Monday 16th November 2009
On arriving in Dubai at around 8.00 p.m. we were immediately impressed by the huge, elegant, temple-like airport building. Gigantic in scale it has large columns rising to the very high ceiling, and a sense of space and calm everywhere. Funnily enough it did not remind us of Heathrow or Gatwick.
We took a taxi to the hotel passing by in the darkness an array of high rise artistically beautiful modern buildings. Even in the dark one formed the impression of a futuristic, space age city.
Our 4* Al Manzil hotel proved to be a new building in a traditional style set in the “old town” – an area old in terms of architectural style rather than in years, and immediately flanking the world’s largest shopping mall and its tallest building.
Our room was equally striking, being modern and spacious and yet elegant and conservative. Having the bath in a 3 sided glass cubicle in the living room added to this strange mix.
Tuesday 17th November
We had pre-booked a full day tour to the east coast. The German guide ( a woman of perhaps 30) gave us a useful background on the UAE. It was formed in 1971 on the withdrawal of the British and contains Abu Dhabi with 85% of the land area, Dubai, Sharjah and four other Emirates. Dubai is obviously very wealthy and everything is very new and large, but also tasteful and planned with considerable care. Sharjah appeared older (20-30 years) smaller and much more normal for a city – rather busy and dirtier. Apparently its oil has largely gone. In Dubai all cars seemed to be new BMW, Mercedes, Lexus. Cars in Sharjah were much more the usual mix. Many of the Indian, Sri Lankan. Pakistani and Iranian workers live here and travel into Dubai.
As we left Sharjah we entered scrub covered sand and stone desert and headed for Fujairah, another emirate, and the Harjah mountains. These are incredibly arid and appear as great piles of weathered rock and stone. This provides the raw materials for cement manufacture and for reclaiming land. The roads are periodically full of lorries carrying out this The desert is known as the Empty Quarter and is the largest sand desert in the world occupying the UAE, Sudan and the Yemen. Despite this they manage to grow fruit and vegetables, using greenhouses to cool down the temperatures! Abu Dhabi being richer is green apparently, having planted 120m. trees. A wayside market (“The Friday Market” that in fact operated all week) sold carpets and many types of locally grown fruit and vegetables.
We stopped for a photo of a dry wadi with signs of earlier settlements in the valley below us.
In due course we reached the east coast, passing an oil terminal with ships waiting to load. Shortly after we came to Sandy Beach where we had a buffet lunch at the hotel and a German couple with us took the opportunity to swim in the warm Gulf waters.
On the return we stopped at an old fort that had been demolished by the British in the past but had been restored.
For our evening meal we thought we would literally cross the road and visit the Dubai Mall (again the largest in the world – an expression we would here applied to many things in the UAE. The whole development of 1200 shop, 9 cinema, ice-rink etc is geared to cars and in the end we had to walk through the car park road entrance to gain access. Later we would have to leave in a similar way. Inside there was a 3 storey high waterfall and a 2 storey aquarium with huge fish in it. Outside was a very spectacular fountain display - Las Vegas and Disney World certainly seem eclipsed by the things we saw during our stay to the UAE.
Wednesday 18th November
An early start and off to Al Ain, the second city of Abu Dhabi. Our route was across sand dune desert via a 3 lane dual carriageway. The dunes can rise to 100 metres. Camel racing is big with the wealthy of the UAE and we passed a large area where they were being exercised, with the owners accompanying them by car and applying (we were told) electronic whips by means of remote controls!
Naturally the desert is an empty arid space but here and especially in Abu Dhabi there has been a vast planting programme, especially of date palms. What is even more remarkable is that all of the plants are watered by tubes snaking between them. It is a massive project.
Al Ain is s smaller, low-rise attractive city, but like all else here is still by our standards new. Throughout the UAE we are reminded that until oil was discovered in 1959 (Abu Dhabi) and 1966 (Dubai) this was an area of desert dwelling nomads, fishermen and pearl divers. The population of Dhubai was 6000. Now Dubai city is a forest of 200 tower buildings in the Jumeira Beach area alone.
Nevertheless, there is history and our first stop was at Hili, a prehistoric tomb and housing site dating to 3500BC. It is thought that this was based on the exploitation of copper in this area. We learned a little more at a museum and saw the tools and pots of that civilisation.
We visited a renovated palace used by the sheikh until the 1960s. A visit to a modern camel market ended a morning and after lunch we returned to Dubai. But, being keen to pack in all we could, we ventured out again in the evening for a buffet cruise on a dhow. We spent the evening with a mother and daughter from Bunbury in Western Australia, the mother having left England at the age of 14 and now being we guess in her late 70’s. The evening was rounded off with a very good conjurer.
Thursday 19th November
Again an early start, this time by coach in a group of perhaps 20 to the city of Abu Dhabi.
Our pick up taxi took us to Le Meridien Hotel at Jumeira Lake – an area developed only since private investment was permitted in 2000 and now having 200 tower blocks (many still under construction) with another 50 planned. A great deal of creativity has been used in the design of these,
Again impressive modern motorways and this time a great spread of industry but all neat and orderly and modern. This is an impressive country, but they did have the advantage of starting with a clean sheet. What is interesting is to see how the ruler from 1966 till his death in 2004 (Sheikh Sayed) used the money from oil so well. Unlike his predecessor who kept it for himself, Sheikh Sayed invested in schools, roads and hospitals. The native Emirates number only about 250,000. On their marriage they are given an allowance of 550,000 Dirham (nearly £100,000) or a large 5-6 bedroom house. Many of these houses we passed on the way. In addition schooling and healthcare is free for them. Indeed, if suitable care is not available in the UAE the government pay for them to go anywhere in the world and meet the cost of treatment. They are also given a £12,000 grant to help with costs of any dowry and help deter marrying foreigners.
Our first stop was at the Sheikh Khalifa Grand Mosque, the largest after Mecca and Casablanca. Despite its huge scale and the massive amount of marble and precious stones, it was built in 13 years. It has several large crystal and precious stones candelabra each costing around £10m. It is an elegant and attractive building. It can accommodate 7,000 inside and a total of 30,000.
We then toured part of the city seeing the outside of the Sheikh’s palace )one of a dozen homes he has) and also the Emirates Palace hotel, a very grand palace like building the grounds of which can only be entered if attending some function. By way of contrast we moved on to a Heritage village showing the type of tents and other living accommodation of the past.
After lunch at a nearby Mall we visited a cultural museum that showed many of the local crafts and also a model of how the area looked as recently as the 1960’s when there was little other than a fairly small settlement of traditional housing.
Our final stop was at Yass Island where Ferrari World and a TT racetrack are being developed. A 5 star hotel was just about opening and we gazed around its interior and sampled the traditional drink of Casa (coffee with cardamom) and dates.
The road system is excellent with 6 lane dual carriageways literally through sand dunes on the road from Dubai to Abu Dhabiwe and into the city centre. Nevertheless we entered a major traffic jam and took over 3 hours for the 60km or so back to the hotel. A new metro system is being developed and will take away some of the traffic when the remaining 19 of its 29 stations open. It will be 70km long and is part underground and part overhead monorail. In January they start the link to Abu Dhabi.
Friday 20th November
Today’s tour was a bit of a disaster. The guide had us plus 4 Germans. He spoke no German and great difficulty in English. His commentary involved saying the name of the road and of certain buildings but with little or no further explanations. In other ways he was quite helpful but he was just not up to the job. Having taken us around the Jumeira Beach area he left us at a most unusual shopping mall of highly expensive carpets, jewelry and handicrafts and then failed to turn up until half an hour later than he said. However, we then moved on to the Jumeira Palm where a huge Atlantis hotel and numerous apartments have been built on artificial islands in the shape of a palm. This is one of 3 such palm shaped islands, one cluster of which is in the shape of the various continents of the world.
We then headed back across the city to the Dubai Mall where we left and went and had lunch before walking the short distance back to the hotel. We were surprised to find that there is a modern but traditional in style souk next to the hotel. After a short visit we went back to the room to make up this diary!!
Saturday 21st November
An early start and off to New Zealand touching down in Melbourne. Only 18 hours!
We have to say that our final opinions of Dubai were coloured by an e-mailed article from Zoë received the evening of our last day. It claimed the property boom was based on credit that some buildings were cracking, and worst of all that it was built effectively on slave labour as foreign workers have their passports taken on arrival, are paid low wages, kept in shared room accommodation and moved about in old non-airconditioned buses. The last of these we can vouch for from our own knowledge as we travelled. There were certainly also blocks of much less attractive accommodation that may be involved.
If we ignore this until we can verify the above claims then Dubai does seem a bit of a miracle. It is the most modern city we have ever been to. What is more it seems to have been planned. As well as a good road system (but it still gets blocked and many of the new buildings are not yet occupied!) sections of low rise buildings have been included. These adopt some of the traditional architecturall features of what buildings did exist in the country before oil. We were in an area called “The Old Town”, even though it can be only 3-5 years old! It was very attractive and provided a foil to the neighbouring highest tower in the world Burj Dubai (over 800 metres) and the largest shopping mall in the world. [About 5 days after we left Dubai there was great world headlines about Dubai’s unsustainable debt level and announcements by the government that it would need to suspend payment of interest. It was bailed out by Abu Dhabi and in recognition of this financial help the Burj Dubai changed its name to Burj Khalif for its official opening on 4th January 2010 amidst a spectacular firework display].
With a population of 5m the UAE has 85% immigrants but none can become citizens. This works well in some ways as the government has no responsibility for them after they leave at the end of their fixed term contracts. Conversely the immigrants obviously enjoy less benefits.
Despite a background of illiteracy this nation has bought in the expertise it needed and has achieved phenomenal growth. Apparently businesses are attracted by absence of any corporate taxes for the first 30 years. Since 2000 free trade areas are permitted where the usual requirement has been waived that an Emiratee must own at least 51% of your business in the country. These concessions have brought about the explosion in new building in the last decade. The country is also hosting international events at every opportunity so as to build up tourism.
A very interesting country. We just hope that the accounts of the exploitation of foreigners is not true.
Four days after we left we heard on the news (in NZ) that Dubai had suspended payment of interest on its debts and this had led to a banking panic with fears of another global crash as with the US housing market. However, four days after this we have learned that the international banks say that they are not heavily exposed and also Abu Dhabi will support some of the Dubai projects.