As recently as the 1960s, there was nothing here but desert and more desert. Bedouin tents housed the populace which was largely uneducated (except for males studying the Holy Koran). To say that survival in this harsh climate was “hardscrabble” is perhaps the most understated statement in the history of history. Summer temps sometimes reach 130°F, in the interior. Truly then you must only see mad dogs and Englishmen on the streets of the seven Emirati states. We are here in the winter and at a brisk 85°F you will occasionally see folks in down jackets and wool caps. It’s all relative, my friends, especially the temperature outside.
The Skyline of Abu Dhabi
It is a little mind blowing to realize that the construction of all you see as the modern UAE has occurred since the 1960s and most of it—the skyscrapers and such—since just ten years ago.
The famous seven-star hotel in Dubai at sunset
Palm Jebel Ali, a manmade island in Dubai
And I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the expression “they aren’t making any more beachfront.” Clearly those people haven’t been to the UAE where the construction of “more beachfront” is what they do. Like Qatar’s Pearl Island, the massive construction of land mass where none existed before out in the ocean boggles the mind, but here in the UAE it’s ongoing at an exponentially larger rate. The first Palm Island (Google it) is up and running with some of the world’s finest hotels (7-star hotels I didn’t even know existed). I have not yet dared to ask, “What will happen to these man-made islands in the coming age of rising oceans?” but I suspect that the Arabs will figure it out and head off disaster before it happens by applying the same ingenuity that made them in the first place.
The ski resort in the Dubai Mall
These guys are light years ahead of the rest of the world in terms of the global water crisis, too. Just take the one of seven tiny Emirati states, Sharjah, which has seven water desalinization facilities and already has two of them running on solar energy exclusively. Perhaps when you’ve ALWAYS needed to be clever in finding water, finding it by desalinization is a breeze with the right know-how.
Badar Bin Haji, our expert guide in the UAE
Question: What has 15 thousand parking spaces, 1,002 retail outlets, 22 movie screens, a ski resort, 200 restaurants, and an aquarium with over 33,000 marine animals? No, the answer is not Cleveland, Ohio, although that wouldn’t be a terrible guess. The correct answer is: the Dubai shopping mall. Yes, Margaret, I said a shopping mall (in Dubai).
The Dubai Marina
Dubai is one of the seven Emirati states known altogether as the UAE (Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Ras al Khaimah, and Fujairah are the other six United Arab Emirates). If you’ve by chance visited the UAE, the chances are very good that you’ve parked in one of those parking spaces at the Dubai mall because nobody goes to the UAE without going to the Dubai mall. It’s just not something you would miss. Even I, not a lover of malls in general, admit that it’s pretty spectacular and well worth the effort to get there.
Although we were in Dubai in the high season when the temps outside are a comfortable 80 – 90 degree range, I can imagine that it’s quite something to go snow skiing in the mall in the summers when the temps (not often, but at times) can hit 120°F in downtown Dubai. This mall is what Dubai is most famous for, perhaps only after the Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest building in the world at 829.8 meters tall (2,717 feet for you Americanos). How did this tiny little country—the entire UAE population doesn’t quite reach 10 million with only 1.5 million residents claiming Arab citizenship and the others, of course, being expatriate workers—how is it that they lay claim to the magnificence of the Burj Khalifa, the highest building in the entire world? I’m glad you asked.
Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world
In the beginning of the new millennium, the government of Dubai, like some of the other gulf states, wisely peered into the future and saw a need for diversification from oil. This new building, originally named the Burj Dubai, was integral to the diversification plan. It was to be the centerpiece of a new development called Downtown Dubai and the distinction of being the tallest building in the world was intended to garner international recognition. Oh boy, did it, but not entirely as intended. In mid-construction, the worldwide economic downturn slowed then halted progress threatening to bankrupt the project until the president of the UAE (and also the supreme ruler of the still oil-rich neighboring state of Abu Dhabi), Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, lent Dubai the dough to finish it. Out of gratitude, the building’s name was changed to Burj Khalifa. When all was said and done, an amount that is about USD $1.5 billion went into the construction costs of the Burj Khalifa and you can buy a residence in it today for somewhere in the neighborhood of $3,500 per sq. ft. You do the math.
The Gold market in Dubai
Our Dubai guide was a veritable font of statistics and random architectural trivia. He claimed that the Chinese are currently in the process of constructing a building that would beat out the Burj Khalifa’s record height. In response, the UAE will up the ante by constructing yet another tower (exact height is a big, big Arab secret) called the Jeddah. Trust me when I tell you that you haven’t really lived a full life until you’ve driven around Dubai in the back seat of an unidentifiable automobile while two silly man-boys (one Arab and one Jew) giggle up front about who has “the biggest one,” etc. One of my more memorable international-boys-bonding experiences, to be sure. (Don’t mind me, Margaret. I’ll just sit here in the backseat in my burka and pretend I don’t get all the double entendre. Sheesh.)
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi
Speaking of Abu Dhabi and really, really big, big things, you will not want to skip the gorgeous (and yes, big—third biggest in the world) Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque. Every state in the UAE has at least one mosque built by Sheik Zayed, but this one is notable for many reasons. At peak occupancy, as many as 41,000 worshippers can visit at the same time, and that’s usually at the Eid services. The general public can visit the mosque, however, women must be completely covered to do so. On a side note, honestly, I came to appreciate and even like the costume change. A burka covers a multitude of sins (gluttony and sloth for sure) and there’s no such thing as a bad hair day under a head scarf. It’s weirdly liberating to be completely free of the daily demands on western women to, if not try to look “good,” at least be somewhat presentable in public. Under cover, who knows when you last shaved your legs?
Bidya Mosque, the oldest mosque in the UAE in Fujairah
Back to the wonders of the mosque. The carpet in the grand hall was handwoven by hundreds and hundreds of handweaving women. You really have to see this in person to truly appreciate the human labor this entailed. The columns are inlaid mother of pearl and the chandeliers are made of Swarovski crystal. Lots and lots of them. (See photos, but truly, photos do not do justice to the beauty.) No wonder they let the public in. It is stunning and it should be shared with the infidels.
Formula One Racetrack near Abu Dhabi
It was a little bit weird to go to the Mosque after we first took a tour of Yas Island where a multi-purpose leisure, shopping, and entertainment center features a real and true Formula One racetrack, the world’s fastest roller coaster, and too many over-the-top entertainments to list. The juxtaposition of crass consumer indulgence (you can really drive that Formula One course for about $500) with the solemnity and beauty of the mosque was slightly jarring. What’s a sensitive soul to do after such contradiction? Here’s an idea. Why not go dune bashing?
In my lifetime of adventure, I have swum beside a twenty-foot shark in the Florida Keys, I’ve bungee jumped off the Kawarau Bridge in New Zealand, and I almost got car-jacked in the Pacific Palisades (true story for another day), but I’ve never been more frightened than the day I elected of my own free will to do something advertised as “dune bashing.” I honestly don’t know if this activity is done anywhere else on planet earth but in the UAE it’s all the rage.
It will definitely shake you out of whatever existential doldrums you are languishing in. I promise you.
Dune Bashing in the desert near Dubai
How does one proceed to “bash” a dune? As it happens, there’s a brisk dune bashing business and multiple franchises in the UAE. A young and traditionally garbed human picks you up at your hotel in the late afternoon. Multiple other guests will also be picked up along the way until the SUV is at capacity. Then you speed along the highway until the driver makes an abrupt turn off the paved roadway onto the desert sand. He pauses the vehicle to let out some desired amount of air from the car tires. Then he proceeds to drive through the desert like a maniac coming as close to capsizing the vehicle as is possible while tuning into very high-volume American rap music on the car’s stereo. I know. You couldn’t have guessed. You and the other intrepid passengers bounce around inside the vehicle like so many ping pong balls in a Bingo spinner. (Trust me when I tell you that Bingo might have been a more appropriate activity for at least half the occupants of that car, including yours truly, but it’s too late now.)
Sunset in the desert near Dubai
Our fellow passengers happened to be a lovely Sikh family of four from India, the elder of whom whispered impassioned prayers to their deity throughout the entire activity. I suppose they assumed that’s what I was doing as well, however my much louder prayers were of a purely profane nature. Don’t tell them. I’m sure they went back to India believing that their dune bashing compatriot was a refined and genteel American dowager.
Long story short, we survived. Most people do and although there are ready statistics about bungee fatalities, similar reports about deaths in the desert have either been squelched by Middle Eastern dune bashing entrepreneurs or you are less likely to see paradise while dune bashing. I cannot say for certain. As a reward for surviving you are taken to what seemed to be a fairly accurate facsimile of a Bedouin desert camp where you will be treated to a lovely meal (including alcohol, and I have NO clue how they make that happen), henna tattooing, camel rides, and (Pablo’s favorite) a buxom belly dancer. All the pleasures of the Arabian desert in times past. It really was super. (I can say this now that I’m not dead or maimed.)
One final item on your UAE itinerary will take you out to one of the lesser (less fabulously wealthy) Emirati states to a thriving camel farm where camels are bred for racing (a very popular sport in the UAE) and also for (I know, I know, look away, PETA people) consumption. They say, and I did not test this, that baby camel tastes just like veal.
Locals enjoying the afternoon along the Fujairah corniche
A view of the city of Fujairah from the Castle
View from the highest mountain in UAE
My last observation about this interesting place is that every single interaction we had with local inhabitants was charming and gracious. Everywhere we went, if the locals were picnicking, they sent their children to us with sweet offerings and, more than once, we were invited to join the party. I fell in love a little bit with the kindness of these strangers and, though the customs are still so very foreign and perplexing (e.g., you can still be sentenced to death by stoning for a variety of offenses), on the whole, the UAE is a marvel and you would be wise to go before our charm as American tourists wears off.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Fujairah