The last stop on our 5-month trip was Abu Dhabi, and in 2011 I also spent a week in Dubai. Of the seven emirates, these are the two where the action is. If you have money, ambition and imagination, Abu Dhabi and Dubai are examples of what can be achieved. They are works in progress, young models of new cities and more time is required to both complete the projects and judge the success. But whatever the future holds, this is an exciting part of the world right now.
A potted history. Around 50 years ago oil was discovered here. Prior to that this region largely comprised desert villages, coastal souks and a pearl industry. The British were involved (again), having some say in the rule and protection up until around 1970. Finding oil brought about and funded the first wave of development. Then around 15 years ago, Dubai, faced with oil reserves that were due to run out around now, embarked on an ambitious diversification strategy, to bring business and tourism in to replace the oil industry. Abu Dhabi followed with its own similar programme of diversification, though not as urgent as oil reserves are still plentiful. It is the scale and imagination of the programmes that impress: from the world’s tallest tower (Burj Khalifa) to the world’s only (unofficial) 7 star hotel (Burj Al Arab), from a self-contained zero carbon zero waste city (Masdar) to a man-made set of linked islands in the shape of a palm (Palm Jumeirah). The breakneck development of the two Emirates de-railed during the financial crisis (as the funding flows came to an abrupt halt), but is now back on track.
This is a desert country, but coastal, so water is procured through desalinisation. It barely rains at all here, which means everything can stay outside, such as fabric sofas on the beach. Temperatures can rise to 50 degrees in the summer, so air conditioning everywhere is the norm. Fuel is subsidised and ultra cheap, whilst other things, such as tourist attractions, are expensive. You can earn a lot of money here as there is no income tax, but you can also earn very little too: many manual or service workers who come here from places such as Afghanistan and India live 4 to 7 men to a room and work long hours for very low pay. It is nonetheless more than they would make back home, so they keep coming. Immigrants now make up 90% of the people here, and the now-minority Arabs differentiate themselves by wearing the traditional robes. You are unlikely to come into contact with the Arabs in service roles (they are largely a rich upper class here) but they dictate the culture here which is then embodied by the immigrant workers. It is a culture of respect, high standards and service, and you, as a visitor, are treated like a king. But you need to be aware of and conform to the rules. This is a society where the culture and the religion are one and inseparable and Islam is written into the laws. Concessions are made to immigrants and tourists: alcohol is made available in some hotels and some supermarkets. But no being drunk in public, no kissing on the lips in public, no raising your middle finger in public, no thong bikinis – as a visitor you need to be aware of these laws. If you choose to live here, then no getting into debt, no homosexuality, no criticism of the religion, no (other) drugs. Expect harsh punishment if you are caught flaunting any of these. If some of these rules seem unpalatable, I’d nonetheless suggest to go visit at least once and experience the intriguing experiments that are Dubai and Abu Dhabi, then make up your own mind.
The Sheikh Sayed Grand Mosque (one of the largest mosques in the world) at sunset:
The traditional Arab robes: the men in white, the women in black:
We stayed at the Yas Viceroy hotel which straddles the F1 circuit – it is amazing modern architecture inside and out:
I have by now been to many waterparks with the kids, but Abu Dhabi’s new Waterworld is the best of the lot!:
The final scene – afternoon tea at the Fairmont. The big trip ends here: