Saturday, February 24, 2007

Dubai Impressions

When the British left the Middle East in the late 60’s, they attempted to create unification among a number of the states.Bahrain and Qatar went their own way. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) was created on 2 December 1971 of the seven emirates of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Sharjah, and Um Al Quwain.

Dubai is a city/state of approximately 1.3 million people. Numbers can be deceiving as only 15% of these are Emiratis. The result is a dramatically multi-cultural city, including people of 138 different nationalities (or so they claim).

Our impressions:

  • Expecting to find old Arab quarters, we were surprised to find little left that is old. It is not surprising as there were only 10,000 inhabitants at the turn of the 20th century. To see renovated old quarters, visit the Bastakia Quarter just south of the Dubai Museum.
  • A moderate Muslim country, Friday is the holy day and the start of the “weekend”. Arriving at the Bur Dubai Souq (market) and the Grand Mosque on a Friday morning, we were greeted by thousands queued to enter the mosque for prayer. The mosque holds up to 1000 worshipers at a time. Sandals line the (oft-closed) shops through the souq and around the area.
  • Dubai remains a major port for the middle-east, Africa and India with small boats moving goods (often from China and India) through Dubia. The goods are stored on the docks of Deira Creek during transit. So much for customs controls!
  • Traffic jams are a daily problem (except apparently on Fridays) for the Emiratis. Newspaper reports include articles on the negative effects of traffic jams on sex life according to researchers.
  • Despite the perpetual complaints about traffic by the locals and expats, coming from Shanghai, the traffic seemed remarkably quiet and well behaved. It was almost pleasant walking in Dubai without the constant horns, no red light running, no need for constant vigilance of bikes and motorbikes coming from all directions.
  • Sheikhs in SUVs. Interesting though that we couldn’t recall seeing any women driving cars. I’m sure they are there, but we didn’t see them.
  • Manual laborers are mostly from Pakistan and India. Loved seeing the biking Pakistanis with their billowing shalwar kameez (long cotton top over baggy pants). Interesting that the Middle Eastern or Gulf attire for men is a floor-length shirt-dress called a thobe. As it is floor-length, it is impractical for biking or riding astride a camel, horse or donkey.
  • Gulf national women typically wear the abaya (black robe) and shayla (head scarf and veil). While a black robe may look like a black robe to an outsider, there is a significant fashion industry devoted to the shape, design and decoration associated with the abaya. The latest abayas are fitted to emphasize the figure, flip open to show the long skirt underneath as she walks, have sequined designs and matching shaylas all coordinated with the Gucci and Prada handbags.
  • We noted significantly more lingerie stores in the malls than would be found in the US. This could be a comment on the US or a supposition that the abayas do, in fact, provide freedom to women to dress as they please underneath it all.
  • With oil and gas reserves diminishing, the government is spending, spending and spending on infrastructure to attract industry and Middle East headquarters operations to Dubai.
  • Building is going at a tremendous pace with 1 in 6 of the world’s cranes in Dubai. The tourist map includes 21 places/areas/building under construction (this is not a large map!) ranging from a new international airport to the Dubai waterfront to the soon-to-be tallest building in the world (Burg Dubai). In the Dubai Marina area, we easily counted 20 cranes looking out one window of our hotel. Whether apartment or office building, the skyline was filled with buildings under construction. Even coming from Shanghai, the level of high rise construction was remarkable; particularly if you take into account that Shanghai has nearly 20 million people, while Dubai has 1.3 million. We couldn’t fathom where the money would come from to sustain the development, but were assured that we would automatically receive a 99 year residency permit with our apartment purchase. Seems to be a philosophy of “if we build, they will come”. The construction is certainly ambitious, we just wonder whether it is sustainable.
  • Dubai is deemed the ultimate shopping destination. With 38 malls and tax-free shopping, shopping does seem to be the sport of choice in Dubai. Perhaps we’ve already been in China too long, but I found few bargains in the malls with prices that were nominally as they would be in the US. They favor the mega malls, for example, the Mall of the Emirates complete with Kempinski hotel and the world’s largest indoor skiing area.
  • It seemed like many of the staff in the stores were Pilipino – at times, I felt like I was back in Singapore with the greeting of “mu’am” at every turn.
  • Emiratis seem to like to shop with music blaring at full wattage. We concluded that OSHA hearing violations were rampant for the store staff – we needed ear plugs to shop!
  • Local currency is the dirham (AED) currently trading around 3.65 AED to the US dollar. All of the mall stores were happy to take US dollars for purchases at rates better than the foreign exchange locations.
  • Transportation options include “The Big Bus”, a double decker bus providing 2 different tours through the city with on-off service (about 150 AED pp) or taxis. We wondered about the driver training as we had one who might have been on uppers – accelerating toward brake lights, changing lanes abruptly – and one who fell asleep in a traffic jam and started snoring!
  • Dubai brags about using more water than any other country (must be on a per capita basis) in order to bring green to an otherwise salt-pan desert. They end the claim with an assertion that 98% is desalinated water, so therefore it must be okay. Regardless desalination is costly and water is more expensive than oil.
  • Like many places, there are 2 price points in Dubai. The expensive tourist rates (and they are quite expensive) to the local modest pricing. The hotels seemed to be fully booked, though we couldn’t quite figure out why at the price levels (we used frequent flyer miles for the hotels).
  • Camels remain prized possessions of the Bedouin and camel racing is a big sport. Top winning camels can be worth 0.5 to 1 million AED. Camels used to be jockeyed by 5 to 6 year old Indian boys. They are not driven by remote-controlled robots.
  • The Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR) was established in 2002 and now covers over 5% of the landmass of Dubai. The entire reserve is fenced and Arabian oryx and gazelle have been introduced into the reserve.
  • DDCR is the spot for your Arabian Adventures safari. Many chose an afternoon/evening of dune-bashing, camel riding, BBQ dinner and belly dancing. Adventurous souls like us chose the overnight safari. We began with “dune-bashing” in a 4-wheel drive vehicle. Our driver flew up the dunes, slid sideways around them and crested the top with nothing but sky in sight. Not for the faint of heart, the driving was impressive. Our guide, James of Kenya, “never” gets stuck, but laughed heartily at the driver who, after 3 attempts, never did manage to crest one dune without getting stuck. James was sure that after the second attempt, he was clearly blaming his vehicle and not his own lack of skill.
  • In Xinjiang, we went out into the desert with camels, 2 camel boys, and carrying our own food. In Dubai, we were driven in style to the perfect spot, tents erected, mat laid out to sit upon, a huge dinner served of bbq’ed lamb, chicken and beef, with curried vegetables, hummus, salad, fruit, rice, potato salad and olives, followed by a roaring fire, brilliant night sky and a full cooked breakfast in the morning. This would be experiencing extremes of desert safaris.
  • The safari continued with a drive into the Hatta Mountains in Oman. After 7 years without substantial rainfall, the mountain oases are drying up, the wadis becoming slow-moving, insect-infected ponds and the palms dying off.
  • Whilst a moderate Muslim country, evolution has been taught only for general edification and as a basis for teaching critical thinking; not as a scientific concept. A recent ruling has determined that there are more important subjects to be taught in the local schools, and evolution will no longer be covered. International schools can continue to teach evolution; though again, not as a scientific theory.
  • In a response to a query about cappuccinos in our hotel, the (Indian) response we received was “by the machine, we can be making”; perhaps the perfect title for book on India.

Finally in an irony typical of Dubai, I leave you with the following sign in the Sheraton Jumeirah Beach women’s locker room.

“As per U.A.E. custom,

we are kindly requesting you to be dressed up

while you are in the changing room.”

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