immigrant hub where citizens are the minority.
“It’s so hot we can’t come to the beach during the day,” said Ramshah Ahmed, 36, a Pakistani teacher who had traveled to Dubai to attend a wedding and spent most of her days inside air-conditioned malls. She was delighted to find a beach open at night so her children could burn off some of their energy; newcomers were still arriving on the sand as she and her son whacked a pink badminton shuttle back and forth.
“I haven’t seen this anywhere else,” she said. “It’s very unique.”
Each year, as the suffocating heat of summer creeps in, Dubai’s beaches gradually grow emptier. Weather that would constitute a deadly heat wave in Europe or the United States is the norm in the Arabian Peninsula, and in August, Dubai feels like a steam room. But the coast comes alive long after sunset, when joggers and bicyclists emerge and families set out picnics on folding tables.
At midnight or even 4 a.m. on any given day, the beach in Umm Suqeim — an upscale neighborhood on Dubai’s coast — is busy. It is the favorite of several locations that the Dubai municipality has designated as “night beaches,” where swimming is allowed 24 hours a day and spotlights illuminate the water.
Nocturnal schedules are one of many cultural adaptations to extreme heat that could someday spread to places like Los Angeles and Miami as climate change upends lives around the world. The hosts of this year’s COP28 talks on climate change, the Emirates is a major oil exporter with per capita emissions among the highest in the world. But it’s also one of the most vulnerable places as temperatures rise.
When Kristina Dovhanchyna, 26, moved to Dubai from Ukraine four months ago, the heat stunned her. “It was May and I was dying,” she recalled. She did her best to stay inside as much as she could. Then, as she made new friends from all over the world, she started adjusting to the city’s quirks and rhythms.
When she arrived on the beach that Monday, in the late afternoon, it was almost empty. Now, at night, she was so wrapped in conversation with a friend as she laid back on the sand, leaning on her elbows, that she barely noticed the commotion around her.
Children called out to their parents over the sound of the waves in Arabic, Urdu, English and Russian. The air smelled of sea salt and cigarette smoke. A five-star hotel shaped like a gigantic sail glowed in the distance, lit up in blue.
“Dubai in the nighttime is very beautiful,” said Mamadoto Momo, 32, a Senegalese lifeguard who works on the beach from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Decades ago, before Dubai metastasized into a sprawling metropolis, Umm Suqeim was a far-off stretch of coast where the town sent its ill to convalesce, Emiratis say. The area’s name roughly translates to “Mother of Disease.” Since the city’s rapid expansion devoured it, the former quarantine has turned into a wealthy neighborhood where aestheticians and plastic surgeons do business alongside gated homes with windows of mirrored glass.
The tidy streets are nearly deserted on summer days, when temperatures of 100 degrees or more combine with high humidity in a dangerous brew. How people cope with the heat depends largely — as it does in the rest of the world — on class.
Migrant workers sweat through their blue jumpsuits and lie down on grassy medians to rest, seeking out precious slivers of shade. The office-bound shield themselves as much as they can, darting between air-conditioned homes, air-conditioned cars and air-conditioned gyms. The rich buy blocks of ice to dunk in their outdoor pools. Many of them simply leave, decamping to London or Europe for weeks or months at a time.
Dubai’s extreme heat is not necessarily why the night beaches were created. In a sleek promotional video, the municipality said the government was establishing them because “in a vibrant city,” even the beaches “never sleep.” Officials have described them broadly as an initiative to increase the city’s quality of life.
But heat has become the reason that many residents use them, including Falhad Mohammed, 32, a Somalian who moved to the Emirates as a teenager. Because she works as a supervisor in a girls’ school, she has summers off, and she flips her schedule completely to cope with the heat.
“In the day, it’s all sleep,” said Ms. Mohammed, mocking herself with a loud snoring sound. “And at night, we have the day.”
For others, the beach at night offers a sense of abandon — a space outside the rules and routines of the day.
“I feel free when I swim at night,” said Adnan Anwar, a 29-year-old Egyptian real estate agent. “How can I explain it?”
The first time he tried, he was afraid. “You know when you look and it’s nothing — it’s all darkness?” he said. But he loved it. Since he moved to Dubai a year ago, he’s gone to the beach once during the day and more than a dozen times at night, he said.
That same feeling of freedom is what draws Maria Javier, 27, a Filipina domestic worker who comes to the beach almost every night, walking from the Emirati home where she spends her days doing housework.
“We actually escape at night,” she said, smiling cheekily. She and her friend had brought snacks and a thermos of tea and would sit until the morning, just “for fun, releasing stress,” she said.
Some beachgoers head home after a few hours, but many stay all night. By 4:30 a.m., the copper-orange moon, nearly full, hung low over the horizon. A group of friends kicked a soccer ball around. A man laughed uncontrollably as he took pictures of a friend buried in the sand, only his head sticking out. The tide had receded, carving rivulets in the sand. And the heat had finally broken. The temperature was the lowest it would be all day: 87 degrees.
The recitation of Islam’s dawn prayers droned softly from a nearby mosque, and somewhere nearby, a rooster began to crow.
Finally, the sun rose, sending pink streaks across the dusty purple sky. Birds awoke, fluttering over to hop on the sand. Joggers padded by on the boardwalk. For a brief moment, people who had woken at dawn mingled with those who had stayed up all night, enjoying the coolest hour of the day.