March 23-24: Dubai.
This post will be a little different from our others because I’m going to write about what we learned while staying in Dubai for two days, not just about the excursions we took. Our sources of information were our tour guides and our observations. I have transcribed my notes from our excursions, but I’m not willing to say that my information is 100% accurate. Someone on the ship reminded me that free speech is not a given in this country, so we may have heard only the politically correct “facts.”
Fifty years ago, Dubai was a small fishing village, with no infrastructure and no cars, only camels. The first oil was exported from Dubai in 1966. The British, who had been using Dubai as a military base, left in 1969; their presence may explain why English is the second language here. On December 2, 1971, seven sheikhdoms unified and created a new nation, the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.). Modernization started in the 1970s; as money from oil started being made available to the ruling family, they decided to develop the country’s infrastructure. Other countries involved in the modernization efforts were Germany and the United Kingdom. Architects from many other countries designed the skyscrapers which characterize today’s skyline.
Dubai is a leading center for business and tourism in the Middle East, with a population of more than two million inhabitants. Of these, 20% are Emirati citizens and 80% are foreigners, who represent more than 200 countries. More than once, the guides pointed out that everyone lives in harmony in Dubai, and we never saw anything to contradict such a statement.
Why Dubai is popular:
- The country is very safe; there is very little crime
- It combines sensibilities of both East and West
- All signage is written in both Arabic and English
- There are no taxes
- Society is more open than in many other Islamic countries
Dubai has two seasons: hot and hotter. During the month of February, the jet setters come to Dubai.
The rulers understand that greenery is needed in order for a country to appear modern; therefore, 10,000 gardeners are employed in Dubai. Water for irrigation is from desalinization plants or recycled wastewater. This is clearly still desert, but trees and bushes are flourishing, and in many public spaces, such as in front of malls or along traffic intersections, beds of petunias are providing welcome spots of color. Dates are one of the most popular foods in Arabic countries, and there are 50 million date trees in the U.A.E.
The metro is totally automatic; no drivers are needed. Two metro lines plus several bus routes serve the city, but clearly the most popular means of travel is the one-person auto, just like in the U.S. Traffic was very heavy every time we were on the roads. Gas is cheap ($.30 per liter). Highways are modern, and retaining walls and walls of underpasses are often beautifully tiled with scenes of sand and sea.
In the financial district, skyscrapers with unusual designs display the names of familiar global companies, such as Accenture, Microsoft, Canon, IBM, Oracle, and Honeywell.
Dubai is ruled by a sheikh, who is an absolute monarch and who is very popular because he takes care of the people and keeps them happy. These are some of the social services available for Emiratis: free education; free medical care; a new home and $20,000 for newlyweds (purpose is to provide financial incentives to enable locals to remain in Dubai when starting married life). Foreigners, however, have to pay for the social services. Although Islamic law allows men to have four wives, most have only one because of the expense and headaches involved.
Dubai law, unlike the legal system in other Arab countries, is a mixture of Islamic law and Western law.
The seven sheikhdoms of the United Arab Emirates live in harmony. Abu Dhabi is the capital and the richest sheikdom and provides financing as needed to other sheikhdoms, which have less or no income from oil reserves. For Dubai, most of its oil is found in the desert, with a smaller amount in its ocean waters. It is expected that Dubai’s reserves will be totally depleted within the next ten years.
Muslim women all wear the distinctive black robes and head scarf, but they also form the majority of college students, participate in government, and work in business. We saw several signs for “Ladies Clubs.” These seem to be organizations with facilities which cater to women, allowing them to be unencumbered in a male-free environment. There’s probably more to this idea than we realize, but we’ve no one to ask about it.
The clothing worn by men and women is based upon tradition, rather than religion. We did see some people in Western clothing, but there was no way to tell where they were from. So here are some general observations:
- Men – long white robe, with or without a head scarf
- Women – completely covered with a black flowing robe and with a head covering: the face may be showing, only the eyes may be showing, or the face may be completely veiled
Clothing worn by foreigners
- Men and women: long shirt with matching pants; garments made from ethnic fabrics, for example, from Africa and India; Western clothing, such as t-shirts, shorts, jeans, hiking pants
- Men: long robe in subdued colors such as tan or blue
Sights We Visited
Burj Khalifa: This is the tallest building in the world (at the moment). As we were driving from the ship towards the city, it was the most striking feature of the skyline. It’s a narrow, sharply pointed tower which is almost twice as tall as any of the buildings nearby. Our tour took us to the observation deck, which is on the 124th floor. The elevator ride took one minute and was actually comfortable except for a little ear pressure adjustment. This was the first stop on our first day’s excursion, so while we were looking at the objects far, far below, we didn’t really know where to focus our attention since we had not been to see anything yet. Nevertheless, we loved seeing the buildings, streets, desert, and ocean from that high vantage point. Access to the tower is via the Dubai Mall (see below), where we shopped and had dinner later in the day.
Jumeirah: This is a section of Dubai with 2-story residences and many important hotels. One is shaped like the dhow (Arabian open sailing vessel), one like a wave. These are 5-star hotels with every possible amenity [not that we saw any of them – tourists are not allowed inside unless they’re guests]. The room rate is $5,000 to $15,000 per night. Also in this part of Dubai is Palm Jumeirah Island. This is a man-made island in the shape of a palm tree with trunk and fronds, which are lined with residences and hotels. We also drove by the Atlantis Hotel, I believe the largest hotel in the area, with more than 1,000 rooms. Nearby is a public beach – breakers, clean sand, not crowded, a few surfers; but I saw no facilities for bathers, such as restrooms, snack bars, or equipment rentals.
Mall of the Emirates: This is one of the 52 malls in Dubai. It is huge, and its main attraction seems to be Ski Dubai, a 400 meter ski run, complete with ski lift, places to play in the snow, a luge run, and equipment rentals. We were surprised to see so many American chain restaurants in the mall, such as Fridays, California Pizza Kitchen, and the Cheesecake Factory.
Driving around town: We saw the monorail, many malls, car dealers, home furnishing stores, all kinds of services and businesses, and new construction everywhere. Many tracts of land were totally flat and barren, with construction activity nearby. The skyline is very impressive. The skyscrapers have varied silhouettes. I don’t recall any straight-up-and-down buildings; rather, they feature spiral shapes, open spaces that look like cutouts, curved lines, pointy tops. One even looks like the Big Ben tower in London.
Dubai Mall: This is world’s largest mall, with more than 1,200 retail outlets. We came here both days we were in Dubai via shuttle bus service from the ship. The stores in the mall are arranged by type of merchandise, for example, fashion, electronics, sports, jewelry. This mall was always very crowded, even during the day and early evening. Actually, people didn’t seem to be shopping that much. They were just walking back and forth, often with their children, sitting in cafes, and socializing as if the mall was really the gathering point of the community. It has many, many attractions to keep people entertained: outdoor fountain shows which flow nightly accompanied by either Eastern or Western music; a waterfall; an ice rink (the Zamboni was operating when we walked by there); movie theaters; an aquarium; prayer rooms; broadcasts of the Muslim call to prayer; global brands; many American restaurant chains (we ate at Rosa Mexicano and P.F. Chang’s); a great bookstore, Kinokuniya, with mostly English books; ATM machines; etc., etc. Since I’m not a great shopper, my only criticism was that there were not enough places to sit and watch the people, unless you wanted to sit in a café and have something to eat or drink (at great cost).
Jumeirah Mosque: An example of modern Islamic architecture built in 1979, this mosque was one of our tour stops, but Islamic rules do not allow non-Muslims to go inside. It’s a beautiful building, sandy in color, with domes topped by gold finials, and a grassy space in front. In an attempt to foster understanding among people of different faiths, the ruling sheikh has ordered this mosque to offer to the community tours of the interior and the opportunity to make reservations for shared meals and cultural events. (There are 500 mosques in Dubai.)
Dubai Museum: From the outside, this museum looks like a desert fort, but most of its collection of artifacts is underground, many in rooms with very detailed dioramas depicting village residents of the past, such as blacksmith, herbalist, spice purveyor, and carpenter. The exhibits were very interesting, but the rooms and passageways were very dark, which detracted from the presentation, as did the great number of tourists milling about.
Dubai Creek: Rather than being a real creek, Dubai Creek a long and skinny ocean inlet, from which in historical times, dhows left for trading journeys throughout Arabia. We walked from the Dubai Museum to a water taxi through a street full of textile vendors, where we were unfortunately not able to stop. On the other side of the creek, we walked through the spice souq and then through the gold souk, where Denise shopped and I sat on a comfortable bench and watched the people, who seemed to be from every ethnicity. (The souqs are like department stores but each stall has its own vendor, each vendor very intent upon attracting one’s attention.)
This is a fascinating city. How it has developed over the past fifty years from a fishing village to a modern metropolis is truly amazing. Dubai reminded us of a spread-out Las Vegas, a man-made spectacle with lots of glitz and glamour. Whether it will be able to diversify its economy and maintain a balanced society as its oil reserves are depleted remains to be seen. Let’s hope it can.