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Dubai & Abu Dhabi

Dubai and Abu Dhabi

A  magic carpet ride through a remarkable destination!

Dubai and Abu Dhabi weren’t on our short list; actually they weren’t on our long list either!  However, when destiny made it not only a possibility, but a not-to-be-missed experience, my husband and I packed our bags and headed to New York to board Emirates Airline, a destination unto itself.   But first a woeful lack of knowledge about our destination dictated some research.    Hence a short geography, history, and cultural lesson are offered for those of you who know as little as I did before our trip to the United Arab Emirates, hereafter called the UAE.

The UAE is a federation of seven hereditary sheikhdoms, located in the southeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula.  Bordered by Oman and the Gulf of Oman to the east, Saudi Arabia to the south and west, and the Arabian Gulf to the north, the total land area of the UAE is 32,278 square miles.  Abu Dhabi and Dubai are two of the seven emirates, and the city of Abu Dhabi shares its name with the emirate in which it is located.   Over two-thirds of the population lives in either Dubai or Abu Dhabi.    In 2013 the population was 9.2 million of which 1.4 million are Emirati citizens and 7.8 million are expatriates, with a heavy concentration of British citizens because of prior colonization of the area.  It became independent of the United Kingdom in 1971, ending a 150 year relationship.  Arabic is the official language, Islam the state religion, and the currency is the Dirham. 

Its’ government is composed of a President, a Prime Minister, and a Legislature called the Federal National Council made up of the emirs of the seven sheikhdoms.  The Emir of Abu Dhabi holds the presidency and the Emir of Dubai is prime minister, hereditary positions although nominally elected.  The Federation was formed to be the nucleus of Arab unity and to protect the oil rich coast from its more powerful neighbors.   The first President of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed felt that the common ties that bound the different emirates, and the history and heritage they had shared for centuries would enable the success of the UAE,  with its leaders working together in harmony and co-operation toward the achievement of common goals.

Not that long ago, the UAE was a land of desert inhabited by proud and resourceful nomadic Bedouin tribes, fishing villages, and date farms.  Abu Dhabi consisted of several hundred palm huts, a few coral buildings and the Ruler’s Fort.   Dubai was a trading hub, providing a safe haven before the Straits of Hormuz and beyond.  In less than three decades, the UAE has been transformed from one of the least developed countries in the world to one of the most modern, stable, and safest countries in the world.  Dubai has become a global hub for tourism, retail, and finance with great infrastructure and liberal policies (by regional standards.)  Enjoying one of the world’s highest standards of living, it is now a very popular destination in its own right as well as a stopover for those enroute to other destinations worldwide.

Contributing greatly to this is the fact that the UAE’S oil reserves are the fourth largest in the world, with the country extremely reliant on petroleum and natural gas.  From the very beginning Sheikh Zayed’s conviction was that money is of no value unless it is used for the benefit of the people.  The UAE authorities undertook as their primary duty the distribution of the wealth of the country’s natural resources for the benefit of the UAE as a whole, funneling the wealth into healthcare, education, and an infrastructure that supports a growing list of non-oil industries and activities in preparation for the day when there is no oil.    (It is predicted that Abu Dhabi reserves are expected to last another 100 years, at present rates of production Dubai’s reserves will last only another ten!)

Popular sports in the UAE are Football (Soccer) and Cricket, as one would expect with the huge number of United Kingdom and Indian subcontinent expatriates.  Golf is growing in popularity, with some courses lit at night because of the daytime heat. Tennis and Rugby are also popular.  Camel Racing has been a traditional sport for many years.  Robot jockeys are now used after strict government regulations were passed because of exploitation of underage jockeys. On the road between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, one can see the camels training on numerous tracks; and it seems a bit incongruous to watch these ungainly creatures racing around the track as opposed to sleek racehorses one normally sees.   Another traditional sport is Falconry, particularly popular with many of the UAE rulers, as is Endurance Racing which is long distance races on horseback.   Formula One racing is very big in the UAE with a world class track. Religion forbids betting in any sports ; however, the “purses”  which are underwritten by the government or the extremely wealthy are very substantial indeed. 

Strict laws are also enforced with regard to alcohol as to where it can be sold and to whom. Because it can only be served and sold in hotel restaurants and bars, they are the local social hot spots, particularly with the beginning of the weekend on Friday  until the work week resumes on Sunday.  It is illegal to be intoxicated in public or to drive a vehicle with any trace of alcohol in one’s system. The judicial system in the UAE comes from the civil law system and Sharia law.  Stoning, lashing, and flogging are legal punishments and can be meted out for alcohol violations, adultery, and premarital sex, as well as public displays of affection.  A simple kiss in public, an alcoholic drink in the wrong place, or even losing one’s temper can result in a jail stay of a month or more. 

Typical food dating back to tribal days is rice, fish, and meats of lamb, mutton, goat, and beef.  Beverages are flavored with cardamom, saffron, and mint, giving them distinct flavors.  The food is tasty but sometimes a bit surprising such as when a goat is served with the head still attached!  All in all the food is quite tasty; the fans of Hummus will delight in partaking of the dish in an Arabian environment.

The introduction to luxury began as we boarded the plane at JFK which simply consisted of walking out of the Business Class Lounge (where we were served a full hot breakfast) directly onto the Business class section of the plane.   Economy class boards on the lower level.  The airplane is lavishly appointed with fresh flowers, burled wood toilet seat lids, cloth towels in the lavatories, a personal mini bar at each seat, and one’s own IPad available if the remote control or touch screen seems too much of an effort with which to change the offerings on the 17 inch television screen. 

You have probably heard or read about Emirates with its impressive over-the-top service and the fully operative stand-up bar at the rear of the Business Class Section.   Benches on either side of the bar area are equipped with seat belts in case one is cautioned to buckle up due to turbulence.  Launched in 1985, the airline now has 231 aircraft and cabin crews of more than 130 different nationalities.  The crew must live in the UAE, a requirement of the airline.   Emirates is one of two flag carriers of the United Arab Emirates, the other being Etihad Airways.  Emirates is based in Dubai and  Etihad in Abu Dhabi.

We arrived at Dubai International Airport's Terminal 3 which was built exclusively for the use of Emirates at a cost of $4.5 billion and officially opened in 2008.
Terminal 3 is the second largest building in the world with over 423 acres and is the world’s largest air terminal.   In 2013 Concourse A, a magnificent and highly impressive building with acres and acres of marble was opened—aviation’s first facility dedicated entirely to Airbus A380 superjumbos.  The new concourse has already increased Dubai’s traffic to 75 million passengers a year, moving it past London’s Heathrow as the world’s busiest international airport. By 2018 that number is expected to exceed 90 million, surpassing such hubs such as Atlanta and Beijing.

It has been said that Dubai is Shanghai on steroids.  Driving into the city from the airport and observing the city’s futuristic skyline, it is easy to see understand that comment.  One learns quickly that in Dubai everything is fastest, biggest, largest, tallest and at the top of every superlative list imaginable!  The city is home to cutting edge architecture, diverse cuisine and attractions, and glorious sandy beaches where in the summer the water temperature reaches 99 degrees Fahrenheit.  Some hotels refrigerate their pools during the hot summer months.  Tourism is a central pillar of Dubai’s growth, as is attested by the large number of world class hotels.  The iconic  Burj Al Arab, a name synonymous with opulence and service, is located on its own man-made island.  Other immediately recognizable hotel names in either of the two cities are Raffles, Armani, Park Hyatt, Four Seasons, Shangri-La, St. Regis and other global powerhouses.

I pinched myself as we checked into one of the two grand hotels at the Madinat Jumeirah resort, the unique Al Qasr, thinking how exotic the hotel was, even boasting its own 70-shop souk on the premises.  The resort, which is set on Dubai’s longest private beach, gives one an immediate sense of place with its authentic Arabian design and architecture, lush gardens, and even waterways that provide traditional Arabian dhows to take guests throughout the huge property. 
As Arabian as this hotel felt, the adjacent property and the third hotel at which we stayed, the Jumeirah Burj Al Arab, is in direct contrast to that traditionalism.  Sitting on its own island the 7-star property with its 8:1 staff to guest ratio is repeatedly voted the world’s most luxurious hotel.  The stunning structure which has become recognizable throughout the world for its spinnaker facade lives up to its acclaim.  One is greeted with private reception on each floor and check-in is accomplished within the guest suite.   One cannot argue with the accolades garnered by the hotel when faced with a two-floor suite overlooking the sea with dining area, living room, bar, fully equipped office, powder room, and luggage room on the first level.  An elegant staircase leads to the second level which offered a bedroom with large sitting area (think full sized sofa and two arm chairs,) a spacious dressing room and last but not least a gigantic bathroom with full-sized Hermes bath amenities.  Our personal butler who was showing us the suite made me very happy when his parting words were, “Don’t forget to take all these home with you!” 

In Abu Dhabi our hotel was the Emirates Palace which completely lives up to its name.  This property was my favorite of our three hotels, truly offering a palatial experience.  Reportedly the estimated cost to build the hotel was approximately 3 billion U.S. dollars.  This huge edifice contains seemingly miles of marble corridors, hundreds of gold chandeliers and light fixtures, magnificent luxurious rooms and bathrooms, and inside and out gorgeous flower arrangements or gardens face the Arabian Sea with its own private beach.  Hansel and Gretel would have certainly needed bread crumbs here as it is very easy to get lost inside the vast property.  Considering the restrictions on dress elsewhere, halter tops, shorts, swimsuits, and even bikinis are common at the hotel beaches, but not the public ones and beachgoers here clearly weren’t worried about restrictions.  

The question is often asked…what is there to do in Dubai? In Abu Dhabi?  Most people are simply passing through, either on a cruise ship, or transferring to another plane to reach their final destination.  I will share with you a few of the things that we did in our brief time there, however bear in mind that we just scratched the surface of the country.  

One of our first stops in the UAE after settling in was to The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding,  As we neared the building we were greeted with tribal dancers which involved sword brandishing (the men)  and hair tossing (the women) before we entered the center.   That began the first of several meals partaken while seated on Arabian carpets. Not only were we seated thusly, but the food was placed on a long  cloth that ran through the center of the group    Our host/guide used humor as a vehicle to offer us a glimpse of the traditions, values, culture, and religion of the people of the UAE and clearly could have had a career in another arena as a stand-up comic.    The Open Doors, Open Minds approach offered us a quick primer in understanding the destination.    This center is in the Al Fahidi Historic District of Old Dubai and is home also  to traditional buildings with wind towers.  

The Al Jahili Fort which is one of the UAE’s most historic buildings is another fascinating piece of their history.  It was erected in 1891 to defend the city and protect its precious palm groves, as well as serving as a residence for the local governor.  A visit here gives one an indication of what life was like before the massive changes to the country began.    More tribal dances, this time by a large group of men waving more sabers, welcomed us.  We observed cooking demonstrations of Emirati food while the cooks stayed seated on the ground, and had a chance to sample some of the traditional deep fried desserts (similar to donuts) which  gave us further glimpses into life before skyscrapers and oil wells.  Dates and honey play a large part in the ingredients and the ultimate enjoyment of these pastries. 

Shopping is a national pastime and visitors have options of mega malls galore.  Various factors have dictated that Dubai is no longer the shoppers’ paradise it once was.  There are no more bargain basement deals, although prices are competitive.   Galeries Lafayette, of French department store fame, anchors the Dubai Mall which is the largest shopping mall in the world with over 1200 shops, 120 restaurants and cafes, an Olympic-sized ice rink, and one of the largest suspended aquariums in the world…. plus an underwater zoo!  Another anchor store is Bloomingdale’s which was decorated for the Christmas holidays.    It seemed very paradoxical to see Christmas decorations in this Islam country.  Because of the size of the mall, there are small cars to transport those whose feet are rebelling and who simply can’t walk another step!     In the Dubai Mall is also a souk that sells more traditional Arabian items.   This mall features the Dubai Fountain, which surpasses the Bellagio Fountain in Las Vegas, with sprays of water over some 492 feet in the air and over 6,000 light and color projectors. 

Inside the Dubai Mall is an entrance to the Burj Khalifa, the new icon for the Middle East, which offered us a spectacular panorama from the 148th floor. The ride to the top is in the world’s fastest elevators which are pressurized for obvious reasons.  No ear-popping here! Reservations are a must if one doesn’t want to stand in long lines!    The world’s tallest tower and Guinness record holder has 160 floors and is said to be higher than the Empire State Building stacked atop itself.   The view from that height seemed as if one was observing a city made of Legos and offered a vision of the country as it was before the building boom.  One has unparalleled vistas of desert and more desert on the outskirts of the city and in the distance. Numerous other malls have their “drawing cards” of specific notable stores, restaurants, and cafes with one of the” must-dos” in Dubai located at The Mall of the Emirates where one can snow ski on the indoor Ski Dubai run. 

The best buys in the country are considered electronics, gold, and textiles.  Those interested in gold head for the Gold Souk, which is actually a historic market in place since the origin of Dubai.  Most of the gold is 22 Carat and much of it is extremely ornate.  The gold industry is highly regulated to offset any danger of one buying substandard or fake goods.  It is sold by weight and the price is fixed in all shops citywide, but once a price is set, the bargaining can begin!   

In Abu Dhabi, which is approximately one and one-half hours from Dubai, we visited The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque that opened in 2007 is the sixth largest in the world and one of the most important examples of contemporary Islamic architecture.  The mosque can accommodate over 41,000 worshippers.  It contains the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet, which is exquisite and therefore difficult to bear thinking that we were actually walking on this magnificent work of art. Women are not required to wear the traditional dress, but must have arms, legs, and head covered.  The women in our group wore the traditional dress of Abaya (long black robe) and Hijab or Shaila (head scarf covering the neck and part of the head). The men wore long pants and shirts with sleeves; shorts are not acceptable.  

In keeping with Abu Dhabi’s desire to be the cultural center of the UAE, three astounding museums are under construction on Saadiyat Island.  The Louvre Abu Dhabi is due to open in December 2015, the Zayed National Museum is slated for a 2016 opening, and the Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi open in 2017.  Not surprisingly, the latter will be the largest Guggenheim in the world! One can only predict how popular the shore excursions  offered by the  numerous cruise lines calling on the country will be to this cultural centerpiece…the answer, wildly popular!

The Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum in Abu Dhabi is a palace built in 1937 and turned into a museum in 2001.  Highlights of the palace are the Sheikh’s private family residence, as well as the spousal family’s residence, (keeping the in-laws separate from the sheikh’s family.)  After viewing the residences plus the extremely primitive kitchen that served the family quarters, the water well, coffee room, and store, we easily understood why the royal family designated this residence a museum and moved to a much more modern and of most importance,  air conditioned residence.  Considering the heat of the summer in the UAE, the latter factor would have been reason enough in itself! 

After visiting historic sites and museums, “dune bashing” via four-wheel drive vehicles into the heart of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve is a popular activity by tourists and a must if you are adventurous.   If that isn’t the case, one can go into the desert by car and continue via that mode or switch to a camel to a spot where traditional rugs and cushions are strategically placed in order to  watch a glorious sunset while enjoying the serenity of the desert   We chose to go over the magnificent dunes to get the full experience of the exciting ride and were rewarded with the promised champagne and the sunset.    We then traveled further into the desert where we were offered camel rides and were entertained by dancing girls and whirling dervishes as we again seated ourselves on the ground for dinner.  The camels were in stark contrast to the dirty, mangy animals encountered on previous trips to other countries; these were clean and well-kept and had beautiful trappings adorning them.

On a visit to the Royal Stables in Dubai one gets an immediate impression of how important horses are to Sheikh Mohammed.    A keen equestrian, he is the founder of the Maktoum family-owned Godolphin racing stable and the owner of Darley, the thoroughbred breeding operation with locations in six countries. The stables are immaculately kept; there is even a swimming pool for exercise purposes for the horses and a spa/hot-tub for special treatments, also for the horses.  Sheikh Mohammed hosts the Dubai World Cup at Meydan Racecourse, the world’s richest horse race, every year.  The total prize money in 2014 was US$26.25 million!

The YAS Marina Circuit, the venue for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is located on Yas Island about 30 minutes from Abu Dhabi and was built to the tune of over one billion dollars.  It is the only motorsports venue in the world that offers both covered and shaded grandstands throughout the facility, with the race going from daylight into night.  We visited just before the 2014 race, with preparations obvious everywhere.  With all the hub-bub going on, it was a thrill and a surprise when a gate was opened to our tour bus and we were allowed to drive onto the racecourse and experience the track from the vantage point of the drivers, albeit at a much slower pace!  We were even allowed to stop the bus on the track in order to take advantage of photo opportunities. 

Untapped during our visit were opportunities for fishing, attending camel races, diving, exploring natural wonders of the country, a visit to the Aquarium, golf, hot air ballooning, and the 30 ride Wild Wad water park.  In addition there was no time for spa visits or enjoying the beautiful pool areas or beaches.  So in answer to the question broached earlier, what is there to do in the UAE…..there is LOTS to do and one should allow time to do so when visiting the country. Add to that the three museums that are due to open within the next three years which will add even much more to one’s to-do list!   

In November 2013, the United Arab Emirates won the right to host the World Expo in Dubai in 2020.  This will be the first time that the World Expo is staged in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia and the first Expo in which the majority of visitors will stem from beyond a nation’s borders, giving the country a chance to showcase itself to the 25 million anticipated visitors, 70 per cent of which will be from overseas. The Expo will launch the country’s Golden Jubilee celebration and serve as a springboard from which to inaugurate a progressive and sustainable vision for the coming decades.

Visiting this place just 150 miles from Iran, just south of the Sea of Hormuz was eye opening.  It is a country where the population supports its rulers who use their wealth for the present and future of the country and its citizens.  There is no litter, crime is relatively low, health care and education are excellent, the architecture is magnificent, there are lots of activities for families, and people are polite and service oriented. One easily forgets that they are in a very safe place, but in a dangerous neighborhood.

I once heard a statement about someone being able to exceed an unlimited budget.  As long as the oil money is there and the rulers continue to plan for the present with an eye on the future as they have done …..their budget will remain healthy and while not  exceeding it, the country’s achievements can certainly attest to what money can buy when it is not an object! 

Gwen DeWalt, CTC
Owner & President
Four Seasons Travel