Dubai’s reputation had been growing and it is now considered THE hub for travel to and from the Middle East. I have always been curious about the Middle East and wanted to know more about the people and the region. The Arab people(s) have long been vilified in our media and I was curios to know what was fact from urban rumor. Especially in the post 9/11 world, most Americans would think that the Persian Gulf and surrounding countries were full of mad devils intent on world destruction and Jihad. Dubai is a merging of East and West and just the kind of place to test the temperature of the water without having to expose anything more than my big toe.
When I arrived late in the evening, I was not disappointed with the airport – it was perhaps the nicest airport that I had ever been in. It looked much like a mall and was complete with shops and restaurants were you could buy anything from gold to cameras and you could dine at McDonald’s or on gourmet Sushi and Arabic food. What was most impressive were the prices; the cost of gold in the airport in Dubai is cheaper than in any jewelry store anywhere else in the wold. I had been told that in the gold mart, it was even cheaper.
The mall was floored in premium marble and it looked like it had just been waxed (top photo). There seemed to be workers coming and going, cleaning and taking out the trash and working around the clock. As I walked past a perfume store, beautiful Asian girls offered sample sprays in an attempt to sell their wares. I was beginning to notice that a large percentage of the population was not Arabic at all: I saw Phillipinos, Thais, Russians, Ukrainians, Germans, British, people from Nepal and Bangladesh and a large portion of the population is Indian or Pakistani.
Clearing customs was a breeze and I made my way out to the front of the airport where a cueue was forming for taxis. I looked around to survey my surroundings and I saw a young man who sported a particular haircut looking into a Lonely Planet guidebook. I’ve heard the Lonely Planet called the Backpacker’s Bible and even the Holy Planet as it is packed full of hints and travel advice that makes journeys to unknown and foreign lands quite easy.
Assuming that this young man was of like mind, I approached him to inquire if he spoke English. I introduced myself and found that his name was Frederick and he was from Germany. I asked him what his intentions were for a hotel and he said that the LP guidebook recommended a hotel that sounded reasonably priced. I thought that it sounded appropriate to my lodging needs and asked him if he wanted to split the cost of a cab. He agreed and we were soon on our way.
Frederick had quite a particular haircut, it was normal length, at least on the top, but was cut abruptly at the mid-way point. It looked as though you had taken a person with a normal head of hair, placed a soup bowel on their head and trimmed anything below the bowl’s rim. It looked like the kind of haircut that a monk would wear. We chatted about travel plans, how long we were visiting in Dubai, where we came from, where we were going next and a little about ourselves. When Frederick told me about his travel I began to understand the haircut.
Frederick works for the Missionaries of Charity, the organization founded by and led by Mother Theresa. He had been working for this organization in India for the last year and had returned home to German for a few weeks for home leave to visit his family. He was now on his way back to Calcutta and decided to stop in Dubai to do a little tourist travelling on the way back to work. And so, I understood the haircut, he was in fact an actual monk.
We checked in at the hotel and Frederick was put into room #1, a double with a man from Egypt. I was put into room #2 into a room with an overweight man from Jordan. I asked the clerk, a young-looking man of Arabic descent if I could have a single room. He said no. I told him that I would be happy to pay the double rate but I would like a private room. He again said no. I asked if Frederick and I could share a room and he again said no. There were some 32 rooms and he had all of the guests in the first 6 rooms, all doubled up while the rest of the rooms sat vacant. Hardly the envy of customer service.
Of course this made no sense to me: why should you inconvenience your guests in this way? I tried using my superior skills in logic to convince this ignorant man and his answer surprised me – not only for its abruptness and its “in your face” attitude, but that it flew in the face of logic and reason. He merely said, “You aren’t in America, you can’t have it your way.”
Ouch. That stung. If there is one thing that I have learned in travel, I found that it is better to bend to local customs than to try and convert others to your standards. And so, I smiled humbly, accepted the room key and said, ‘Thank you.”
Aside from the loud snores of the Jordanian man, my night was uneventful. I got some good sleep and awoke refreshed in the morning. During my sleep, I dreamed of days future when I would be so financially inclined as to be able to stay at one of the $140-250 a night luxury hotels. But, when you’re traveling the world on a $30 a day budget, you take what you can get and enjoy the scenery along the way.
Thankfully, this hotel offered breakfast and Frederick and I met up and walked down to the restaurant. We grabbed some hard-boiled eggs, some toast and jam and some bad instant coffee. We found 3 other western expats, two young men and a woman from England and a young man from Denmark. One of the young men from England was a tour guide (for western tourists) and had been laid off that week. He was trying to find follow on employment or else he would have to return to England. It seems that the global economic downturn following 9/11 was affecting many countries. He volunteered to take us for a free tour of Dubai after breakfast.
As we ate, we chatted a bit and all of the westerners told us that we should book a Dubai Safari. They said that it was good fun and we would enjoy it. We contacted the hotel manager and arranged for a tour the following day and then set out with these other westerners on a walking tour of Dubai.
I had a long and heated debate with the young man from Denmark on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. He had just finished few months working in the Palestinian camps in the occupied territories and told me of the greif of the Palestinian people. But I was deaf to their woes; I knew that the Palestinians were terrorists and the Israelis were blameless in the conflict. All Americans know this. We know it because we are told this on our televisions. So it must be true.
He argued with me trying to use such foreign concepts as logic and the idea of “fair play.” But, as with most of my fellow Americans, I could not hear the plea of the Palestinians – they were our sworn enemies. More specifically, they were the enemies of our good friends the Israelis. It wouldn’t be until some years later that I would come to see this young man’s logic. It would take years of living outside of the United States free from its biased television and news to see that the Israelis wage an Apartheid campaign against their neighbors that is both shocking and cruel.
And it is all paid for with American tax dollars.
And so, our rag-tag group of western expat tourists and unemployed Emirate workers walked down towards the Dubai Creek. Along the way we passed the famous clock tower (obscured behind the palm trees, right side in the photo above). The clock tower is shaped like the Arabic character(s) for the Emirates, the same symbol you see on the airline and government buildings. Despite it being the middle of winter, the weather was mild and warm and we enjoyed the sunshine as we walked and chatted. There were not a lot of cars on the road and my unemployed Brit-tour guide told me that just a few months earlier the city was alive with activity and had traffic day and night. It was hard to believe that a place could be so devastated by this economic downturn.
Everywhere I looked I could see cranes and construction, signs of the wealth that flows into this place. However, many of the construction projects were “on hold” due to the post 9/11 market stagnation. We all wondered if Dubai would recover. Hindsight being 20/20, it was a small bit of foreshadowing to the even larger market correction that would follow some six or seven years later.
After about an hour of walking we neared the Dubai Museum and my tour guide told me all about the Dubai Royal Family, how the Emirate of Dubai was founded and how it is one of seven Emirates (states) that make up the confederation that is the nation of UAE (United Arab Emirates). I was told about the customs and laws of Dubai – while based on Muslim law, it has been heavily influenced by western jurisprudence and many western safeguards are built into the civil and criminal laws that are not found anywhere else in the Arab world.
Dubai has much less oil than its neighbor state of Abu Dhabi and perhaps the ruler, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum saw the writing on the wall: not only did Dubai receive little in oil revenues, eventually the oil will run out. He began an aggressive campaign of diversification in the 1950s by expanding the port at Jebel Ali. Today, Dubai earns most of its revenue from trade, tourism and banking. It has some manufacturing plants (aluminum smelting for example) that also contribute to the economy. Many wealthy Iranian, Kuwaiti and Saudi business men bank in Dubai bringing in billions of dollars in capital each year. Dubai’s attractive tax structure and liberal visa issuance has made Dubai a haven for investors. It has been called the Switzerland of the Middle East.
As we approached the Dubai Museum (above), we could see a large mosque behind it and the afternoon call for prayers was being broadcast from a PA system atop the skinny minaret. I had only heard the call “Allah o Akbar” (God is great) in the movies – movies where every Arab is a terrorist and some American was about to be kidnapped or murdered. A chill ran down my spine and as we approached I half expected hostility and my wild imagination ran away with scenes of an angry mob chasing us down the street. But as we approached, people went about their business. Worshipers deposited their shoes outside and went in for prayers. And counting by the number of shoes (below), I figured that this mosque was quite full inside. Even after I consoled myself that I was safe, the sound of the call in Arabic was not only foreign to me, it was surreal. I thought about how I had been conditioned to fear Arabs and Islam through thousands of hours of television and movie propaganda.
We passed the museum and the mosque and I made a mental note that I would have to come back to the museum later. I was interested in Dubai’s history and I wanted to learn more about the Emirates and the history of this region of the gulf. Much of the development in Dubai edged along the Dubai Creek a brackish canal that leads in from the ocean (below).
Looking towards Sheik Zeid Road where new development was occurring you can see the Emirates Tower on the left (double building) and the UP Tower (third from the left) is about half of its final projected height. Almost a decade later that same strip of road is home to dozens of apartment towers, tall buildings and skyscrapers.
In my post Dubai Skyline that I wrote eight years later, you can see the massive construction that has taken place. The photo below was shot looking down Sheik Zeid Road at the base of the two towers on the left in the photo above. The third building from the left (in the photo above) is the first tower on the left in the photo below:
… 8 years later: Sheik Zayed Road, Dubai, 2010…
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