Culture + Style

What’s So Funny in Dubai? Comic Ali Al Sayed Knows

Comedian Ali Al Sayed. (Photo: Paul Thuysbaert)

Just a few years ago, live comedy was hard to come by in Ali Al Sayed’s hometown of Dubai. Where would people go for laughs? (YouTube, he says.) But he’s working hard to fix that, both as an impresario presenting local comedy shows and classes and as a comedian in his own right. One recent gig finds him supervising the leaping, skitching, flyboarding title characters in “Two Bellmen Two,” a short action film shot at the JW Marriott Marquis Hotel Dubai, the world’s tallest hotel. At first, Al Sayed envied his co-stars and their high-flying moves. “But I saw them do a couple of stunts where I said, ‘You know what? That is completely out of my league,’” he says. “The best I can do is probably skip!”

Al Sayed answered some questions about his beloved city and its comedy scene for Marriott Traveler.

Where do people go for stand-up comedy in Dubai?

We don’t have comedy clubs yet. We’re working on opening one, hopefully before the end of this year. But you can go to a comedy night at a restaurant or a bar — or a theater, if you have a bigger comic.

How do visitors find out about shows?

Social media is giant here. Or you can check out dubaicalendar.ae. They have all the events that happen in Dubai, whether they’re ticketed or not.

What’s funny about life in Dubai?

You know, it’s interaction. I believe 202 nationalities live here, and it’s so funny how people try to get to know each other, the lost-in-translation stuff. People really enjoy that.

Do you have to be careful about what you joke about?

It depends on who your audience is. The Arab and the South Asian audiences tend to be more conservative, and they would like to see a respectful show where there’s not a lot of swearing or vulgar material. A David Letterman gig, if you will.

uae comedian ali al sayed performing dubai
Ali Al Sayed at “Onestly Sbeaking” Comedy Special at Dubai Comedy. (Photo: Debbie Fortes)

Do the strict laws in the UAE limit the kind of material you can do?

There are certain limitations, one being a law that says you can’t discriminate against anybody for their religion. You’re not allowed to make fun of them for it. Every time I book a comic from anywhere in the world, religion and politics are two things we try to keep out of the comedy shows because of the diversity of people who are here. There’s a lot of stuff you can get away with in the U.S., but over here it’s easier to offend somebody — because they’re probably in the room.

You wouldn’t make fun of your government like some American comics do?

Not really. I mean, our government gives us homes and land and jobs and so many different opportunities. We’re out there praising it. You’re not gonna find an Emirati who wants go out there and criticize the government. If I say, “Hey, you know, what’s up with these jobs?” they’re like, “Well, I was offered three yesterday. Would you like one?”

Are the shows usually in English?

Yes, English is probably the most commonly spoken language here.

Are there shows in other languages, too?

Yeah, there are Arabic shows, Filipino shows, Indian shows. You have Iranian night. The languages you hear here are amazing. Somebody was just telling me yesterday that we should have a Sudanese night in Dubai. People in Sudan speak Arabic, but Sudanese Arabic is different, and the Sudanese sense of humor is different. I’m like, “Yeah, let’s!”

Are there hecklers in Dubai?

Yes! Hecklers are universal. Some are funnier than others. The Brits are so creative while heckling, it’s unbelievable. You want to applaud them, like, “How did you come up with that?” Personally, I love hecklers. They give you jokes that you didn’t write.