Sunday, December 6, 2009

All that glitters...

The worn cliché about the clash of old traditions and modern lifestyles really does apply to Dubai. The high rise skyscrapers, sprawling shopping malls and luxury hotels are surrounded by old souqs, ramshackle buildings housing tailors, laundrettes and Indian cafes. Somehow the whole aura of Dubai reminds of Singapore, or even Hong Kong. Ruled since 1833 by the Al Maktoum dynasty, the current emir Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is also prime minister and vice-president of the UAE, the country made up of the seven emirates – Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al-Quwain, Ras Al-Khaimah and Fujairah – which celebrated its 38th birthday this week, prompting the entire population to decorate their cars in the colours of the flag (or even adorn them with photos of the various emirs.

We have been lucky enough this week to be guests of our friend Stepan (who has already made appearances on this trip in both Egypt and Tanzania), although he had just flown in from Dusseldorf when we arrived and forgot to change the time on his watch, meaning we had two hours waiting at the airport trying to adjust to being in the northern hemisphere again and in a more conservative culture where perhaps swimming shorts and bare feet are not as usual as in the Western Cape. Stepans brother was also visiting this week so we have been moving around in a small tour group!

Up until just twenty years ago Dubai remained a quiet town but in the past two decades uncontrolled development has totally altered the shape of the city, and its skyline silhouette. Buildings such as the famous Burj Al-Arab hotel on Jumeirah beach, whose design was based on that of a traditional sailing dhow, and the new Burj Dubai which once open will be regarded as the worlds tallest building at 808m are very tangible evidence of the effect a massive influx of wealth and capital can have on a city! The extravagance doesn’t stop at the view from outside – within the Mall of the Emirates is the indoor ski resort Ski Dubai which features an 85-meter high indoor mountain with 5 slopes including the world's first indoor black run and a 90-meter-long quarter pipe for snowboarders. Ski lifts carry skiers and snowboarders up the mountain. Adjoining the slopes is a 3,000-square-meter Snow Park play area comprising sled and toboggan runs, an icy body slide, a snowball shooting gallery and snowman making area, an ice cave, and a theatre! Luckily for the shivering sheiks in their dishdashas winter clothing and skiing equipment are included in the price of admission!

The largest of the Emirates with 87% of the countries land area is Abu Dhabi but somehow it always seems to be playing catch-up to Dubai. Where some Emiratis complain that Dubai has ‘sold its soul’ Abu Dhabi by contrast has managed to combine development with retaining its traditions. Indeed, the highlight of Abu Dhabi is definitely a visit to the Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed mosque, which is a modern development of the most traditional style, a beautiful mosque that really emphasises the spirit of Islam. A drive along the Corniche of Abu Dhabi prompts comparisons not with Dubai but with other, less glitzy Arabian cities, Muscat for instance. Trading on these traditions Abu Dhabi has been promoting cultural tourism in a big way, and at any museum, fort or palace you visit within the borders of Abu Dhabi you can be sure of an extremely friendly welcome, offers of Arabic coffee and fresh dates and a very proud and knowledgeable guide, often a women.

200km south of Abu Dhabi close to the Saudi border lies the Siwa Oasis, one of the last stops before entering the ‘Empty Quarter’ where you could probably walk (or take a camel) for 1000km and not bump into anyone else until you reach the Yemen! The whole area is surrounded by giant sand dunes, glowing in the sun in every shade from white to red, appearing as if they have been sculptured by a giant spatula.

Another oasis within Abu Dhabi is Al-Ain, 130km east of Dubai close to the Omani border. Leaving the city behind and passing long caravans of camels along the way before the city rises out of the desert. One of Wilfred Thesiger’s main stops during his Arabian explorations nowadays the oasis, fort and palace are surrounded by a fair sized modern town. The oasis is certainly not the stuff of fairytales, it is very much a working oasis with hundreds of date plantations squeezed together, but is still a very peaceful place to escape the heat and wander under the palms.

North of Dubai in the Ras Al-Khaimah emirate lies the historic site of Shamal, which historians claim was one of the many homes of the Queen of Sheba. Nowadays it is in a terrible state of neglect and hardly receives as much as a mention in the tourism brochures, however the views of the surrounding mountains from the ruins perched up on hill are worth the visit alone.

Closer to Dubai are the small emirates of Ajman and Sharjah. Although we only passed through Ajman we did stop in Sharjah. A stones throw form Dubai and yet worlds apart Sharjah is perhaps the most conservative of the emirates. It is populated by many of the lower income immigrant communities from the Indian Subcontinent giving a friendly and relaxed atmosphere. Perhaps it is just the shock arriving from Africa (where days could go past without receiving a smile let alone a greeting) but here everyone seems so happy and friendly, laughing and joking in the streets. It was definitely a shock to be wandering around the streets here long after sunset without even a thought as to personal safety and it also took a while to get used to being able to leave the car anywhere without a care in the world. Even the Bangladeshi guys trying to sell all kinds of dodgy stuff made me happy, it was so good to see some enthusiasm for life after months of trying to encourage shop-keepers to get up and serve me! This feeling continued as we wandered around the gold souqs of old Dubai, the fervent whispers of ‘copy watches, special price, cheap and best’ were music to my ears! The souqs in the heart of Dubai reminded me of all the best parts of the Middle East, the Indian Subcontinent and beyond. The Middle East really is the centre of all things, influences from Europe, Asia and Africa all get chewed up here before being spat out again in all different directions.

We have enjoyed a busy week here but we did find time to relax by our rooftop pool, sunbathing under the Dubai airport flight-path and watching the constant stream of Emirates jets fly off into the sun. Tomorrow we will be on one of them, the behemoth A380 in fact, but something tells it won’t be into the sun that we will be heading!