United Arab Emirates by Irene Butler
As-salam alaykum (Peace be upon you)
United Arab Emirates Dubai’s opulence must be seen to be believed!
The sky-line is an architectural competition gone wild – each towering edifice flaunting sensational and extravagant engineering marvels – from oddly twisted towers, to spirals in lacy designs, to gold balconies jutting out from gleaming silver skyscrapers.
The Burj al-Arab, located on The Gulf, takes the lead in hotels, with its shape masterfully assimilating a gigantic sail of a dhow ship. An afternoon tea at this 7-star hotel costs more than the nightly rate for our room at the Golden Sands, so we just took photos and settled for Starbucks. And as is known to many, Dubai boasts the tallest building on the planet. The Burj Khalifa rises 828 metres (2734 ft or 160 storeys) dwarfing every structure around it. Tom Cruise was recently spotted (alas not by us) dangling from the Burj Khalifa in a death-defying stunt for his new Mission Impossible movie to be released next year.
More giant edifices were going up everywhere we looked; the on-going construction is staggering. Dubai and the other six Emirates are fast becoming world renowned for tourism, and services of every description, in preparation for the time oil no longer gushes.
We were agog at the gas-guzzlers speeding by. Hummers seem to be the vogue – not that the cheap price of gas at 1.7 Dirham (50 cents Canadian) a litre would be a considering factor in the big engine vehicle choices, and certainly not for the Bagatti with gold wheel rims that we saw.
A day spent at the 1,200 store Mall of the Emirates proved to us that “to see the locals socialize – go to a mall”. They are like an oasis where family and friends meet to chat over coffee and good food, business associates conduct meetings, where people go to be entertained, and to pray (the prayer rooms in malls are said to be larger than in most mosques, especially the women’s prayer room) – and of course, malls are for shopping, considered the national pastime. The “coolest” thing to do in this mall is jump on a chair-lift and ski down one of 5 runs, or to toboggan or skate in the huge wing of this mall that is kept at -5 degrees Celsius. It seemed bizarre to us to see kids in snow-suits making snowmen while snowflakes settled on their heads, with temperatures soaring near 40 degrees just outside the mall.
The Dubai Mall has a 33,000 gallon aquarium with a tunnel running through it for a simulated ocean-bottom walk, as well as an aquatic zoo with such species as penguins, otters, and pythons, and an Olympic sized skating rink. Arab women were in their traditional dress of full-length black robes called abeyyas, their heads covered with a black hajab trimmed with gold or silver thread, or semi-precious gems. Fingers and wrists were weighted down with marble sized diamonds, and I have no doubt under these conservative frocks they were wearing the latest haut couture fashions, such as in the filled shopping bags from Dior, Gucci and Versace they totted. The sheikhs stride about in sparkling white shirt-dresses called dishdashas, their heads covered with a white or red-checkered cloth or gutra, which is fixed in place with a black rope agal. (The agal is in two loops and was traditionally used to place around a camels legs when its owner left the animal on its own, so the camel would not wander off and leave his master stranded in the desert. Since camels can survive 6 or 7 days without water, compared to man’s 3, and since they also can sniff out an oasis – keeping them from wandering off could prove to be the difference between life and death.)
Back to the issue of dress code in the UAE, since 80% of the population are “guest workers” from Asia, Australia, Africa, Europe and North America all manner of dress is seen and accepted. The oil reserve revenues spurred on an unprecedented economic boom and drew the needed expatriates in every field from engineering and financial advisors, to construction crews, to hospitality services, and cleaning/maintenance jobs, etc. – all taking advantage of the opportunity to make a better wage than back home.
It was off to the camel races by taxi for us early one morning. We
pointed the driver to the far off race track on the tourist map (approximately 20km from town). Upon our arrival, we found the location had changed, and there was now a large horse race track in its place. Our driver pulled into a gas station where the attendant pointed us in the direction of the new track, which was another 30 km away. I voted to “just do it” much to Rick’s chagrin as the taxi metre clicked away, but his face was soon beaming at the sight of a hundred camels rounding a gigantic racetrack at 40 km an hour, their jockey’s bouncing along with teeth-rattling ferocity. And this was only a practice! On race day these ships of the desert run at speeds up to 60 km an hour. Lining the tracks were another hundred camels with their owners and jockeys, waiting their turn to churn up some sand. Once young boys around the age of 6 or 7 were used as jockeys, but the regulation now is that jockeys be no younger than 15 and no less than 45 kilos. Rick (my finance minister) did not even flinch at the 250 Dirham ($70 Canadian) taxi bill.
Jumeirah Mosque’s “Open Doors – Open Minds” philosophy drew us through its doors and gave us some insight into Islam and the Holy Quran, which teaches peace and tolerance. I was surprised to learn that the women’s dress pre-dated Islam, and that the mask like burqa was a Bedouin adaptation as a protection from the ravages of the desert sun, and any forced dress code is a national decree, rather than an edict of the Quran which only says women and men must dress conservatively. There are differences in every belief system in the world, and the fear of these differences stems from the acts of a few violent radicals, which then has the unfortunate effect of attributing these acts of violence to all in that belief system.
A two hour bus trip brought us to Abu Dhabi, the capitol of the UAE. Our first impression in the city centre (near our hotel) was that the multitude of sky-scrapers appeared older than those in Dubai, and along the two main streets there is very little space between them (which made for a shady walk). Outside our hotel window was a vast oil storage facility along The Gulf. Upon leaving the immediate area of our hotel we noted the same fury of new construction with imaginative architecture as in Dubai, evidenced by a humungous disc-shaped office building.
We did not have much luck with the “not to be missed” sites, according to Lonely Planet. After an hour’s walk to the Al Hosn Fort, we found it closed for renovations. From there we went to the old souk (market), only to find it had burnt down in 2009, and was being re-built. We were getting discouraged when we took the city bus to the famed Emirate Palace Hotel the next day, only to find it closed (??) for some unknown reason – but Rick at least took some photos of the outside of this grand structure.
Our next venture, the Shiekh Zayed Mosque more than made up for the afore mentioned sites. The domes and minarets of this massive and spectacular mosque glistened sparkling white against the brilliant blue sky. Upon entering I donned the requisite woman’s long black abbeya. Rick, passed muster with his long pants, and was not asked to put on a dishdasha like the men who were wearing shorts. As we walked into the interior the display of marble, ceramics, crystal chandeliers, and stained glass was breathtaking. The chanting of the Quran (which goes on 24/7 by men on 6 hour shifts) filling the air added to the tranquility and peace of the mosque, making our visit an exceptional experience.
We have just arrived in Oman, and are looking forward to an excursion into the desert, and to munching dates right off the palm tree and such….until our Oman blog
Irene & Rick