63. Travel (5): The United Arab Emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai

Note: The main focus of this blog is my thirteen months in Bangladesh. I am moving posts relating to travel (outside Bangladesh) to the end of the blog.

The circumstances of my stay in the United Arab Emirates were accidental. A one-hour stop-over in Abu Dhabi airport coincided with emissions of volcanic dust and ash from a volcano in Iceland. Many flights in and out of Europe were disrupted as a result. I had been sleepily having a coffee in the transit lounge (after being traumatised by the opulence of Abu Dhabi airport!) when I first heard that my flight was delayed for an hour. At the end of that hour I looked up from my book to see my fellow passengers moving en masse towards the information desks. There must have been an announcement that I missed. For the next few hours the airport was plunged into chaos. I pitied the staff: they had to cope with people shouting and crying and asking questions that couldn’t be answered immediately. I was more interested in getting to a Wi-Fi area so that I could find out more about the volcanic eruption. I was imagining a dense, billowing, grey cloud spilling smog over Ireland! However, I had to stay with my group in the cordoned Etihad Airways area. (I was booked on Etihad.) I discovered that there were some genuine reasons for people’s upset: I tried to comfort a young English girl who was on her way home for her grandmother’s funeral. Etihad were creating a priority list and she was on it.

After an afternoon of sitting on the floor in the airport and chatting to fellow stranded passengers I was dispatched, as part of a group, to the Centro Hotel on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi. I was so excited stepping aboard that immaculate, white mini-bus and even more so when I arrived at the hotel. There was an atmosphere of conviviality amongst our group, most of whom hailed from the UK. We had been thrown together by similar circumstances and a bond had formed between us. The hotel was luxurious and a late lunch was laid on. The dining-room buffet was overflowing with mouth-watering food choices and there was an inviting view of a sun terrace and swimming pool beyond glass doors.

Later that evening, after a reviving swim, I was desperately rummaging through my backpack for something suitable to wear to dinner, when I caught sight of my reflection in one of the many mirrors in my room. I hardly recognised the tired, dishevelled-looking image staring back at me! It had been a long time since I had ‘seen’ myself under bright lights. I looked bedraggled and tattered and my hair was an unholy mess. I felt disconnected and disoriented in these surreal surroundings: I had been in a daze since witnessing the affluence at the airport. Having jumped from one extreme way of life to another, it was proving difficult to adjust to the changes and I could hardly think, not alone speak, coherently. That feeling of being ‘removed’ would remain with me throughout my stay in the United Arab Emirates.

One day led uncertainly to another as flight restrictions continued. There were morning and evening update briefings from Etihad officials. The day-to-day nature of my stay prohibited the planning of any real ‘travel’. Nevertheless, I felt that fate had dealt with me very kindly indeed. Firstly, if I had landed elsewhere e.g. Malaysia (or any number of other destinations), I would have been heart-broken not to have been able to set off travelling. (The United Arab Emirates hadn’t featured at the top of my travel list.) Secondly, I was too tired to travel anyway. And thirdly, Etihad were looking after us astonishingly well: I’d heard stories of others sleeping on airport benches. Finally, I had the good fortune to be with a lovely group of people. In this cocoon of luxury in the sun, amongst new friends, delicious food, a gym and a pool, I felt myself slowly beginning to relax and unwind. I hadn’t realised just how weary I was. This was turning out to be a good place (and indeed a good time) to be marooned!

Not being one to lie by the pool all day though, I was soon on my netbook finding out a little about my location. It was hard to believe that I was actually here on the south-eastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula in one of the seven sheikhdoms that make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE). To be honest, I didn’t know very much about the UAE, apart from the fact that they were under British protection (as the Trucial States) until the treaty ended in 1971. Each of the seven states – Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al Qaiwain – enjoys a large degree of independence under the federation. This federation is governed by a council made up of the seven emirs (rulers) and they appoint the prime minister and cabinet.

Since independence, the region has grown from a quiet, barren backwater of Bedouins and oysters to one of the Middle East’s most important economic centres, thanks initially to the discovery of oil in the gulf. (This short video clip provides an interesting overview of the transition to the new UAE state.) The entire UAE is just slightly smaller than Ireland at 30,000 square miles and has a population of 4.6 million. The state of Abu Dhabi is the largest, occupying 80% of the total area, and the city of Abu Dhabi, where I am, is both the capital of this state and of the UAE federation. According to the UN HDI index for 2010, the UAE ranks amongst those countries in the ‘highest development group’. I have read that, outside of Lebanon and Egypt, which are the centres of the Arab music and film industries, respectively, Dubai is the centre of Arab media and popular culture, as well as technology.

Today, trade, commerce and tourism, particularly in Dubai, which stretches towards and almost joins Abu Dhabi, are the main sources of revenue. Its wealth and dynamism is visible in its many skyscrapers, man-made islands, gigantic shopping malls, SUVs and glitzy, luxury hotels. Almost 85% of the population are non-Arab, ranging from wealthy Westerners and Asians who are very well-compensated, to South Asian guest workers (including Bangladeshi migrants) for whom conditions are far less favourable and at times appalling. I read an interesting article on Dubai by Afshin Molavi that appeared in the January 2007 edition of National Geographic. It provides a good introduction to the Gulf, including a bit on the role of the emirs (rulers) of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum and his son Sheikh Mohammad (see below). It deals primarily with the rapid rise of the city of Dubai and some of the attendant social, cultural and environmental consequences. It’s worth bearing in mind though that it was written during the boom. Things are definitely quieter here now.

The above-mentioned Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid al Maktoum is the present emir (ruler) of Dubai and Vice President/Prime Minister of the entire UAE. (His father was the first VP/PM of the new UAE state.) The President of the UAE is the emir of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. He is the son of the first president of the newly-formed UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, to whose memory the grand mosque in Abu Dhabi is dedicated (see below). (Incidentally, I read that Sheikh Zayed had 30 children!)

My impressions of Abu Dhabi and Dubai

Our days were shrouded in a cloud of uncertainty: there were mornings when we were advised to remain in the hotel because of the possibility of flights at short notice. On those days we hung around together in the hotel, relaxing, swimming and reading. On other days we would find out that we wouldn’t be flying that particular day. That opened an opportunity to leave the hotel and do a bit of exploring. On one of these days, a group of us hired a mini-bus and visited Dubai. On other days, we did some exploring locally in Abu Dhabi. Here’s what I will remember:

  • Enormous, surreal shopping malls! I visited three of these ‘megamalls’ in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, each one paying more sophisticated homage to global consumer culture than the next. As well as offering endless shopping opportunities they are also advertised as leisure and entertainment destinations, thus providing occasions for familial togetherness. There were elaborate sculptures, a giant floor-to-ceiling aquarium behind a plate-glass window that spanned a height of two floors, a full-sized ice-rink and even a ski slope. I had never witnessed shopping malls on this scale before and I wandered through the dreamlike atmosphere in a daze. Impressive though they are, I couldn’t help thinking how impersonal a mall is when compared to the traditional space of the Arab souq. I have warm memories of strolling through crowded, noisy, atmospheric souqs in cities like Cairo, Tunis, Marrakesh and Jerusalem. Amidst the colourful mix of commerce and camaraderie, browsing and bargaining would lead to endless banter with traders. Here in the Gulf there are no opportunities to rub shoulders with locals. I did walk through a ‘souq’ in Dubai but it felt more like a lavish, single-storey shopping centre than my idea of a labyrinthine, traditional souq.
  • I visited two of the region’s largest and most luxurious hotels. In Abu Dhabi, Helen (UK) and I had cocktails in the Emirates Palace Hotel. It opened in 2005 and stretches for more than half a mile along a white beach: it has 114 domes, lavish marble interiors and over a thousand Swarovski crystal chandeliers!
  • In Dubai, a group of us spent a few hours soaking up the excesses of the huge ‘Atlantis the Palm’ resort, situated on the crescent-shaped breakwater that surrounds Palm Jumeirah, one of an archipelago of palm-shaped, man-made islands in the emirate. It opened in 2008 and the sheer size of the resort is mind-boggling: there are over 20 restaurants! After wandering in absolute awe through the opulent interior with its distinctive architecture and artwork, yet another double-floor length, plate-glass aquarium and high-end, luxury shops, I joined the others in an American-style ice-cream parlour. Afterwards, we retired to the lovely terrace of the Levantine Bar for cocktails, from where there was a view over the Palm to Dubai’s Manhattan-like skyline. It proved to be a perfect place to watch the sun sink slowly into the waters of the Gulf of Arabia.
  • What I noticed in both of the above-mentioned hotels is how unphased locals are by the presence of large numbers of foreigners and how easily they seem to embrace excess. I saw men and women in traditional dress relaxing on cushions. While we were sipping cocktails, some of the men were enjoying the age-old ceremony of lighting and puffing on hookahs, the meditative gurgle mixing with the western music in the background.
  • The above point holds in relation to my experience at the shopping malls too. There, I had noticed women in burkhas shopping unconsciously in high-end stores. I saw couples in full-length Arabic dress, replete with headwear, drinking coffee in Starbucks in the food court, beside tourists wearing shorts and t-shirts. The huge gap between tradition and modernity is being bridged daily by families who remain conservative, yet open. They seem to have found a way to embrace the new culture while holding on to their own. Tolerance is one of the hallmarks of this multicultural society with its mix of locals, tourists, business travellers, foreign workers, and expatriates.
  • One of the most stunningly beautiful places I visited was the enormous Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. I loved it too because it was one of the few visible reminders that I was in an area of Islamic heritage. It is said that the mosque and its courtyard can accommodate more than 40,000 worshippers. Opened in 2007, it has 82 white marble domes and four 350-foot minarets. I was surprised, but delighted, that non-Muslims were allowed to visit the interior. However, women had to wear black, floor-length robes with head scarves: it was an interesting experience to cover up like locals. The attention to detail throughout the mosque was spectacular, from the finely-wrought architecture to the many mosaics and the beautiful hand-knotted carpet.
  • Helen and I had an unexpected and exhilarating motor-boat ride around the bay in Abu Dhabi. We had been wandering around the disappointing ‘Heritage Village’ when Helen spotted the boat and, with her inimitable charm, garnered us invitations from the friendly boat owner, Jammu. We both had a go at the wheel too! It was interesting to see the city from the water. Jammu dropped us on a beach in front the Hilton Hotel on the Corniche.
  • Yas Island, where our hotel is located, is home to the Yas Marina Circuit, the Formula One track where the annual, and by all accounts exciting, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix takes place. It opened just before last year’s event (2009). Helen and I took a walk there and wandered through the architecturally dramatic, futuristic-looking Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi Hotel (now the W Abu Dhabi – Yas Island Hotel)  that spans part of the race track. The hotel opened in 2009 too and with views of either the track or the marina (or both) from every window, the location is stunning.  It’s eerily quiet at the moment but we were able to freely roam around. This track is part of the $40-billion, 6,000-acre Yas Island development.
  • We took the quintessential Dubai holiday photograph opportunity by visiting Jumeirah Beach from where we could frame the Burj Al Arab (ArabianTower) in our creations. This 54-storey, luxury hotel opened in 1999, and was designed to look like a racing sloop sailing under full spinnaker. It was seen as such a fitting image of Dubai’s soaring aspirations that it was used on the emirate’s licence plates. You can read about a stay at the Burj Al Arab as part of this interesting 2003 article on Dubai.
  • The above-mentioned soaring ambition is evident too in the Burj Khalifa (previously known as Dubai Tower, but renamed in honour of Sheikh Khalifa, the Abu Dhabi emir. Abu Dhabi has recently had to bail out Dubai, when it was unable to meet its debt repayments.) The tower opened earlier this year and is the world’s tallest building at 2,717 ft. (twice as high as the Empire State Building). The sheer height of this towering, shimmering, silver structure is mind-boggling. Helen and I naively pitched up at the ticket counter in Dubai Mall, hoping to take the lift to the top: with incredulous looks we were told that there was at least a two-week waiting list!
  • I have a vivid memory of driving through Dubai at night amidst luminous lights and shining, glass skyscrapers. We were on our way back to Abu Dhabi from the Palm. The song Empire State of Mind by Alicia Keys was on the radio and all the girls started singing along. I had never heard it before that night: it was the strangest feeling! At home, I’m always singing along to the radio: the words just seem to come automatically. I was reminded then of just how disconnected I was. I felt ‘betwixt and between’ on so many levels. And yet I felt really happy to be driving through Dubai, listening to this song, on my way back to share dinner with my new friends in Abu Dhabi. This song will forever more be associated in my mind with that evening in Dubai.
  • I walked along the length of the Corniche by the ocean in Abu Dhabi, from the Marina to the Dhow harbour. The streets and footpaths were wide and clean and beautifully landscaped. Pristine, shiny skyscrapers lined the opposite side of the road. There were public exercise areas in green parks along the route replete with instructions in both Arabic and English. I didn’t meet anybody: it was all eerily quiet and I felt as though I could have been anywhere. I had hoped that there might be some glimpse of the area’s Arab cultural roots at the harbour and the nearby fish market, but there too everything was strangely quiet and ordered. I did see some nice wooden boats though.


As an unplanned and entirely unexpected visit, this has been a very pleasant thirteen days in the Gulf. That it was all paid for by Etihad Airways is a bonus! Though battling fatigue and disorientation, I enjoyed the experience nonetheless, thanks in no small part to the lovely group of people I was part of. I don’t feel that I fully got to grips with the United Arab Emirates as a travel destination though. I didn’t have the money – or indeed the clothes or the energy – on this occasion to enjoy the glitzier side of life, or the potentially interesting multicultural experiences. Money is king here: for example there is no public transport system. I still felt the excitement though of being somewhere new. My biggest regret is, of course, that I didn’t get to travel into the deserts and mountains. While I got a feel for the visual spectacle and the swagger of Dubai and Abu Dhabi (what some might see as profligate hubris), I know that there is much more to the United Arab Emirates. I have read about the thousand-foot high desert dunes, the scenic waddis and the fertile oases. I heard about forts that still stand where caravans once paused on ancient trading routes. I have seen pictures of the spectacular, rugged, rocky Hajar Mountains along the eastern border with Oman. Although there were numerous ‘excursions’ available from my hotel, I couldn’t fit them around the daily briefings from Etihad. I suppose that means that I’ll have to come back one day. Insh’Allah!

I’m including a few photographs below. They’re not great: for a lot of the time I seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time with regard to the light. (Unfortunately, since Cooliris was acquired by Yahoo my lovely photo walls no longer work :(. I have replaced them with links to post-specific web-album slideshows until such time as I can find a better solution.)

Click on image below for PHOTO SLIDESHOW related to this post (153 photographs in all). Click on first photo in order to view as slideshow with captions. Enjoy!

1. Marina Mall, Abu Dhabi


2 responses to “63. Travel (5): The United Arab Emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai

  1. This is such a great post. Thank you! I’m thinking about moving to the United Arab Emirates for a year and this makes me feel excited. You’re so thorough and balanced and it’s hard to believe that you weren’t there for longer! I got a great sense of the place, past and present. (I loved the video link by the way.) And your photos are very interesting. Did you get to go back again? If so, did you revise any of your thoughts? Leah

    • Glad to hear you enjoyed the post Leah. No, unfortunately, I haven’t got back …. yet! I’d be interested in hearing about your experiences if and when you decide to take the leap. Best of luck with your decision-making and thanks again for commenting. Ann

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