Oases in the Desert: Dubai and Abu Dhabi

The Burj Al Arab is a luxury hotel in Dubai. Photo by Eric D. Goodman
The Burj Al Arab is a luxury hotel in Dubai. Photo by Eric D. Goodman

Travel in Dubai: Back to the Old

It’s hard not to see a skyscraper when you’re in Dubai. The Burj Khalifa and Burj Al Arab follow you just about everywhere you go — if you look off to the distance. But what interested us more than the feats of architecture was a step back into the history to experience the culture of Old Dubai.

The next morning, we left our hotel and went in the opposite direction, to Dubai Creek. The walk in the cool, 99-degree morning weather was pleasant, and gave us an opportunity to see the nitty-gritty daily life of Dubai up close. Passing by apartment buildings, offices, storefronts, and mosques, we made it to Dubai Creek in about 45 leisurely minutes.

Dubai Creek is the place to see Dubai of yesteryear. Less than a century ago, this was the heart of Dubai, consisting of sand and palm frond courtyard houses. In the Al Fahidi neighborhood, an old fort from the late 1700s still stands, and is home to the Dubai Museum. Throughout the area, old buildings have been restored and new ones recreated in the traditional style, not a far cry from the adobe style houses in the American west.

At Dubai Museum, we immersed ourselves in Emirate history, taking in the traditional barasti, or palm frond house, with its traditional wind tower. Some of the buildings in the area feature the traditional wind towers, both the sand plaster and the palm ones. Wind towers provided an early form of air conditioning — catching the cooler wind in the tower and pushing it down into the home below.

The museum displays artifacts from Emirate culture, as well as wax figures of various scenes: a souq, or market, from the 1950s, pearl traders, a classroom, a desert camp, and the likes.

After visiting the museum, we went to the creek and took an abra across to the market area. The abra is a traditional wooden ferry that carries people from one side of the creek to the other, and it still caters to as many locals as tourists. Fare was only about thirty cents U.S., and it was a nice five-minute cruise along the creek, offering a pleasant view of the sand-plaster waterfront as we went.

Dubai The architecture is a blend of old and new. Photo by Eric D. Goodman
The architecture is a blend of old and new. Photo by Eric D. Goodman

Spicy Souqs and Streets of Gold in Dubai

On the other side of our abra ride along Dubai Creek, we came out right in the heart of the souq area. Souqs, or markets, have modern conveniences, but we got the impression that they were very much as they were a century ago. Although you’ll find vendors of all types in each souk, they tend to be focused: one area is the spice souq, another is the textile souq. And then there’s the gold souq, rich with lavish ornaments and breastplates of gold — even the largest golden ring in the world. People come from around the world to buy gold in Dubai’s gold souq.

“Just make sure you always haggle with the dealers,” Sadiq advised.

“Got it,” I said with a nod. “Never pay full price.”

“You should start at half price, and find somewhere in the middle.”

We did. Saffron, vanilla, cardamom, menthol, and cinnamon — they were displayed in large sacks along the shops, and we stocked up. Our task was made easier with Sadiq helping us, especially since this was where he, as a local, came to make his purchases. He knew the vendors, the true prices, and allowed us to shop as locals instead of tourists.

We were less liberal with our gold purchase, although we did buy a few souvenirs for family back home. As Nataliya narrowed down the selection to a few pieces, Sadiq and I walked the gold souq’s exterior, discussing old times and new, the history of the world and the state of the world.

“You notice there is no crime here,” he said.

I nodded. “I imagine the penalties are harsh.”

“Not only that,” he said. “There are many plain-clothes policemen, everywhere. If something were to happen, it would be stopped before there was even time to cause a scene.”

And the truth was, unlike other countries, we’d heard no warnings about watching out for pickpockets. On the contrary, most warnings involved acting appropriately, not showing public affection or drinking in public. Warnings intended to protect us from ourselves and the authorities instead of from criminals.

Sadiq and I rendered our opinions on Nataliya’s gold jewelry selections, she made her final choices, and it turned out that democracy prevailed — we agreed on which were the best. With some gold added to our bags of spice, we left the canopy of the gold souq and strolled into the afternoon sun.

As the call to prayer sounded from a nearby minaret, Sadiq excused himself to go pray. Nataliya and I explored the textile souq, where we ended up trying on what we were told were high-quality local, traditional outfits. What started as a fun excursion ended in a purchase. We haggled the price down to below half the original asking price, and ended up adding some handmade wool scarves with intricate embroidery and his and her traditional Emirati garb to our souq purchases of the day.

We greeted Sadiq in our new outfits. He laughed with pleasure. “After a little more sun, you’ll fit right in here,” he said.

The author in more traditional clothing.
The author in more traditional clothing.

A Bit of Dubai History

We ended our time on the souq side of Dubai Creek with a visit to the Dubai Municipality Museum, right on the creek. It wasn’t actually in the plan, but the worker at the entrance was so eager that we nearly thought he was trying to sell us something.

“Please, come learn about our history,” he said, gently extending his welcome. “It’s a free museum, all about our culture and history.”

Natalia, Sadiq, and I looked at each other. “Why not?” I said.

He led us inside the sand plaster building and showed us pictures and official papers, explaining in an excited voice the history of the nation and the Emirate

We learned more about the British occupation in the 1800s and late 1900s, the Emirate people gaining independence in the middle of the 1900s, and the establishment of the United Arab Emirates in 1971. Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, still pictured on billboards and in buildings throughout the nation, was the ruler of Abu Dhabi and the first president of the United Arab Emirates, running the country for about 33 years, from 1971 to 2004.

We sat at the table where the sheikhs met to form their union. I had the honor of sitting in the sheikh’s chair as we watched a short film on the history of UAE. Then, we got a look at the official documents forming the nation, the first newspaper, and early writings to come from the country.

Prior to the 1950s, there was little in the area but sand and somewhat temporary houses made of sand brick and palm fronds. It was the discovery of oil in the 1950s that brought wealth to the nation. But to our surprise, oil is no longer the biggest economy of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Tourism is.

On the museum’s second floor balcony, we enjoyed a nice view of the creek and the old shoreline on the other side, as well as a new perspective on the wind tower, being directly across from one.

After half an hour’s educational experience, we signed our names and gave our thanks, leaving the municipal heritage center for the abra station, where we ferried back to Bur Dubai for a scrumptious meal of lentils, chickpeas, and kabobs with rice and couscous. An avocado smoothie was a filling ending to a full day of culture.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Photo by Eric D. Goodman

An Excursion to Abu Dhabi

We spent less time in Abu Dhabi, but as it’s only an hour away, and it seems to compete with Dubai for the title of “world’s richest city,” our trip to UAE wouldn’t be complete without an excursion to Abu Dhabi.

Along the way, we witnessed a third city in the making between the two oases: in the middle of the desert, construction was underway on the site of World Expo 2020. For now, it was just desert and construction, but I imagine it will be something to behold in a few years.

As we approached Abu Dhabi from Dubai, the gleaming white palace of a grand mosque was an amazing sight. The closer we got to it, the more impressive the massive mosque appeared. It’s the largest mosque in United Arab Emirates, and the eighth largest mosque in the world. Its multiple white domes and four towering minarets gleam bright white. One of those domes is said to be the largest in the world.

Travel in Abu Dhabi - Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Flickr/Andrew Moore
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Flickr/Andrew Moore

The interior of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque was even more impressive than the exterior, with enormous crystal chandeliers, the world’s largest handmade Persian rug, inlaid stone and mother of pearl on walls and pillars, and the world’s largest marble mosaic courtyard. There was a lot to see in the mosque, but that’s a whole other story.

Besides boasting the largest mosque in United Arab Emirates and one of the largest in the world, as well as the final resting place of the nation’s founder and the mosque’s champion, what else does Abu Dhabi have to offer? Its own collection of records.

The luxurious Emirates Palace Hotel, with its many chandeliers and its lobby liberally smothered in gold, was the world’s most expensive hotel building when constructed in 2005, although it was surpassed by the Marina Bay in Singapore. And although it’s a Muslim nation, the hotel featured the world’s most expensively decorated Christmas tree, decked out with more than 180 jewels and watches.

The Etihad Towers are five enormous skyscrapers connected at the base and located across from the Emirates Palace Hotel. A stately rose-gold window tower stands beside it.

Continued on next page