Dubai & Abu Dhabi: The Evolving Hub of Middle Eastern Culture
By Frank DiMarco
Gliding silently above the Dubai desert in a hot air balloon, one contemplates centuries of Bedouin tribal movements from coastal fishing and trading areas to desert oases and date farms. Suddenly a group of Emirati falconers come out for a morning hunt with the treasured birds, a reminder the old culture has strong traditions. Emirates oil made its debut into the world marketplace after WWII. Prior to then, there weren’t many modern buildings. The magnitude of construction today is boggling to behold.
The 16-hour non-stop flight from LAX’s Tom Bradley International Terminal on Emirates Airlines takes an extraordinary route over Greenland, Central Russia and over the Arabian Gulf with Iran to the east and Iraq to the west. Emirates flies the wonderful, double-decked A380 Airbus providing a clean and comfortable ride with seat-back video screens and three exterior camera views. Upon arriving at Dubai International Airport, passengers enjoy a multi-story waterfall.
You must visit the old Souk (market) area which includes souks of gold, spices and flowers. Located along historic Dubai Creek, which divides the Deira and Bur Dubai sections of the city, these souks are filled with dazzling intricate gold treasures. Barrels and bins display spices from Iran, India and other exotic locations and fill the air with tangy aromas. The view along Dubai Creek has mosque minarets and wind towers on the skyline. Ride through the quay on a traditional water taxi and imagine the atmosphere of the early trading days when small vessels would ply the waters bringing trade to the souks. The sounds of call to prayer add to the mystical feel. In this older part of Dubai, there are interesting museums: Coffee Museum (remember, coffee originated in this part of the world), Dubai Museum and Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Center for Cultural Understanding are all worth a visit.
Dubai is a melting pot of cultures with workers from a myriad of origins: Philippines, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Africa, Europe and elsewhere. New buildings and infrastructure construction draw people looking for work. The diversity of faces, accents and styles are a feast for the senses. Expats from all over the world are employed at new hospitals, colleges and sports and tourism facilities.
The man responsible for Dubai’s smart vision and impressive growth is His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. He is hands-on and an involved ruler, often seen driving through Dubai without ceremony. In contrast to the astonishing architecture and development, Sheikh Mohammed encourages sustainability and stewardship of natural resources, including such diverse projects as seawater desalination, solar power and even a sea turtle rehabilitation facility. His extended family’s leadership and his close ties to other Emirati leaders, including Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Kalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, is positioning the UAE to a future less dependent on oil.
The modern architecture that comprises the Dubai skyline is stunning. The Burj Kalifa — 163 floors high and currently the tallest man-made structure in the world — dominates. The observation deck is on the 122nd floor and provides an impressive view of Dubai, the man-made islands offshore in the Gulf and the desert to the west. Combining a visit to the Burj Kalifa with a trip to the Dubai Mall can be a full day, especially staying for dramatic lighted fountains in the evening. The Dubai mall contains a ski slope, an aquarium and about 1,200 shops.
On the coast, along Jumeirah Beach stands the iconic Burj Al Arab, with its one of a kind sail-like architecture, heliport and restaurant appurtenances. Viewed from any direction, one just wants to stare at this 5-star hotel, built on an artificial island. Further southwest, the causeway to Palm Island Jumeirah takes off and winds around the sand-made island. Rocks hauled from the mountain areas near Oman protect the island. From air, Palm Island looks just like its name (and can be seen from space). This is one of the world’s largest man-made islands with sprawling villas and resorts. The view back towards the shore from Palm Island’s wide promenades is equally impressive with new buildings by the Dubai yacht harbor seemingly springing up weekly.
You must visit the magnificent Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, located just an hour from Dubai. The Grand Mosque is a trip highlight. The scale of the mosque is awesome. Inside, the mosque is at once opulent, intricate and holy. Adhering to tradition, women must be covered and abayas are provided at no charge. Guides take groups of visitors though the mosque and describe construction details, history and rituals of worship. As well as the Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi will soon have a branch of The Louvre and the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum Abu Dhabi.
Dubai is trying to get it right for the future. Leadership knows the end of oil is right around the corner. Reinvention is key. A solid, sustainable infrastructure is in place for this growing destination as well as a firm commitment to the safety and security of Dubai’s citizens and visitors. Dubai will host The World Expo 2020 and, based on the progress being made, it promises to be a big success.