Oases in the Desert: Dubai and Abu Dhabi

Dubai. In the desert. Photo by Eric D. Goodman
In the desert in the United Arab Emirates. Photo by Eric D. Goodman

Dubai and Abu Dhabi are cities of contrasts — each one an oasis of modern architectural marvel in the center of desolate desert dunes. Both cities are in the United Arab Emirates, but each offer a different travel experience.

Travel in Dubai

When flying into Dubai, or viewing the surroundings from the observation decks of the Burj Khalifa or Burj Al Arab, it’s easy to see that you’re in the middle of a desert: sand as far as the eye can see in three directions, the blue of the Persian Gulf (or Arabian Gulf as they call it) in another direction.

But from the bottom looking up, as we walked the streets and marveled at majestic skyscrapers, smelling flower gardens and admiring the greenest of grass in parks and medians, it was easy to forget we were in the middle of a desert. It felt like any other modern city — only bigger and, in some ways, better.

Travel in Dubai - A view of Dubai from Burj Khalifa, United Arab Emirates. Flickr/Frank Kehren
A view of Dubai from Burj Khalifa, United Arab Emirates. Flickr/Frank Kehren

That’s the result of the Emirati striving to go big and best. When you consider how short a time the two cities have been under development, they just may have broken a record on breaking records. World’s tallest building, world’s fastest elevator, world’s highest indoor ski slope, world’s largest mall, world’s most leaning tower, highest restaurant, highest dwelling, highest observation deck, biggest diamond in a ring and longest automated metro line…the list goes on and on of records broken by Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

But they’ve managed to preserve, or in some cases recreate, a bit of the Emirati heritage and architecture. This is especially notable along Dubai Creek, in the Al Fahidi area of Dubai, and in both city’s Heritage Centers and museums.

Perhaps these record-breaking developments, amidst the remains of the old ways, was all part of the plan to make Dubai and Abu Dhabi premiere tourist destinations. Their tourist industries are relatively new — and thriving. The nation as a whole, in fact, is relatively new — and thriving — too.

Our first impression of United Arab Emirates was how diverse the population appeared to be, based on who stood with us in the long line to get through passport control. The ring tones of yesteryear — clamshell cell phones and Nokia texters from the pre-smartphone era seemed to dominate the mass of people — despite the “no cell phone” signs.

The people on these phones appeared to be from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Oman, Yemen, Persia, and other nations from the region. The most common item of clothing was a thawb, or a long shirt going down beyond the knees with loose pants underneath. Very few Emirate were present in the crowd — although all of the passport workers were locals.

We tend to be fans of public transportation when we travel, but we figured out that the cost for two of us to take public transportation from the airport to our hotel in Bur Dubai was roughly the same as an airport taxi — and a lot easier. So we hopped in a Mercedes taxi and headed to across the creek to Bur Dubai.

Travel in Dubai - A view of Bur Dubai. Flickr/landhere
A view of Bur Dubai. Flickr/landhere

Arabic music swooned on the radio. Traffic signs and advertisements were in Arabic first, English second. There was a dry heat in the air, even after the sun had set. Mosques lined the corners every few minutes as we drove.

Our next impression, as we drove through Dubai’s twilight, was how modern the impressive skyscrapers were. Even our modest hotel — The City Seasons Towers Bur Dubai — boasted a fashionable exterior, three glass and mirror towers pressed together with spiral openings at the top.

The mall next door and the metro across the street were practical and beautiful, giving off a futuristic vibe. We heard the first call to prayer during our stay as we approached our hotel, a mosque within view just, around the corner. There was a mosque on just about every corner, and the chanting reminded us of where we were. The architecture feels western, but there was no doubt we were in the Middle East.

Dubai Traditional coffee pots. Photo by Eric D. Goodman
Traditional coffee pots. Photo by Eric D. Goodman

Coffee in the UAE

“The coffee’s great,” Nataliya said as she sipped the Arabic blend. We sat in our hotel’s restaurant, enjoying a breakfast of bean soup, curry, hummus, and fried rice.

“What’s that spice,” I asked. Although this was our first exploration of this part of the world, I fondly remembered mornings with Arabic coffee and tea in college, thanks to a good friend from Saudi Arabia. There was a certain spice to the sweet, milky, strong Arabic tea and coffee, but I couldn’t recall it.

Our friend, Sadiq, also a friend from college who Nataliya and I both studied with when we were students in Russia, filled us in.

“Cardamom,” he said. “It’s native to India. Very good.”

“Cardamom?” Nataliya repeated. “We usually don’t use that back home.”

Sadiq elaborated. “It’s also very good in rice and curry. But expensive. One of the world’s three most expensive spices.”

“What are the others,” I asked.

Nataliya guessed. “Saffron?”

“Yes,” Sadiq smiled. “Cardamom, Saffron…and fresh vanilla bean. But you can get all three here in Dubai for so much less than in America. I’ll take you to my spice man at the souq later. But first, a tour.”

Skyscrapers in Dubai. Photo by Eric D. Goodman
Skyscrapers in Dubai. Photo by Eric D. Goodman

Travel in Dubai: A Museum of Skycrapers

Our old friend, Sadiq, and our new friend, Najeeb, were gracious enough to be our tour guides. Wanting to show us both sides of the city, we started our driving tour with the places that most tourists want to see first — Dubai Mall and the Mall of the Emirates.

We would return to both on our own for other reasons (namely proximity to other destinations). But on this tour, we were most interested in the museum of skyscrapers and architectural wonders all around us. Towering over everything was the Burj Khalifa — the world’s tallest building, holding Shanghai Tower (which we visited in 2014 while it was still under construction) down in second place.

Everything from the stately to the whimsical seems to be represented in the local architecture. Some of the most interesting skyscrapers can be seen along Sheik Zayed Road, in the financial district. The Dubai International Financial Center looks like a giant cube of stone and glass. Dubai’s World Trade Center was one of the first skyscrapers built in the city, back in 1979. Some buildings along the strip of skyscrapers have a modern flair, others are more classic in design.

Trip to Dubai - The Burj al-Arab is a luxury hotel in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Flickr/Alex Drop
The Burj al-Arab at sunset. Flickr/Alex Drop

Along with the Burj Khalifa, the other icon of Dubai is the Burj Al Arab, situated on its own man-made island off the Arabian coastline. From Jumeirah Beach or the Metro or a number of places in the city, the world’s “only seven-star hotel,” as it claims to be, appears to puff out with its sail in the wind along the horizon. The Hotel Jumeirah, near the Burj Al Arab, looks like an enormous wave of steel and glass along the water.

Dubai Marina is the largest man-made marina in the world, essentially a canal city off the Persian (Arabian) Gulf. Princess Tower, standing above the Dubai Marina skyline, is the world’s tallest residential building. Infinity Tower, also in the Marina, was the world’s tallest building with a 90-degree twist — and there’s not one structural pillar in the enormous tower — until the twisting Shanghai Tower beat out Infinity Tower when it was completed in 2014.

The audacious feats of architecture in Dubai don’t end with towers. There are the Palm Islands — man-made islands off the coast shaped like giant palm trees in the gulf. Each palm of the tree is a gated row of multi-million dollar mansions. At the end of one of the Palm islands is The Atlantis, an extravagant resort hotel with its own lagoon and some suites that are under water with aquarium walls open to the lagoon’s diverse habitat of 65,000 marine animals.

“Why visit the aquarium when you can live in it?” I asked.

“It would be very expensive to live here,” Sadiq said.

As we walked the grounds of the Atlantis, a guard bounced us out. “You can’t be here,” he said. “This area is for paying guests.”

“You see?” Najeeb said. “You can’t even look at building and grounds without paying a fee.”

But we did look at the marvelous building, with its enormous Arabic gate in the center. It loomed on the horizon even as we drove off the root of the palm island and back onto the mainland.

Another marvel is “The World,” a project of 300 man-made islands beyond one of the palm islands. The islands are shaped and positioned to form a map of the world. The man-made islands are either for sale or sold, and they’re intended as resident properties. The map of the world (like the palm islands) is only visible by air, so going on the islands isn’t as impressive as seeing it from a plane, helicopter, satellite picture…or viewing it from the Burj Khalifa.

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