Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 June 2008
Issue No. 900
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Dubai in 24 hours

What would you do if you only had one day and a night to spend in the UAE mega city? Mohamed El-Hebeishy discovers much more than shopping

Click to view caption
Sunset by Dubai Creek

I have a habit of reading about the places I am going to before my plane takes off. I like to get a feel for the destination. And though I didn't break the habit with Dubai, this cosmopolitan city did not cease to surprise me once I saw it. On my list of countries and cities visited, I have check-boxed relatively a few within the Middle East. From majestic Morocco to oil- rich Kuwait, from contradicting Beirut to laid-back Khartoum. Dubai is utterly different. Aside from traditional spotless white dishdashas (an ankle-length garment for Arab men) and its accompanied gutra (a traditional Arab headwear for men), there is no reminder of being in an Arab country. And I am not the least referring to skyscrapers, seven-star hotels, fancy shopping malls or luxurious restaurants. It is the essence in the air, the micro example of today's world being a global village. Walk anywhere in Dubai, especially a shopping mall or a business centre (seldom when people dare the streets in such scorching heat), it is more than guaranteed that within five minutes you will encounter nationals from all four corners of the globe. Dubai holds one of perhaps the world's record for expatriates, with expats representing more than 90 per cent of the total city population. Meaning you have a one to 10 possibility of meeting a UAE national whilst in Dubai! In such a cosmopolitan community, tolerance is key, and Dubai demonstrates a world-class role model, whether this is reflected in freedom of expression, religious practices or much highlighted customs and traditions, especially that it is still part of the conservative Middle East, at least geographically speaking. A woman in an Indian sari is walking next to a blonde in short skirts and high heels; a Sikh man with his sacred turban is working side by side with a dark skinned African salesman in your favourite department store. Be whoever you want to be as long as the governing rules are respected.

History could be deemed the most representative background for today, and hence I opted for Dubai Museum at the start of my 24-hour quickie. The first documentation of Dubai in history books goes as far back as 1095 AD when renowned Andalusian geographer and historian Al-Bakri mentioned Dubai in his title Book of Geography. Though Al-Bakri never visited the Arabian Peninsula, he based his writings on reports of merchants and travellers whom he had met in Cordoba, Andalusia. Dubai got itself a second mentioning, though a couple of centuries later. In 1587 AD Venetian pearl merchant Gaspero Balbi visited Dubai denoting it as one of the important sites for pearl diving which for centuries retained its status as the backbone of the economy. The first records of the town of Dubai date as early as 1799 AD when it was still dependant on the much larger settlement of Abu Dhabi, and so it remained until 1833 AD when Al-Maktoum, a branch of the larger Bani Yas tribe, moved from Abu Dhabi to Dubai. They ousted, with no resistance worth mentioning, the governing ruler at the time Mohamed Ben Hazza and declared independence. The Emirate of Dubai was born and ever since it has been ruled by the Al-Maktoum Dynasty.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Al-Fahidi Fort was built as defensive fortification to protect the town. It is widely presumed to be Dubai's oldest building that once served as the residence of the governor. Today the fort plays host to the town's museum. In addition to an antique collection of artefacts that goes as back as the Umayyad Period, the museum has a couple of interesting show rooms. All air-conditioned and located underground, the first has an insightful image-based short documentary that highlights the evolution of Dubai through the ages. Next is a series of rooms that take you on a journey of how day- to-day life was in the heydays. With replicas showing pearl diving, goat herding, handicraftsmen carving wood and women doing their household chores, they are all supported by modern technology-based tools that aid the demonstration. For example, the section where you find two statue-like replicas of ironsmiths has a "knocking on iron" sound playing in the background. Go to the wildlife section, press a button on a board in front of the mummified animals and a very short video is played on an adjacent screen. The pearl diving section is actually my favourite. With its blue lighting it creates an underwater atmosphere. The decoration shows a boat bottom, and a pearl diver to your side with a sea bottom environment displayed all around you. For the not-so-into museums me, I was actually impressed, not only by the use of technology as a tool to highlight the museum's content, but for the fact that the artefacts on display, though of great historical value, are not of a great variety or number. Nevertheless, the museum managed to highlight them in a very enticing manner. Perhaps the Egyptian Museum authorities should have a look.

Finishing Dubai Museum by late morning I headed to one of the UAE's natural protectorates: Dubai Wildlife and Water bird Sanctuary, also known as Ras Al-Khor Reserve. Located on the outskirts of Dubai (from Sheikh Zaid Road, take the Second Interchange and follow the signs), this 6.2 sq km reserve is a safe heaven for 266 species of fauna, mainly water birds. Equipped with sharp binoculars, the reserve has three towers (one was not functioning at the time) where avid bird watchers can go in and observe the birds without disturbing them. On 21 January 2008 Ras Al-Khor Reserve was listed by the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable utilisation of wetland signed in 1971 in Iran, as an internationally recognised protected wetland. A crucial area from an environmental and ecological standpoint, the reserve faces gargantuan challenges. The rising level of pollution produced by marine transport in Dubai Creek as well as the disposing of untreated sewage are daunting challenges. The sight of pink flamingos wading in mangrove shallow waters with Dubai sky-touching towers in the backdrop is amazing and dramatic at the same time. Will the flamingos be there next year? Or will they shy away from the intrusive construction projects creeping in?

It's about lunch time and I'm starved, so off to Jumeirah. Stretching on the coast of New Dubai, Jumeirah has a collection of lovely beaches, nice-to-hang-out cafés, easy-to-get- lost type of shopping malls as well as posh restaurants, but surely this is not all. Among its prominent landmarks is Burj Al-Arab Hotel, the world's only self-proclaimed seven-star hotel which has grown to be a symbol of Dubai. Holder of the record title "The Tallest Dedicated Hotel" it actually beats out the Eiffel Tower with its 321m height. Built on an artificial island protruding 280m into the sea, its construction kicked off in 1994 as part of Sheikh Mohamed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum's ambitious construction projects back in the 1990s. But the projects in Jumeirah haven't stopped with Burj Al-Arab. The Palms is a more daring and challenging project with man-made islands being built in the sea. With a bird's eye view, they look like a palm. With hunger paying its high toll, I hurried to Madinat Jumeirah, a huge hotel, shopping and entertainment complex which has everything and anything you might dream of. Built as a replica of the old souqs of Deira, the shopping mall in Madinat Jumeirah has the same ambiance yet with air conditioning and hassle-free shopping. After enjoying my seafood lunch ( hammour or grouper is the choice of the day when it comes to fish in the Gulf), I hailed a taxi and off to Old Dubai, a pure contradiction when compared to the New one. Dubai originated as a fishermen's settlement round the creek. One side of the creek is known as Deira while the other Bur Dubai. Bastakia is a very unique quarter located in Bur Dubai. It was built by an influx of Iranian traders and merchants, tempted by the potential trading profits, who left their homes in Bastak, central Iran and resettled in Dubai. They built their own houses a la Bastak style and hence came the name. It is not the different architecture style that makes Bastakia unique, but the wind towers that add to its peculiar beauty. Wind towers are a traditional form of edifice designed in such a way to funnel cold air inside the house. Give it a shot and stand underneath one of them and feel the difference.

A few metres away from Bastakia, there is the old Bar Dubai Souq. Not as old as its predecessors on the other side of the creek in Deira, the souq in Bar Dubai has an Indian feel apparent in every corner. No wonder it hosts the only Hindu temple in town. With eagerness to see Dubai's oldest souqs, and how utterly different they may seem when compared to state-of-the-art high-tech shopping malls which literally dot the city, I hurried to Deira. Crossing the creek, I went for a traditional experience and crossed with an abra. Abra is a ferry that conforms to a kind of water taxi, traditional wooden boats that carry a dozen or so passengers. It's just different from riding the latest model taxi and crossing the creek via one of the bridges. In addition, it saves time, especially when traffic during the rush hour in Dubai can be easily described as horrendous. Around 15,000 passengers cross the creek on abras daily so why not join the crowd?

At the beginning of the 19th century, Dubai had a total population of 10,000 (what a figure when compared to today's population of just over 1.4 million). Deira was the most populous quarter with 1,600 houses, and its dwellers were Arabs, Persians and Baluchis (people who come from some parts in present-day Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan). By 1908, the souqs in Deira had a good 350 shops, a number to be well respected among peers in the region. Though much of its glory days are long gone, the souqs still hold on to their charm, especially the Spice Souq. Also known as the Old Souq, it has bits and pieces from everywhere, from saffron to henna, and from frankincense to shisha (water pipe). Though not to be compared in essence with Khan Al-Khalili or the old bazaar souqs of Damascus, it is still worth some of your time, not only because it is a tourist attraction but a functioning marketplace.

Walking distance from the old souqs of Deira is the Dhow Wharfage. Dhows are a traditional sailing vessel that Arab merchants used as transport in their trading journeys with Persia, India and East Africa. Prior to the 1960s, dhows depended entirely on sails as propulsion means, but with the utilisation of machinery, dhows now are motor-based. So instead of waiting for the monsoon winds to make the trip to East Africa, all they need now is just a week to reach Somalia, or rather a day to go to Iran. When the Al-Maktoum region opened, Dubai was declared a free trade zone, a way to lure rich merchants from Iran, and indeed the plan worked. Dubai has ever since grown into a trading and re- exporting hub. It is mind perplexing to see Bengali crewmen working on the deck of dhows, taking hours to load and unload goods and commodities, while on the other side of town machine intensive systems run the show in the goliath free trade zone areas in Jabel Ali, the largest and busiest in the region. Don't think the dhows are small or cater only for light cargo. Take a stroll on the Dhows Wharfage and you will find all types of goods being loaded, from chewing gum to whole trucks.

The light is fading and the night is about to announce its presence. I need to go for a quick shower before experiencing a different Dubai, Dubai by night.

Though famous for its nightlife, one of the most favourite among party goers, this is not all what Dubai offers. So if you are not into dancing, clubbing or bar hopping don't think you would be left out, for there are plenty of options to pick and choose from. For the old rock fan I am, I considered myself lucky because my 24-hour visit in Dubai coincided with a live performance of the world prominent band Scorpions. Dubai recently attracted a number of show biz icons performing in the city, among whom were Bon Jovi and Santana. Book your ticket for Madonna's live Dubai concert in 2009. Don't think it's too early; tickets are quickly running out. Not only have concerts been the dominating act in the scene, other entertainment as well as cultural events have taken place in the city. Running its fourth edition in December 2007, the Dubai International Film Festival attracted Hollywood stars like George Clooney and Sharon Stone. The festival is aimed at bridging cultures as well as promoting tolerance and understanding, part of a larger plan to turn Dubai into a regional film hub. Smaller scale events also take place in several places throughout the city. XVA and Majlis Gallery in Bastakia, as well as Third Line and B21 in Al Quoz are among the most renowned galleries and art and cultural centres, as they showcase and promote emerging talents in Emirates as well as the region.

From a tiny pearl divers settlement to a goliath metropolis that tops the list of most livable cities in the world, using its modest resource of oil to build a role model infrastructure for business and trading, Dubai has managed to turn the tables. Not only is its economy firmly believed to be able to absorb economic shocks and crises that may loom ahead, but it has also broadened its horizons to create a diversified portfolio of businesses. With an appealing environment, this cosmopolitan city has something to offer everyone, regardless of their differences and regardless of what interests might entice them. If the human race suffers a phenomenal diaspora tomorrow, Dubai would be the place to gather.

Dubai Museum is opened to visitors Saturday to Thursday (8.30 to 20.30) and Friday (14.30 to 19.30). Tel: +971 04 353 1862. Tickets 3 AED.

Dubai Wildlife and Water bird Sanctuary is opened for visitors Saturday to Thursday (10.00 to 18.00. Tel +971 04 206 4240.) Admission free.

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