Dubai & Abu Dhabi: Great First Impressions of the United Arab Emirates!

I’m writing this in Dubai, and what a city it is!

From up above, all below is either grey (or even red!) roads and brown sand – or blue sea and sky, with reflections of these colours shining off all the glass that covers every high-rise building, for which Dubai is oh so famous. Down on ground level things are less distinctly all brown or all blue. Green grass and pink flowers are carefully tended to make the roadsides less desert-like, so it’s quite quite beautiful!

There’s plenty of white too. White cars and the distinctive long white outfits worn by the Emirati men make great sense in a country where heat and more heat is the order of the day.

Last summer, Dubai reached its 3 million milestone in population, of which figures show that approx. 70% of the population are men and 30% women. Yep, there’s not many women at all – and that’s mainly because 85% of the population are expatriates, and of those, a further 85% are Asian, chiefly Indian (51%), Pakistani (16%) and Bangladeshi (9%); and most of those are men, virtually all working in Dubai without their families. They work in construction (plenty of mega-skyscrapers going up all over the city), security, industry, tourism, trade, in fact everything. There’s some Africans too, I just love meeting them all. They come on 2-year contracts, and don’t see their families in all that time.  Amazing stamina.

Another 3% of the expatriates are from the Philippines, including many women, working here as nannies. Then there are over 100,000 British expatriates in Dubai, by far the largest group of Western expatriates in the city. Dubai weekends are Friday and Saturday, which fits the Muslim calendar well, but for those working for international companies, it actually ends up meaning longer hours and shorter weekends. And then there’s the super-rich, for which Dubai has become a playground.  There’s always plenty on offer for all who want to make a home away from home and enjoy all that the sand, sea and sky has to offer, just beware of the jellyfish and birds!

Then there’s the tourists, and that includes me. I’m here to visit my brother for 4 days en route from the UK back to Taiwan and (apart from missing a connection on my outward journey last August which meant I had an overnight in the Dubai Airport Hotel) this is my very first visit to Dubai and the UAE. And because I’ve visited most of the tourist sites of Dubai in these last few days, I can tell you that the most common language I’ve heard on the streets this week is actually Chinese.  It is Chinese New Year after all, and I’ve noticed lots of people from Taiwan, making the most of the holiday. Many of us are traveling around Dubai by public transport, that’s the bus, monorail, tram and metro. The metro stations are decorated in bright colours, and the trains have special women and children’s compartments, of which men are ushered out if they dare to enter, under threat of being fined. Public transport is mostly cheap, but it does take ages, and if time is short, then taxies are also relatively cheap and so convenient.

So, now the transport’s sorted, what’s for us tourists to see?

Well, there’s old Dubai and new Dubai, and they’re very different, but both well worth exploring. Centuries ago, Dubai started as a place for pearl-diving, then as a port for trade in pearls. In the 1960’s along came gold and oil, and the rest is history.  Actually, oil and natural gas account for only about 5% of revenue for Dubai; most of the UAE oil is in Abu Dhabi. But most of the opulence, bling and construction of outrageously-sized over-the-top skyscrapers is all in Dubai. Just don’t talk about the economic downturn, and focus instead on the fact that petrol is really cheap all over the region, and filling up your car costs about 25-30% of what it does in the UK (unlike the weekly shopping bill which is about double that of the UK, due to most foodstuffs having to be imported).

Old Dubai is famous for its traditional souk markets, courtyard houses, small streets and traders… I love it!

While new Dubai is famous for big skyscrapers…

And if you want to see Dubai from on high, and if the Burj Khalifa is too expensive and too crowded, then the place to go is the new Dubai Frame, 150 m tall and 105 m wide, the world’s largest picture frame, which you can even go up, and walk along the top part and look down through the transparent floor, though that’s only for those with a head for heights!

Looking out in one direction from the Dubai Frame is old Dubai….

And in the other direction is the Burj Khalifa and new Dubai…

The Burj Khalifa is currently the world’s tallest skyscraper at 828m, taking over from Taipei 101, which is ‘only’ 509m. Next door is the Dubai Mall, one of zillions of shopping malls in Dubai (Dubai = ‘Do-Buy’); Taiwan’s famous Din Tai Fung Restaurant has a new branch there too.  And there’s a fountain show every evening where the water moves to music and lights.

And where else? Check out the Palm Jumeirah, it really is a sight to behold, the world’s largest artificial island. A masterpiece in engineering, all built on land reclaimed from the sea, and built to resemble palm fronds, so everyone can have a beachfront property, with a monorail going down the middle. We went on a short boat tour around to the famous Atlantis Hotel, it’s quite something!

And it’s interesting to visit a mosque; after all, Islam is the official state religion of the UAE. This is the Jumeriah Mosque, which is open to the public and has official guided tours almost every day. I went this morning, and it was really informative…

And after Dubai, it’s WELL worth it to spare some time and energy to visit Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE and only just over an hour’s drive from Dubai. We went there on Friday afternoon, to see Abu Dhabi’s Culture – note the capital ‘C’. First the Abu Dhabi Louvre Museum, which is stunning…

And we also visited the famous Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, along with thousands of other visitors, and it’s beautiful.  Really amazing.

So there’s plenty to see and do for a few days in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. So many contrasts between old and new. The opulence is staggering, and somehow residents and visitors have to come to terms with it all. Read up before you come, get to know the people who live here, eat the local food and drink some great Arabic coffee, be curious and adventurous, and do get out and about. EXPLORE! The UAE is a fascinating place. So do do do come and check it out for yourselves!

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