Living in Abu Dhabi for a brief spell of two years meant that after living in Bahrain, I soon found out what life was like in a wealthier, glossier and greener country in the Middle East. One that had connections to the glitziest and most extraordinary city in the Middle East (Dubai) but also a city that did not turn their back on traditional culture and heritage. Being the capital of the UAE (United Arab Emirates), Abu Dhabi is a liveable city, one that lacks the panache- and drama, of Dubai, however, still stands a fair game in the stakes and competition of grand shopping malls and even grander mosques.
Although living in Abu Dhabi, Dubai was a perfect weekend get away destination, one that continued to excite and entertain us- until we finally realised that the greed of growth had swarmed Dubai, chewed it up and spat out a mess of consumerism. Dubai is a concrete jungle, a rich man’s playground. Wealthy Arabs decide to build lavish water parks in the middle of the desert- because they can, the largest man made island in the world, the largest artificial canal in the world, and not to forget, the world’s longest arch bridge. In Dubai, money is not an issue, and it seems businessmen and construction plans are created to obliterate records and wow the world. Forget about worries of constructing in the middle of a desert, an economic recession, global warming, or the thousands of migrant workers that suffer to make these materialistic dreams possible, all it matters is that it is built big and now.
And Dubai does in fact, “wow” the world. Becoming the 7th most visited city in the world, development and business have shot up in growth and widened in size, marketing Dubai as the “business hub of the Middle East” and a global city created to satisfy every consumers needs. The city exhibits opulence and luxury, a place for retail (well it has 70 shopping centres) and where dreams are seen to come true. Fancy swimming with dolphins? Bungee Jumping? Hot Air Ballooning? Camel Racing? Or skiing in fake snow surrounded by desert? All that you can do… in Dubai.
For any visitor that does come to Dubai, they really should pop into Dubai Mall, the largest shopping mall in the world. The sheer size and row upon row of shops will astound you at such a creation. Head to the Burj Khalifa, one of the tallest buildings in the world, which is used as an observation tower over this sprawling mass of consumerism and creation, or the Dubai Fountains, the biggest light and fountain show in the world, where 6,600 lights go and perform every 30 minutes. If you want to be gob smacked even further, head to the Burj Al Arab, the only 7 star hotel in the world, labelled only by visitors not by the hotel management itself. Rooms are incredibly expensive and are booked up pretty quickly but arranging a lunch is easy to do. We came here for lunch and I was shocked with how beautiful and stunning the interior was. It looked as if the designers had put more attention to detail towards the colourful mosaics here than any of the grandest mosques in the UAE, which only further highlights that wealth in Dubai is a religion.
If craving some culture and history, head to the Heritage Village to learn about the UAE before the finding of oil, and their previous commodity that was traded, pearls. Then pop to the Dubai Museum where you can see the social history of the Emirates with fine examples of traditional architecture and housing. Visit Jumeirah Mosque, the largest in the city and see the elaborate Arabic calligraphy contrast with the pearl white stone the mosque is built with. It is a privilege for non- Muslims to visit this mosque, so abide by the locals custom and cover up. Also head to the Gold and Spice Souq, where you can wander through traditional style souqs, meandering through tiny lanes and under archways where shopkeepers hark out to you in desperation for a sale. Always remember to barter if you are thinking about buying anything.
Our favourite highlights that entertained us as children (and years of living in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi meant we had learnt already vast amounts of the social and economical history of the Middle East), were Marina Beach for its pure white sands, Ra Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary for its scope of birds, and Wild Wadi. Wild Wadi was the first water park in Dubai and it still reigns supreme to this day. Wild Wadi is an amusement park where one can float through artificial lagoons, practise surfing, share dangerous slides with friends and gain courage to ride the Jumeirah Sceirah. The Jumeirah Sceirah is terrifying. Climbing up flights of steps, you marvel at the entire view of the water park and whilst you get comfy at the top of the slide, you are then pushed down the 120 metres ferociously. The side used to be a lot more dangerous (which added to the terror), with it being literally a slide one could easily lift off or even tumble over, nowadays they have made a capsule chamber which “drops” you down the slide, much safer.
Although Dubai paints this façade of being a liberal and cosmopolitan city, it still is a Muslim city and public displays of affection are illegal. Drinking and pork are still haram, and although you may see some Arabs eating or drinking, it is thoroughly frowned upon. Follow the local customs and rules, respecting the religion and you will surely have no problems.
We stayed in at various times Jumeirah Beach Hotel, Hyatt Galleria and the Emirates Towers. Out of the three I enjoyed the Jumeirah Beach the most due to its free access to the beach and discounted access to Wild Wadi.