Dubai, the queen of the desert

Dubai and the United Arab Emirates present a canvas of contrasts - epic desert solitude amid monumental urban exuberance.

March 14, 2015 21:20

THE DUBAI CREEK at sunset. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

DUBAI – Words cannot do Dubai justice. Immense, vast, beautiful, luxurious, excess – all just scratch the surface.

You turn a corner at the Dubai Mall and find yourself eye to eye with sharks swimming in a 10-million-liter aquarium. But it’s not just a few sharks, 300 sharks and rays are in a tank taking up a whole internal wall of the mall; it has the largest collection of Sand Tiger Sharks in the world.

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Dubai is massive as it is new. The mall with the aquarium only opened in 2008, and it keeps adding attractions. There is a giant sphere 15 meters in diameter that looks like a golf ball in one part of the mall, which provides those who enter with a 360-degree view of the city.

But why would you go to that, when you can go play in the ice rink, also in the immense shopping center? Or watch the world’s largest choreographed light show at the fountain, which sits just outside and is backdropped by the 829-meter Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world? Emiratis often object to characterizations that their country is a fake commercial hub built on a sandpit, and they are right. Not only does Dubai have a rich history, but its achievements are stupendous.

However, visitors can’t avoid the impression that some attractions feel like the kind an adventurous teenager would design if he were given the chance to make a city from scratch.

“Here’s a blank slate, what would you like?” Well, how about an indoor ski resort? So they built Ski Dubai, the 22,500-square-meter indoor ski area opened in 2005.

What about a place for all the world’s cultures to be on display and their products for sale, like a modern version of the world expo? Visit Global Village, Dubailand (entrance fee 15 AED; 1 AED is $0.27), a seasonal “cultural extravaganza” with 70 participating countries open from November to April, offering food and items from around the world.

How about a metro system that looks like it was designed for Star Wars? Take the Dubai Metro, opened in 2009.

Dubai begs comparison to other cities, whether it is the skyscrapers of New York, the ambitions of a burgeoning China, the exuberance of Las Vegas or the Art Deco excitement of Miami. But it puts all these other urban locales to shame, because it has surpassed them all – completing mega-projects in the last decade that few other countries or cities could dream of. Inevitably, that means the tourist has to be cognizant of just what Dubai’s seemingly perfect tourist super-attractions are built on.

Founded as one of the seven hereditary monarchies making up the United Arab Emirates in 1971, Dubai is today the most populous emirate in the union with more than 2 million inhabitants. Since the 1960s, its population has been doubling every 10 years; yet as recently as 1975, there were only 175,000 residents.

Most of those living in the emirate are non-citizens, with about 50 percent coming from India. Some 250,000 people who toil in construction live in “collective labor accommodation” of varying degrees of quality. Only 10%-15% of the people are thought to be local Emiratis. This makes for an incredibly diverse country, but also one in which inequalities can be more jarring.

ARRIVING AT Emirates Airlines Terminal 3, a tourist expects to feel they are at one of the busiest airports in the world. But Dubai has constructed the terminal to handle far more passengers than it is currently serving, so one is whisked along the broad hallways and arching main halls through security relatively quickly.

Men in white khaffiyas and white kandura, the full-body garment considered national dress for men, work the security booths and passport control. Women in black abayas working passport control are prominent as well, a reminder that the Gulf state has invested much in educating and empowering women. This is not Saudi Arabia.

It’s an introduction to a country of contrasts; yes, it is super-modern, but it is also an Islamic country.

On Emirates Airlines, TV screen map monitors attached to the back of each passenger seat for in-flight viewing periodically show the direction of Mecca. Local stores don’t stock any alcohol, and public consumption of booze at many restaurants is not possible. Malls hold to a no-pets policy and “advise avoiding showing shoulders and knees.” Being advised is better than being forced.

This appears to encapsulate current Dubai policy: There is a feeling of live and let live, of soft-selling the Islamic modernity rather than giving people a lecture; laissez-faire rather than heavy-handed government intrusions everywhere. Driving the roads I saw almost no police, but traffic cameras were present in some places. Almost no one honks their horn, and employees tend to be super-obliging to customers.

The UAE offers the tourist an endless list of adventures: skydiving, wind-tunnels, indoor skiing, watersports, beach activities, desert dune jeep tours, belly dancing, Beduin-style tent accommodation, award-winning food and nightlife. Since any one of these adventures can drain the bank account (a Hertz Toyota SUV was 400 AED a day and a tandem jump at Skydive Dubai, over the city’s famous Palm Islands, costs 1,999 AED), one has to be selective about what to do.

Sheikh Zayed Road is the central artery of Dubai. “There is so much development it’s difficult to keep up with,” explains Mira al-Hussein, a local Emirati woman and lecturer at Zayed University. The road links modern Dubai with its giant skyscrapers to the older and seedier parts of town around Dubai Creek, where the origins of Dubai lie. A short drive takes one to Jumeirah, the posh villa-lined beach community that stretches out southwest of Dubai center.

“Here, you can see the real character of Dubai and its history. Many expats come here and live; but you also have traditional Emirati compounds called majlis that people use for hosting. You can also see some of the rundown houses of less affluent Emiratis, who don’t want to sell them but can’t afford upkeep.”

The beach seems underused. “Many local Emirati women prefer the divided beaches,” notes Hussein, a reminder of the religious side of society. Indeed, public transportation also has women’s sections, and many of the tourists go to private beaches.

We stop for breakfast. Emirati cuisine was simple in the old days; Al-Fanar restaurant in Jumeirah bills itself as having traditional cuisine. To remind customers of the Emirates’ British association, there is a giant Land Rover in the foyer. For 48 AED, one can have an omelette on top of vermicelli, some thin lafah-like bread, labane, scrambled eggs with tomatoes.

“You see, it reflects what was most available in the old days, a connection with the natural environment, rather than all the imports and advancements in agriculture we have now,” Hussein explains. The restaurant’s walls are covered with photos of Dubai in the 1950s, and show the old reed huts people lived in and the poverty-stricken sheikhs in a time before the oil boom. Indian merchants plied the creek and traded pearls in those days.

A detour from the restaurant takes us to a drive-through Starbucks, which is a must.

Then it is a short jaunt out to the beautiful Burj al-Arab building that looks like a sail. A little further southeast is the famous artificial island of Palm Jumeirah, whose palm treelined avenues are home to many expats and tourists.

“I think it’s not fair that people characterize Dubai as a ‘sandpit,’ like it is fake,” asserts Hussein.

“It isn’t; Dubai has a character. It depends on what you want to see, as Dubai caters to everyone. For people who want artificial, they can enjoy it; for those who want culture, we have it as well.”

Palm Jumeirah is emblematic of this. It may be an artificial island, but it also holds the uniquely designed Abdul Rahman Siddik Mosque, with its modernist Art Deco appearance.

What better way to symbolize the way Dubai wants to be a center of culture? Near the island is a “knowledge village” that plays host to an educational free zone where international educational organizations have set up shop. There is a “humanitarian village” being built in the desert nearby. Mira suggests that “this country has the wealth of Troy.”

The second day, we go down to Dubai Creek.

Here is a juxtaposition with the modern glitz: The “creek” is more like a water inlet lined with quays and boats. A brisk trade is done here; a 1 AED boat ride takes one over to the traditional spice market, where one can bargain and buy anything. A local restaurant sells the ubiquitous hamour fish, the Gulf name for grouper, served with shrimp and accompanied by shisha or nargilla water pipes, with which one may sit by the water. In the local dialect, to call someone a “hamour” means to describe them as having much authority or power, as in “He’s a big fish” – which reveals the importance this fish once held in the local diet.

There are a variety of day-trip possibilities from Dubai. One is to drive up to Ras al-Khaimah via the other emirates of Ajman and Sharjah, or to drive over the mountains to the Indian Ocean on the border with Oman.

A British visitor suggested a different itinerary, to go to Abu Dhabi in the morning and then drive down to al-Ain and see Jebel Hafeet, the second-tallest mountain (1,249 meters) in the UAE.

Taking his advice, I set out. Following signs for Abu Dhabi puts one on an arrow-straight highway through the desert, lined with construction projects.

Abu Dhabi is like the wealthier, more boring cousin of Dubai. Where Dubai is expanding at a colossal rate and experimenting with cultural festivals and educational free zones, Abu Dhabi seems to be more conservative in its drive.

One enters the city over a handsome bridge designed by Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid. Completed in 2010, the Sheikh Zayed Bridge is one of this accomplished architect’s most recognizable projects, a neo-futuristic construction that looks like a house of concrete cards. As an Arab woman, Hadid is an inspiration to many Emirati women.

The most fantastic site in the city is the giant Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. One can see it in the distance but signs for it seem non-existent; nevertheless, after some driving in circles, one finds the parking lot. Attendants at the entrance provide men and women with modest clothing if they haven’t dressed properly.

The gleaming white façade has a Taj Mahal feel to it. Visitors are invited to remove their shoes and walk around the famous hand-woven carpet inside the arching prayer hall. Gleaming gems and artwork adorn the ceilings and walls.

Exiting the mosque we followed signs for al-Ain, the desert city in the middle of nowhere in northeast UAE. An hour and a half’s drive through 160 km. of open desert – with signs for “farms” on both sides of the road, apparently cultivating crops like dates – brings one to al-Ain. Along the way the road is lined with beautiful dunes, the quintessential landscape of Arabian desert.

Al-Ain, “The Spring” in Arabic, seems like a sleepy town, even though the population numbers half a million, with many houses sitting behind high walls. People call this the “garden city,” but it’s hard to understand why – as the gardens all appear to be hidden. This is the opposite of Dubai, not an inviting tourist center but a working economic hub.

The real marvel here is the natural landscape and the protruding mountain of Jebel Hafeet. Resembling razor-sharp teeth, the escarpment is intimidating; at its base is a beautiful lake, and small vacation homes dot the foothills.

As the sun dips below the horizon on the hour’s drive back to Dubai, a dust storm is picking up. Every dozen kilometers there are rest stops and the signs have a symbol for gas, food and a mosque.

A sign says it is forbidden to hunt along the road. It’s a reminder of the quixotic nature of this country, pious, rooted in its traditions, and also bursting with modernity and vision.

*Travel note: Israeli passport holders are not usually permitted entry because the countries have no diplomatic relations, but those traveling on other passports from Western countries will likely not encounter problems at passport control, even if they have Israeli stamps on their travel document.

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