Dubai Now and in the Future
The Emirate of Dubai will run out of oil in less than 20 years from now. Compared to Abu Dhabi, Dubai has very little oil in any case, so in order to "compete" with neighbouring Sheikh Zayed, Dubai needs to develop other sources of income. Decades ago, Sheikh Makhtoum bin Mohammed al Makhtoum (or, rather, Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Makhtoum, who tells his father what to do :) decided to be more permissive of "Western" ways of life and try to attract Western business to the Emirate. So successful was he, that most international companies have their Middle Eastern Head Quarters in Dubai.
The main drive behind the past and future development of Dubai, however, is Jebel Ali. With an already healthy re-export trade operating out of Port Rashid, Sheikh Makhtoum decided to dig himself a bigger port in the middle of his desert. He chose an unused corner of the coastline near the Abu Dhabi border, well out of sight of the Central Business District (CBD) and any nice residential areas. Jebel Ali is about 25km South of the CBD (the Dubai coastline is 35km long) and at the time of its completion in the 1970's, Jebel Ali Port was the second man-made object to be visible from Space (after the Great Wall of China).
The Makhtoums really have been ruthless in their development of Dubai -- and equally so in keeping the wealth for the Emiratis: (currently) only Emiratis may own property. Western tolerance and a fantastic port facility would have done much to draw people, but yet there's more! Dubai is an ex-patriot tax haven, making the summer heat a little more bearable (it goes up to 49 Celsius, because if it ever hits 50 Celsius, then people don't have to work -- the maximum is closer to 53 Celsius with 100% humidity). Still not attractive enough? Well how about the Jebel Ali Free
The JAFZ, adjacent to the port is an office/industrial area that was developed in recent years (I'd quote a date and be wrong, but judging by the ongoing construction and shininess of the buildings, I'd say it was a 90's innovation). Initially, the JAFZ (to which access is restricted) was created as a Duty Free area for the re-export business. Now, however, the duty free luxury is extended: Businesses located in the JAFZ enjoy 20 year tax holidays, extendable for another 10 years. Presumably the companies build their own buildings, but do not get the privilege of owning them, though they may be gifted to the company (rent-free) on a lifetime basis, which sometimes happens with residences for Westerners.
The JAFZ is a run-away success, and plans are to more-than double it in size (across the Sheikh Zayed Road highway). There is a similar Free Zone planned for the Airport. Still, the JAFZ is remote from the CBD and most of the residential areas. The Burj al Arab (sail-shaped 7-star hotel) and Jumeirah Beach Hotel (wave-crest-shaped 6-star hotel) are about 10km away and they're still remote (about 15km) from the CBD. Traditionally the City Centre was Deira -- north of the Creek -- and then Bur Dubai. Both are characterised by their Souqs, rather than skyscrapers. The Creek is lined on its northern bank by impressive modern skyscrapers, but the majority of tall buildings are being built along Sheikh Zayed Road. The 70's World Trade Centre building, at Interchange 0/Trade Centre Roundabout is the first in a long southward extending line of skyscrapers on either side of the 4-lane highway. The Emirates Towers are the most famous of these skyscrapers.
There are still substantial developments planned for north of the creek -- the Airport extension and Festival City. The Airport will more than double in size, with Cargo Village (south west corner) extremely busy, more than double the number of passengers (in the existing terminal and a new one adjacent to the east), and the Free Zone to the north. "Dubai Festival City is a monumental mixed-use venture, dubbed "the biggest tourism and commercial project" in the Middle East." -- Chapter 1 of the Dubai Transit Options Study. The chapter also talks about Palm Island, which certainly didn't feature in any modelling I did for the Airport Expansion last Christmas. (Good luck to them, but they've still got about 15km of coastline to develop so why go creating more? Nevertheless, the two proposed palm tree-shaped islands are planned to be marinas of luxury.)
In the future, the centre of gravity of Dubai will shift south, and a little to the east. It is probably better to think of it as moving from being a single core CBD area (divided by the creek) to being a right-angled triangle, with hubs on each corner: Deira/Bur Dubai; Airport/Festival City; and Jebel Ali. It is rumoured that a piece of land near Jebel Ali will for the first time be available for sale to non-Emiratis, presumably in the hope of shifting some residential development down as well.
The population of Dubai is approaching 1,000,000. From the air, the border of Sharjah/Dubai is only discernable in the majesty of the buildings. Sharjah, being smaller than Dubai, has less oil, less coastline, less industry and less money. It is less tolerant of Western culture, but consistent with the rest of the middle east in that regard.
Emiratis account for an ever-decreasing 30% of the population. "Western Ex-pats" account for around 10%, with the remaining majority predominantly of Indian/Pakistani/Sri Lankan nationality. There is a contingent of other Arabs (Egyptians, Syrians, Palestinians, etc) who enjoy intermediate status, though many of them found their way to Dubai via the US and class themselves as "Western".
The class distinction in Dubai is legislated, indoctrinated, unashamed and complete. Apartheid at its hideous worst, for it will only intensify. Nationals of the Indian sub-continent earn in a month what Western Ex-pats earn in a week or a day (depending on whether they are office-workers or labourers).
Because of their severely restricted economic means (and the fact that they are using their meagre salaries to support an extended family back home), these men (they are all men) live in densely populated tower-block slums on the fringes of Dubai and more commonly in Sharjah, where it is cheaper. While Westerners enjoy a 10-15 minute commute to work in their air conditioned cars, those of the Indian sub-Continent pack into 50 year old buses or decrepit cars and drive the length and breadth of the Emirate. Currently they work mostly in the existing CBD, but increasingly there will be a demand for them in the expanded JAFZ (and in the expanded-through-improved-efficiency Jebel Ali Port).
The politics of Dubai is to ignore these despicable scum, so the planned LRT (Light Rail Transit, or Tram) is particularly being touted to serve the Airport Expansion and Tourism (expansion). The roads of Dubai are extremely congested in an ever-increasing fashion. The Sharjah-Jebel Ali LRT quite clearly will capture a huge ridership of labourers, who will have to be segregated in some way from the Westerners/Tourists or the latter quite simply will not ride it. The ridership on the Bur Dubai-Airport line is less obvious and will probably be dictated by the fare.
Given the very limited means of the Indian sub-Continent ex-pats, their travel demand is extremely sensitive to fare. Petrol costs less than £10 to fill the tank of a car, and the maximum journey length is around 50km -- much of which is travelled on a motorway at high speed. A tank of petrol lasts a long time and when divided by about 6-8 occupants of a car, commuting is pretty cheap. We used a bus fare of 1.3 Dh (Durhams) and a rail fare of 2.75 Dh in our modelling. Quite clearly, at fares like this, the target ridership was not Western ex-pat or Tourist! The exchange rate is in the region of 5-6 Dh to the UK Pound.
Fly Emirates Airlines or Gulf Air and you can't go wrong. In the aftermath of September 11th, Emirates Airlines was the only airline that showed not a decline, but in fact an increase in passenger numbers and profits! No terrorist is going to bomb an Emirati plane flying to the Gulf. I'm far more worried about flying United Airlines from London to LA in December 2002 than I was flying Emirates Airlines to Dubai in November 2001.
Forget Public Transport, it pretty much doesn't exist there. You're left with two options: hire a car or take a cab. Cabs in Dubai are three times more expensive than anywhere else in the UAE. (You can go from one end of Abu Dhabi to the other for 6 Dh, but a 15 minute ride in Dubai will set you back at least 10 Dh!) I hired an entry-level automatic transmission saloon car in Abu Dhabi for 180 Dh for one day. Most cars are automatics, air conditioning is standard, and you drive on the Right Hand Side in the UAE.
The toss up between hire or cab depends on how brave you are at tackling the Dubai traffic and the confusing street lay-out. Dubai is laid out in "Neighbourhoods", each of which has a "Neighbourhood Number". Streets in the Neighbourhoods are numbered rather than named (though some of the major roads now have names as well). Streets running east-west are odd-numbered (the northernmost being #1) and north-south streets are even-numbered (the westernmost -- or nearest the coast -- being #2). Where a street is split, the northern- or westernmost street will be designated "A" with the next segment "B" and so on. This is why it is usual for Dubai addresses to be Post Office Box numbers.
The nice thing about hiring a car, however, is the flexibility it gives you to see the rest of the UAE. Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Dubai are conveniently located at the apexes of a 150 kilometre (nearly 100 mile) equilateral triangle. Hatta is about 100 kilometres from Dubai -- but you traverse a 20 km stretch of Oman that is uncontrolled, so make sure your hire car insurance covers you! The East coast and particularly Al Fujairah, with its gorgeous waters and opportunities for SCUBA diving is also about 150 km from Dubai. If you take any of these drives, you will witness the vast expanse of the sandy desert and (the Abu Dhabi trip aside) will get to see some of the Hajar Mountains.
When to Go
As mentioned above, Dubai is nearly unbearable during the summer months. If you don't believe me, ask Byz what Kuwait is like, then bear in mind that Kuwait is further north (read: cooler) and has less of an expanse of water for the air to gather humidity (read: not as sticky). Expect temperatures in the upper 30's (Celsius) in October/November, and a pleasant late-20's/early-30's during the winter months of December/January/February. Unless you're inland (Hatta or Al Ain) at night, you will not need a jumper! Things start warming up again in April/May and June/July/August/September are best avoided.
If you're a shopaholic, then you'll want to be there in March for the Dubai Shopping Festival. I was far from impressed by Dubai's shopping malls. I preferred Abu Dhabi's. Despite my best efforts could not find either a post office or a book shop, and quite honestly nothing is as cheap as its made out to be. Except perhaps the souqs, but then you've no recourse if your cheap DVD player doesn't work when you get it home and only wants to play Arabic DVDs. (Not to mention that flights from Dubai incur great interest from the Customs officials when you return. Make sure you only venture down "Nothing to Declare" if you really do have nothing to declare but your genius or you look like a backpacker.)
What to Wear
Male travellers won't have any issues, so long as they put on a shirt in the street. A hat is a good idea when outdoors, to protect your precious gob from the damaging effects of UV radiation. If you're American you should be alright: the Ozone Hole is a myth, just like Global Warming.
Female travellers will probably be relieved to hear that there is no dress code for lady travellers in Dubai. But while you won't be arrested (so long as you don't walk around in a bikini and sarong on the streets), you'll still want to cover up. I found that general office attire (trousers and short-sleeve shirt) attracted more than the welcome amount of attention, despite always being covered to the neck with a shawl. In fact, you will get unwelcome attention anyway for being female. The majority of the population has not seen a real live woman in a state of undress either ever or in recent memory. The abaya and shyla are optional for Emirati women, but 99% of them prefer to wear it, and you'll wish you had one too. I know I did.
During Ramadan, things are a little different. It becomes illegal to dress "immodestly" and you'll want to make certain of your choice of beach and that your clothes are not tight-fitting and sleeveless. While I worked during Ramadan, I wore long skirts with trousers underneath, long or short-sleeved shirts with a shawl covering my shoulders and neck. You will draw attention to yourself if you cover your head, though it may be with a tone of "thank you for observing our custom" rather than "who do you think you are to mimic us".
What to Do
Having spent as much time as I have in the UAE, as well as spending time in travellers' playgrounds like Australia and South Africa, it is somewhat surprising to me that Dubai should boast a healthy tourism industry, and one it wants to grow. I guess many tourists come to soak up the Gulf or Arabic culture, though many are probably attracted by the country's reputation and perhaps, good marketing.
Dubai touts itself as a shoppers paradise, and certainly there are many sparkly great US-styled shopping malls. They're boring as can be, full of clothes shops, perfume shops, tacky trinkets, overpriced carpets (usually Afghani or Turkish imports) and occasional designer stores. The souqs have far more charm, though less stylish wares. You may find a bargain -- or bargain for one anyway -- but you'd be better off soaking up the atmosphere and buying yourself some traditional food at the markets (observing gn0sis' food poisoning precautions of course). If you have a sensitive stomach, then perhaps you should visit those shopping malls after all and go to the Food Court: you'll be able to sample Iranian, Indian, Japanese, Chinese and Western fast food to your hearts' content. Psst! Go for the Iranian and go for the Fish dishes.
When you've shopped and dropped, you can go to the beach. If you're staying at a classy hotel, it'll more than likely have its own beach. If not, you can usually pay to visit the beaches of the exclusive hotels -- though I'm not sure if you can afford say a day on the beach at the Burj al Arab. If luke-warm tropical water isn't your thing, but you still want to get wet, you can venture to the Wild Wadi Waterpark, located just behind the Burj al Arab and Jumeirah Beach Hotels. A little too juvenile for your tastes, then visit the Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht club or the Dubai Water Sports Association and Water-Ski club and go jet skiing or sailing on the Creek.
For the real jewels of the UAE, you'll want to head for the desert: either in an organised tour (which usually includes a traditional meal, camel rides, stargazing and sampling the hashish pipe). The desert skies may be clear, but they are far from ideal for real stargazing: there is simply too much dust to see small (faint) objects, but city folk are sure to be impressed nevertheless. You can also go quad biking or on a 4x4 through the dunes. Do make sure that it's on a controlled track, though: the desert ecology is extremely sensitive and what may be half an hour's fun for you will take decades to repair. Take only photographs and leave only footprints (who will one day forgive me, i'm sure.)
The Hajar Mountains and the oases are glorious and well worth a visit. Just be careful if you should chance your luck to be out in a Wadi on one of the very rare occasions that rain falls: a Wadi is a river valley and the rain is quick and intense in the desert and you do not want to find out the hard way why those pipes are so large.
If you time it right, you can catch the Dubai 7's rugby in November (probably it'll shift around Ramadan, which is moving through November at the moment). It's a real festival, with celebrity rugby players and guests from all over the world taking part. Women's teams play as well, and while ex-patriots pit themselves against one another in many games, they'll all join in in support of the Dubai Exiles team.
If ponies are your thing, don't miss Nadd al Sheba racecourse. Again, time it right (March) and you'll catch the world's richest horse race, the Dubai Cup. The best horses in the world, ridden by the best jockeys, with the who's who of racing's elite turning out. If you're not quite as into your horse racing, but want to witness a gambling-free trip to the races, then swing by anyway. I was there during Ramadan, and at night time prayers, you witness the white-dish dasha wearing masses kneeling to pray in unison. Since you're not allowed into mosques in the UAE, this may be your only chance to witness a large gathering of people facing Mecca, united in prayer.
Did I say it was gambling free? Well, it is... and it isn't. Get there early and you too can take part in the "competition" for the 25,000 Dh "prize" available should you correctly "predict" the winners of all the races. Or something. I didn't "compete". Instead I ran into somebody I knew and did the whole "Paul! What are you doing here?" thing.
Golfers will want to take in the Desert Classic, or witness the "miracle" of green fairways and greens in the middle of a sandy wasteland. If you can't afford the "grass" courses, then try your hand at one of the sand ones: just borrow or buy or hire a piece of astroturf for your portable fairway and go for your life!
Local tour operators include Arabian Adventures (tel. (04) 303 4888) and Arabian Dream Tours (tel. (04) 227 4255). Check in the latest Dubai Time Out magazine, which had a free pass to Nadd al Sheba on it when I was there and came with my hotel room.
Where to Stay
The suburb of Mankhool is a mishmash of 7-storey Residential Hotels and Serviced Apartments that are probably cheaper than most hotels and perhaps more comfortable. Most have roof-top pools, mine had a jacuzzi and a gym as well. They have restaurants and while room-service may be limited or non-existant, you will find a kitted out kitchen, washer/drier and all you require. There is a Spinney's supermarket within walking distance. I stayed at the Savoy Residence tel. (04) 355 3000. The Silver Sands and Golden Sands (they were up to Golden Sands 10 when I left) are almost what Mankhool was built on, and you really can't go wrong with one of them. Golden Sands 2 and 6-8 are long-term, but 3 (tel. (04) 354 1683), 5 or 10 will do you well.
For the more affluent, there are many impressive hotels in Dubai, starting with the Burj al Arab (tel. (04) 301 7777) and sister Jumeirah Beach Hotel (tel. (04) 348 0000). Other beach fronting hotels include the Dubai Marine Beach Resort, Hilton Beach Club and Radisson SAS Jumeirah Beach. There are a host of lower-budget hotels, such as the Jumeirah Rotana (with its well-known Boston Bar), two Holiday Inns and the Airport Hotel.
Ramadan and Travelling
Hotel prices fall by more than 50% during Ramadan, possibly with good reason. Many locals switch to a Ramadan clock, sleeping for much of the day and waking only to observe the prayers and iftar.
If you're working in Dubai, you may be lucky enough to work "Ramadan Hours" which means that you get two hours off in the afternoon and by working your lunch hour, may work from 8am to 2pm (instead of 8am to 5pm). As a Westerner, I was not entitled to Ramadan Hours, but then again I was working 15 hour days so...
Shops operate Ramadan Hours as well: opening after iftar, around 7pm, and staying open until 1am. I was amazed to see the bright lights of the sports stadia when I arrived at 2am, but this is common: sport takes place in the cooler night air.
Apart from the "modest" dress code during Ramadan, the other main no-no is eating. It is illegal to eat in public, and considered rude to eat in front of Muslims in doors. Most food shops will be closed during daylight hours, but some hotels and restaurants will serve food to non-Muslims behind heavy curtains. No food or water may pass a Muslim's lips during daylight hours during Ramadan, and the same is expected of Westerners in public. No chewing gum, no smoking, no sips of water. You are warned.
The other no-no during Ramadan is alcohol. As a visitor to Dubai, you will not be issued an "Alcohol License" (which entitles Westerners to purchase alcohol for consumption in their own homes), so you will only be able to drink alcohol in bars and restaurants that serve it. During Ramadan you will still be able to buy alcohol in Dubai bars (but watch out for even more inflated prices!) but you had better be on your best behaviour in the cab on your way home, or you may find yourself locked up in a Dubai jail for a month. In the other Emirates, alcohol will not be served during Ramadan at all.
If you're invited to join in an iftar, it is perfectly good manners to accept the invitation: iftar is a celebration. Should you be in the UAE over the Eid al-Fitr (3-day) celebration (and national holiday) that marks the end of Ramadan, then the appropriate greeting is "Ramadan Kareem" -- akin to "Merry Christmas".
- Lonely Planet Guide to Dubai (from memory!)
- A two-month secondment to the UAE to do Transport Modelling for the Dubai Airport expansion, November 2001 - January 2002, which included much of Ramadan