Part of a trip concentrating on East Asia (China, Hong Kong, Japan, North and South Korea), continuing in South Asia (Bangladesh, India) and ending on the Arabian Peninsula (Oman, United Arab Emirates).

United Arab Emirates: Dubai & Al Ain

– visited December 2015 –


I arrive very sceptical. There is a lot about Dubai not to like. An agglomeration of glitzy shopping malls, where appearance often seems more important than substance. Artificial neighbourhoods that have been built into the sea in the shape of palm trees and Dubai’s idea of a tourist experience seems to be a visit to one of the many theme parks or a motorized excursion into the desert. The Youth Hostel is expensive and there is not even internet.

But the better I get to know Dubai, the more I realize that there also is a lot to like. I’m blown away by how cosmopolitan the city feels, people from all around the world, from rich and poor countries are working and living here. Imagine yourself being transplanted into the Dubai metro and it would actually be difficult to guess where you are. It feels more liberal than I expected, I even see some girls in miniskirts or short dresses.

Dubai’s rise has been dramatic. On old pictures from the 1950s, the collection of small houses along the Dubai Creek looks pitiable and very poor. And poor it was, one source of revenue, pearl exports, had suddenly disappeared with the introduction of cultured pearls in the late 1920s. To generate income, only trade remained. Nonetheless, Dubai’s ruler was determined to develop the infrastructure of the Emirate but to build a bridge, the first over the Dubai creek, he had to borrow money from a brother-in-law, the ruler of Qatar. Dubai airport only received an asphalted runway in 1965.

Oil was discovered in 1966 but not in large quantities. Dubai at that time was still a British protectorate, as the United Arab Emirates were only established in 1971. The name is the program, the different Emirates are in many affairs acting independently, all responsibilities not explicitly granted to the national government are reserved to the individual emirate. Oil rich Abu Dhabi has a very different economy than oil-less Ras Al Khaimah. Dubai lies in the middle, it had/has some oil, but it was clear from the beginning that the reserves would not last long. The oil income was used wisely, invested in infrastructure and the new port proved an instant success. From 1968 to 1975 the city’s population grew by over 300%. Dubai has tried to make its economy more service- and tourism-oriented. Emirates, Dubai’s largest airline, is a well-known example making good use of the location of the UAE with all of Europe, all of Asia and all of Africa within reach. Oil once accounted for more than half of GDP but by 1990 this share had fallen to 24%, by 2004 to 7% and at the time of my visit hovers somewhere between 1 and 2%. Dubai has successfully used oil wealth to turbocharge its development without becoming reliant on it. Not many countries have managed that feat. Congratulations.

Dubai has tried to preserve the historical neighbourhoods along the Dubai Creek. Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, centred on the fort of the same name, is one the historic areas. Shindagha Historical Neighbourhood, containing the house of the erstwhile ruler (1912-1958) Sheikh Saeed Al-Maktoum, is another. I take a water taxi along the coast to get to the Dubai Marina, an ensemble of high-rises and skyscrapers. In the evening, a lot of expats are out on the streets, relaxing, doing their shopping or working out.

Dubai’s main artery is Sheikh Zayed Road and it was clearly planned at a time when the car reigned supreme. Five lanes in every direction. To atone for the sins of the past, at least a metro has been built running alongside the road. Most of Dubai’s skyscrapers are lined up alongside the highway. The Emirates Towers, Al Yaqoub Tower which is the result of the architect’s love affair with London’s Big Ben and of course there is the Burj Khalifa. 200 metres higher than any other building on earth it is also a beautiful spire rising up in the air and a symbol of Dubai’s aspirations. Dubai Mall is one of the largest in the world, it has an ice rink and a giant aquarium for the shoppers. The Dubai Fountain can spray 83,000 litres of water into the air at any moment and presents a choreographed light show every evening.

But what happens if you leave Sheikh Zayed Road? There is the row of skyscrapers, a row of taller buildings and suddenly you are in the territory of three to four storey houses, or even only two, or one. You have arrived behind the façade. You found the other Dubai, where the poorer migrant workers live, where the cars are not fancy anymore, where cheap Indian and Pakistani restaurants can be found.  

Al Ain

I had arrived to the United Arab Emirates from Oman, so before Dubai I visited Al Ain, the largest inland city of the Emirates. The historical city is known for its oasis. I try my hand at couchsurfing and it is a pleasure to get to know Mohanad. Unfortunately, I visit on a Monday and that means that all attractions be it the Qazir al-Muaiji, the Al Jahili-Fort, the Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum or the Al Ain National Museum are closed. At least I can have a walk through the garden of date palms that is Al Ain Oasis. It sports a traditional Falaj irrigation system.

My driver to the bus station is an Indian. I ask him if he is Muslim. No, he is a Hindu, but that’s no problem here, in Dubai there is even a Hindu temple and soon there will also be one in Al Ain.