Shaking with the Sheiks

 

It wasn’t until my seatmate and I simultaneously commented on the quality of the delicious meal on Etihad Airways that we started talking. He had chosen ricotta and spinach ravioli, I, Oriental stir fried beef and rice after our Mezze appetizers. This led us into a conversation about my five days in the United Arab Emirates.

“How did you like it?”he asked.

English-Russian Translator in Dubai & Abu Dhabi

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Abu Dhabi and Dubai were two of the most dynamic cities I’ve visited in years. I was overwhelmed by the sheer spectacle of both , ”   I answered truthfully.

“Yes,”he said, “tourists can enjoy traditional camel safaris in the desert, shop duty-free at the most upscale malls in the world, relax on world class white sandy beaches in a land where the crime rate is zero”.

What perked my curiosity was he seemed so in touch with the Emirates even though he had been living in Ottawa for over 6 years. Ah, a clue-Ottawa, winter, mountains of snow for an Arab and of course, government.

“And what do you do”, I asked with formal politeness knowing innately that with all this information and knowledge, this very agreeable man, Hassan M.O. Al Suwaidi, was not just a business man. As it turned out he is the Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates in Ottawa.

My only complaint which I relayed to His Excellency, was how essential it was to have more time on this visit to the land where oil begot unfathomable riches. After the discovery in 1930s, a dynamic economy was born.

abu-dhabi-01

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As a tourist destination for those who had been to Europe, Africa, India, Asia, South American etc., the Emirates is the next thrust. Although the media sees this as a mercurial part of the world, the Emirates is a safe region and fast becoming a leading tourist destination. For instance, Dubai has approximately 5.4 million visitors annually. Most are from Britain, Russia and Germany who take advantage of the beaches, sunshine and tax-free shopping.

4596821669

 

 

 

 

 

 

Abu Dhabi, the capital city of the seven Emirates, is the hub for Etihad Airways and I chose this as my first destination leaving the more thriving Dubai until the last. I wanted to be able to compare the two – Abu Dhabi, once a humble pearl centre, is a cosmopolitan unhurried city eager to catch up with its not-as-rich but visibly-more opulent, commercial centre, Dubai.

However, I admit I had to modify my thinking about this seemingly less flashy city as my limo passed detached single homes, the size of small hotels. And I gulped when I arrived at government owned Emirates Palace Hotel located on 85 hectares of gardens, the largest and probably most costly hotel in the world. Greeting me under hand carved graceful Islamic arches, were two glorious young people wearing gold and black brocade coats who looked as though they had been sent from central casting. With only 302 deluxe rooms and 92 overwhelmingly large suites and a staff of about 2000-every room has a dedicated valet, Emirates Palace Hotel also has a staggering 144 domes, the largest is 42 m wide and finished with silver and gold mosaic tiles. Inlaid marble floors the color of the UAE’s different sands shades, helicopter pads, landscaped pools, and the need of good walking shoes to cover the length of the palace which, from end to end, is 1 Km while a walk around the building is approximately 2.5 km, the hotel’s target guests are at sheiks and heads of states from countries worldwide who congregate for massive conferences,

What an introduction to a very oil rich country. I was loathe to leave my elegant room for sightseeing. City roads are in perfect condition and are relatively traffic-free. We made our way to the port to see the dhows (wood boats) and fish market for local color. The renowned Gold Souk was a bit of a disappointment since there was a sameness in every shop. However, the spectacular mosque in the process of being built, is grand and the 4th largest in the world. But time was not on my side since I had plans to go to Al Ain, the Garden City, blessed with substantial ground water resources. It’s an oasis in the desert which dates back to the 4th century BC. About an hour from Abu Dhabi, Al Ain is more affordable and the population of 200,000 is planning a future for tourism and not oil.

Among trucks of every variety, we stopped at the daily camel market. For a Westerner, this malodorous venue was exotic. Camels were being pushed, pulled and some milked for their newly born. Locals haggled about the purchase price of these humped animals. Not only are they for eating and use as transportation but if there is one that catches the eye of a camel racing impresario it is soon on the race track. Although there are horse and camel races, there is no betting- just buy an entry ticket. There are weekly camel races but the big festival is a social event taking place between October and April held at Al Wathba.

As for liquor, there are liquor stores and is available in hotels and restaurants but as one official said, “just don’t create any problems”since it’s against the Islamic religion to have alcohol. The question of women’s rights always arises. From what I observed, women, have their freedom to work, go to school, choose their wardrobe though many still opt to be completely covered wearing the abaya, (a black coat) over their clothing. ‘Camel Gucci’, is an expression I learned about the abaya-wearers who have major European designer togs underneath.

By 3PM, the sun was beating down on our small group who had traveled to an area in the Arabian Desert for the sport of Dune Bashing. There was no indication what the temperature was, but a conservative guess would be about 35 Celsius. While waiting, we took shelter in Bedouin-inspired tents. This tourist enterprise gets you away from the glitz of the cities and takes you back to tribal times. With our meal being prepared on the traditional style oven, a few waited for a turn to climb upon a very tall camel for a very short ride. The camel snorted and spit and was most disagreeable. But who could blame him. Just beyond on a tranquil sandy slope, some young people tried their skills at sand skiing, not with much luck.

The 4 X 4 vehicles, necessary for the increasingly popular but bizarre ride, finally arrived. We five innocents took our seats, buckled up and soon were in full throttle, roller-coasting at kamikaze speed over the high and amazingly peaceful looking dunes. This sepia colored playground for Dune Bashing is certainly an adrenaline trigger. Stopping for the important photo opportunity, this sand that just slid through my fingers and seemed so harmless soon had us shrieking when again we were almost airborne. After dinner, the ground lights were turned off. I lay on my back looking at a blanket of stars. It seemed as though the rest of the world must be starless since they all seemed above.

Ah, Dubai, the metropolis which sits of the Arabian Gulf with a population of over 1.5 million, made up of 85% expatriates. Within seconds of reaching the city, one can’t avoid noticing the building boom and the heat, easily 30 Celsius and this is winter.( Summer temps go into the high 40s Celsius occasionally hitting 50 Celsius). And the curiosity is that this city is surrounded by water and often called the Venice of the Gulf. It’s a misnomer but a very wide water thoroughfare is called the ‘Creek’and divides Dubai –Deira Dubai and Bur Dubai. A clever move was to prohibit large delivery trucks on city streets. Small vans are re-loaded with the supplies.

Skyscrapers compete with cranes. It’s Hong Kong meets Singapore. Eighteen percent of the world’s cranes are here. The oldest building is about 10 years old. Expatriates live it up with fancy cars, swell condos, designer clothes and high salaries.

Dubai is a major multi-cultural city where there are 185 nationalities. And with tourism growing at a rapid rate, the Dubai government is in the process of building the largest airport, Jebal Ali International Airport, to support this industry.

After checking into the 5 star Fairmont Hotel, Sam, a thirty six year old Egyptian born Canadian who moved here 2 years ago, was to be my guide. Sam had come for a holiday, considered the business opportunities and never left. His consulting firm is constantly changing and expanding. I wasn’t surprised when he pulled up to the hotel’s entrance wearing a casual chic Italian outfit plus designer sun glasses driving a red convertible BMW sports car. Expensive cars on the roads are in a majority. Old is a two year old vehicle and clean is a government edict. If I can’t have oil, give me the Mercedes Benz and BMW dealership, I mused.

Dubai was established in 1830 by the Maktoum family. Once a pearl center, the demise of this industry came after the discovery of cultured pearls. Great thought was then given to Dubai’s future. Oil was discovered in 1966 enabling the transition to commerce and trade. Their oil reserve wasn’t as endless as some of their Emirate siblings.

Under the vision of the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the flat barren plains gave way to economics which soon meant erecting banks, hotels, condos, malls- each outdoing the last.

It’s so easy to do business here,”Sam tells me. “If it’s legal and ethical, it can be done on the turn of a dime. And where else in the world don’t you have to pay taxes? Dubai is a city of money and business.”

It’s a mind twister to realize that Abu Dhabi is under two hours away by car. It could be another planet.

“Dubai is all about networking,”Sam tells me early one morning as we head to his Mumbai born tailor located in a small shop in the old Mina Quarters. Here jewellery, electronics, clothing, furniture and just about every ethnic item can be purchased much cheaper than in the grand malls. Bargaining is expected. Not to be missed is the Spice Souk where the aroma of cinnamon and incense mixes with dried fruit and cloves.

We pass the UAE’s most important port, spot exquisite long stretches of beach, good for swimming. Sam is a diver so has to go elsewhere for that sport.

“Too bad I can’t show this to you from the air,”says Sam pointing to The Palm development. Here are the three largest man-made islands in the world and it’s in the shape of a date palm tree. The area is bigger than Manhattan and the ‘trunk’section has already attracted Donald Trump’s enterprise. There is a crown with 41 fronds and surrounding crescent islands which also act as water breakers. When all is done by the end of 2009, there will be 8000 villas, shopping malls, sports facilities, marinas, hotels and clubs- a city within a city. And the same company – Al Nakheel Properties- that brought this concept to the world is also building The World Islands, another collection of man-made islands. These will be in the shape of the the continetns of the world. If you intend to purchase one of the 250-300 islands, bring a large wallet. This dream community’s starting price is 25 million AED ( approximately CDN$8.1 million) to 66 million AED ( CDN $33 million) per island.

Every business person’s first remark emphasizes that taxation is nil, crime is zero, schooling and hospital clinics are free and shopping is a sport. But if there is any wrong doing by an expat, there aren’t long court cases, it’s immediate deportation. For local prison inmates, Dubai police are teaching yoga to “relieve stress of penitentiary and view the world as a better place.”Art of Living program started in January 2006.

Usually the next topic to arise is the traffic. Sam mentioned the constant gridlock during the work week This was the Sabbath and the streets were maneuverable. Traffic crunch materialized the next day and could only be compared to Bangkok. Due to the heat, the work day starts early, so does the traffic. As an aside, in each car, there is a mandatory built-in speed beep, good for highway driving, which goes on automatically when you past120k. It didn’t have a chance of going off in this bumper to bumper traffic.

The city is spread out so it’s important to make a plan, decide on a destination and stay within the area. Known for shopping from electronics, optics, jewelry, home furnishing, clothing and restaurants, I yearned to see the renowned malls. But they aren’t just a shopping experience. They are a destination, many staying open until midnight.

Besides all the boutiques, Emirates Mall, has a unique, very large glassed-in area which contains a busy, unbelievable snowy ski hill. The line-up on the slopes reminded me of my days in Canada’s Laurentians. Apres skiers and onlookers were three deep vying to see this incredible spectacle while the very brave inside, donned rented warm, parkas and all necessary equipment.

Our stomachs finally got in touch with our brain. We were hungry. The warm weather was perfect for al fresco dining. Sam decided on the posh Dubai Creek Yacht Club. Palmed and very private, the long drive to the restaurant featured a golf course and a yacht-filled marina. We ate lightly, me, a terrific tuna salad and Sam, some fish. Dinner would be our grand meal.

But we still had to see various malls and hotels. Wafi City Mall, with an Egyptian theme, even though Freete, Channel, Missoni and Boss are among the known designer shops, has a significant huge stained glass dome depicting Egyptian themes.

“There’s pride in every building that‘s built here,”Sam said pointing to the intricately carved Egyptian pillars. For local authentic purchase, The Arabia Oil Boutique, with 400 branches worldwide, has a cache of essential oils and a choice of exquisite bottles. Sniffing all the scents gave me a high and finally Sam decided on Dehn Aloud, a very fresh aroma made with white musk and jasmine.

Next Mall was Madinat Jumeirah which tried and succeeded in looking like a modern- day souk. But with Starbucks and KFC outlets, the imagery is a bit difficult. Outside there’s an Italian-like plaza and a man- made, fish filled lake making this a great respite from the crowds.

My favourite, Burjuman, was due to the fact that there seemed to be an easy direction path instead of a direction guessing game. Each mall is so humungous that losing one’s way seems to be the norm, the mall plan board always crowed- lost souls great riches. Burjuman, large as it may be, is the newest and most fashion forward. And in the midst of men in traditional white or blue ‘dishdash’and women wearing their black ‘abayas’, there is a two storey Saks Fifth Avenue.

Five star rating for hotels is the highest, but the self-proclaimed 7 star Burj Al Arab is magnificent. Built on yet another man-made island, it’s every tourist’s wish to see the interior. Unless your name is on the list, the guards don’t allow you over the bridge to the entrance. (I’m sure every travel writer who visits Dubai wants to see this incredible edifice. When I called, I suggested they Google my name and within 20 minutes, the return call was an invitation to a site inspection) The options are to either stay there, book a table for a sumptuous tea overlooking the man-made sandy beach or have dinner with the best view of the city. These will give you an entrée into the world’s tallest hotel.. The incredible glass and steel ‘billowing sail’architecture is the signature of the city as the opera house is to Sydney Australia.

Inside it’s a concoction of Disney World and Las Vegas. The unusual mosaic, stepped, lobby fountains, the gilt columns, red leather and gold sofas, tropical fish-filled aquariums straddles the escalators and all is outdone by the restaurant suspended 200m over the Arabian Gulf.

Sam wasn’t exaggerating when he said dinner would be a great surprise. On the shores of the Arabian Gulf, The One & Only Royal Mirage, is a complex of three distinctly different hotels, each with their own name, set in lush bucolic gardens, the ambience elegant. Much attention to Arabian architecture detailing at the Arabian Court was only surpassed by the meal at the vibrant, Nina. ‘Simply Nina’, the house drink is mixed with gin, lime, mint leaves, ginger, watermelon cubes and sugar syrup, the perfect introduction to our meal. The Indian Tasting Plate with 4 appetizers and three main dishes and pizzazz presentation. The two other hotels on the property are The Palace where bronzed camel sculptures linger in the greenery, the interior equally magical and resonates an oasis while the 50 room, small, discreet The Resident & Spa is perfect for a romantic assignation.

Before ending the evening, Sam insisted on going to Grosvenor House’s Buddha Bar, the sophisticated, trendiest, east meets west bar and restaurant in Dubai.

It seemed the most likely place to say farewell. There, in one place, were all the ingredients that make Dubai the Golden City–expats and locals mixing amicably, obvious affluence, hip clothes, a young social scene in an extraordinary setting. I felt ancient next to these extremely fit, slim, extraverted, gyrating people who seemed to have their life all tied up in one gilded portfolio.

If I have any regrets, they are, not having enough days to discover more of this foreign flavored city nor the time for some retail therapy which in retrospect, would have probably driven me mad trying to make decisions

I flew return with Etihad Airways, the Abu Dhabi Government’s national airline which lands at Abu Dhabi International . It’s 32 K (20miles) south east of the city. For the rest of the stay, I had a driver since highways are superlative.

All accommodations are subject to 10% service charge and 10% Government tax. The rate are quote in UAE Dirhams .

Approximate room rates have been converted into Canadian dollars.

Emirates Palace Hotel

Tel 971 2 69 9999.   www.kempinski.com

Room rates start at 2,900 AED (CDN $930) for a single and 3,100 AED (CDN $1,300) for double. The Palace Suite is 42,000AED (CDN $14,000). For conference rates email: meetings.emiratespalace@kempinski.com

 

Burj Al Arab, Tel 971 4 301 7777. . www.burj-al-arab.com.

Room rates start at 6,500 AED (CDN $2,100) and for the Royal suite 40,000 AED (CDN $ 13,000) per night plus 20% taxes and breakfast is not included,)

One & Only Royal Mirage Tel 971 2 4 399 9999.

www.oneandonlyroyalmirage.com.

Seasonal changes to room rates apply and start at 2,270 AED (CDN $780). The Prince Suite is 6,270 AED CDN $3,900),

Sunshine Tours Tel. 971 4 449914. Half day safari with rides and BBQ meal, approximately 300 AED (CDN $100) and full day with sleep over, dinner and breakfast approximately 400 AED (CDN $130).

Email. Abusun@adnh.com.

Buddha Bar at Grosvenor House. Reservations for the bar and restaurant Tel 971 4 317 6000

Arabia Oud, Ground Floor #217, Wafi City Mall

Madinat Jumeirah Mall

Tel 971 4 366 8888

The Fairmont Dubai

Tel 971 4 332 5555

Sheikh Zayed Road   www.fairmont.com

 

Word count including information and addressees is 2010

email

About The Author