United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Hotel Burj al Arab

City Break Dubai

Most, biggest, tallest;
in Dubai only
superlatives apply

The old city center still has lively souks and between luxury yachts float wooden boats, but pearl fishing, fishery and trade are mainly seen in the museum. Dubai builds with its petro dollars one after another luxury hotels, malls and office towers. Under the slogan "big, bigger, biggest," complete new cities are built and off-shore islands constructed. Exaggeration is made into an art form in Dubai: only superlatives apply.

Text and photos: Angélique Woudenberg

Dubai International Airport (DXB) is big. The hall where our passports are checked is large and has some 25 booths. By midnight it is filled with passengers who just arrived.

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Global Village, Ferris wheel

After a half-hour wait we walk, two stamps in our passports richer, a long distance to the luggage reclaim area.

Outside, a huge crowd, mostly male Indians, Pakistani, Somali, Iranians and Emirati dressed in white gowns with red-and-white checkered headscarves, are waiting. Many people are sleeping outside.

The transfer to our apartment in Bur Dubai in the old city center of Dubai takes half an hour. Cars and taxis speed recklessly on busy roads with sometimes seven lanes. Honking seems a popular sport. You need nerves of steel to drive here.

The Beach Tour

If Sheikh Mo wants something, it happens

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Wafi City

After a short night we take a cab to Wafi City, a luxury mall built in the shape of a pyramid with large obelisks and Egyptian statues. Behind Wafi we see the five-star Raffles Hotel, also built in the shape of a pyramid, and behind it Planet Hollywood.

Wafi City with its expensive stores is the starting point of both the red route (City Tour) and the blue route (Beach Tour) of the hop-on-hop-off bus. We board the blue line for a first exploration of Dubai.

The Beach Tour leads along Mercato Shopping Mall, Jumeirah Mosque, Jumeirah Beach Park, Burj al Arab, Wild Wadi, Souk Madinat Jumeirah, Mall of the Emirates, Times Square, Dubai Festival City and Deira City Centre.

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Emirates Towers, Dubai's Twin Towers

It's around 25 degrees centigrade and on the upper level of the doubledecker bus we have a great view while we listen to the guide giving information about Dubai.

Dubai is part of the United Arab Emirates on the Persian Gulf, bordered by the conservative Saoudi Arabia and Oman. The UAE was formed when seven emirates merged in 1971 after the British left the Arabian Gulf region.

When oil was found in 1966, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum of Dubai looked ahead. He understood that at some point in the future oil would run out and therefore planned to convert the fishing harbour in Dubai Creek into a tax-free metropolis with a western atmosphere. He ordered the development of services, business, infrastructure, real estate and tourism.

Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum died in 1990 and was succeeded by his son, Sheikh sjeik Maktoum Bin Rashid al Maktoum. This sheikh died in 2005 and was succeeded by his brother Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. He continued to realize his father's dream and is known to be progressive and ambitious.

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - On the left: Sheikh Maktoum Bin Rashid al Maktoum

We believe that he's ambitious when we hear about his plans for the future of Dubai. Nothing is unthinkable for this man. And if Sheikh Mo wants something, it will happen. The projects realized so far are spectacular: the Palm Islands, the World Islands and Burj al Arab.

To attract foreign investors and tourists, Dubai has a policy of tolerance of other cultures, habits and religions. Dubai is a Muslim country, but apart from mosques it also has churches and Hindu temples.

There are no taxes, medical help is free and there is very little crime, because it is punished severely. Misbehaviour means - also after serving a sentence - being deported and not expected to return.

Dubai is one big construction site

Burj Dubai will be the tallest skyscraper in the world

Dubai is one big construction site where building continues 24 hours a day. In no other place in the world so much is constructed so fast, because Dubai wants more, more and more. In Dubai only superlatives apply.

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Burj Dubai

We drive on the busy 14-lane Sheikh Zayed highway and pass the financial centre. This highway is an important artery which leads, parallel to the coast, to Abu Dhabi.

Along this road stands the Burj Dubai (Dubai Tower) which currently has 145 floors. Every week two new floors are finished. The tower will be 800 meters tall. But, our guide tells us, if meanwhile another country will build a taller skyscraper, new floors will be added to Burj Dubai!

Burj Dubai is surrounded by other hyper modern buildings like the World Trade Center and the Emirates Towers, Dubai's Twin Towers, one of which houses a hotel. In this area the largest mall in the world will be built and luxury apartment buildings.

For the construction of all these buildings cheap labor is hired in Asian countries like India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Malaysia and the Philippines. These people work as construction workers, cab drivers and cleaners. They work long hours for little money and never get residence permits.

In Dubai many nationalities live together peacefully. Indians, Pakistani, Arabs, Philippinos, Chinese, Lebanese, Iraqi, Somali and western expats, among whom many Dutch. The guide tells us that only 20 per cent of the population are Emirati, the original inhabitants of the region.

Jumeirah Mosque and Burj al Arab Hotel

The tallest hotel in the world is the only one with seven stars

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Jumeirah Mosque

The bus stops at the Jumeirah Mosque, the largest in Dubai. The guide tells us that tourists can visit the mosque for a guided tour on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sunday mornings. You have to be there before 10 AM and take off your shoes; women have to cover their arms, legs and hair.

We continue on our route via Jumeirah Beach Road, which leads along the beach of the same name. Dubai's symbol, the Burj al Arab, gets closer and closer. We get off the bus at Jumeirah Public Beach. The Arabian (Persian) Gulf is green-blue, the beach is white and at a few meters distance is the Burj al Arab.

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Souk Madinat Jumeirah, with Burj al Arab in the background

The 321 meters high 7-star hotel is built in the shape of a dhow, a traditional Arabian sailing ship. Burj al Arab (Tower of Arabia) sits on an artificial island. If you're not a guest in the hotel, you can't cross the bridge to it.

Well, you can, if you have a reservation for a High Tea in the Sky Bar, but our e-mail was too late for a reservation. We immediately received a response that the next opportunity would be in two weeks from now.

The most expensive room in Burj al Arab costs around 40,000 euro per night. For that amount you get a suite, a private butler, a private elevator and a private movie theatre. The hotel should be booked for the next 400 years to earn back the cost of its construction.

We walk along Jumeirah Beach Hotel toward Wild Wadi, the largest water park in the world. Here we have an even better view of the Burj. It's incredibly crowded: all tourists want to take pictures from the same spot.

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Cars are tax free

We have a drink at Souk Madinat Jumeirah, an indoor touristy shopping mall in the style of an Arabian souk, but it also has outdoor cafés. In the background we see the Burj al Arab.

We get back on the blue Beach Tour bus and drive along large showrooms with expensive cars. Cars are tax free here. We also see vans with construction workers who wave at us. The workers aren't part of Dubai's streetlife, after work they are transported in vans to their "living camps".

Souks in Bur Dubai

The Indian souk and the fabric souk

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - City Tour, the red bus route

It's Friday, the most important day for Muslim prayer. Because of this, many stores are closed in the morning. Dubai has over 500 mosques and from their minarets the call to prayer sounds five times a day.

We take a cab to Wafi City where we board another bus tour, this time the red route, the City Tour. We get off at the Deira museum. In a group with Russians, Italians, British, Germans and other tourists we take the guided Arabian Treasure Walk.

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Jasmin in the Indian Souk

We now are in the old part of Dubai. It's a huge contrast to what we saw yesterday. The old center of Dubai consists of the Bur Dubai and Deira districts, each on an opposite side of the Dubai Creek.

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Indian Souk

We begin our walk in Bur Dubai in front of the Great Mosque, which has the tallest minaret of Dubai. The building dates from 1900, but was rebuilt later in Islamic style. It has separate entrances for men and women; non-Muslim are not allowed to enter.

Behind the Great Mosque are souks, local markets with all kinds of stores. We first visit the Indian Souk, where you really think you're in India. We see many Hindu statues and fresh jasmin flowers; we smell all kinds of scents, for instance incense. The alleys are extremely narrow. Merchants invite us inside and try to sell us all kinds of stuff.

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Fabric Souk

In the textile souk we see wonderfully coloured fabrics, Pashmina scarves, pillow covers and kashmir. Lots of tailors have their workshops here. In front of one of the stores we see two mannequins dressed in traditional Emirati style.

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Traditional Emirati garb

Emirati men wear dishdashas, white, wide dresses. The shumagh is the red-and-white head scarf, the gutrah the white one. The igal is the black ribbon around the head scarf.

Women wear abayas, long black dresses which reach the ground, with long sleeves. Sometimes the edges are beautifully decorated with embroidery. Most women also wear gloves.

Some women cover their faces with masks, so you can only see their eyes. It takes a little getting used to, seeing women in iron masks. The masks protect women from male staring and are mostly worn by Bedouin women.

We walk to one of the abra stations. Abras are old Arabian fishermen's boats which are used as water taxis. They carry a maximum of twenty people.

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Abra on Dubai Creek

The abras sail criss-cross on Dubai Creek between the souks of Deira and Bur Dubai. We sit on wooden benches and our captain steers his abra with his feet. During the crossing we almost collide with another abra.

Souks in Deira

The spice souk and the gold souk

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Spice Souk

The abra takes us to Deira. No hyper-modern buildings here either, but traditional stores and buildings. An underpass takes us to the Spice Souk, which reminds us of our trips to Tunesia and Morocco.

Most merchants in the Spice Souk are from Iran, Oman, Somalia and India. Here too, the alleys are narrow and we smell the most exotic scents.

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Spice store in spice souk

We are led to a store and invited to smell different spices that are used in preparing food, like saffron, aniseed and cinnamon. Other spices are beneficial for all kinds of health problems.

After this we take a look in the spice store; of course they hope we'll buy something. The store carries also shells and shishas (hookahs).

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Gold Souk

We continue on to the Gold Souk. As the name indicates, gold is sold here. Real gold. 18-20 karat gold. This is the largest gold souk in the world and is therefore also called Gold City. We see shop windows filled with bracelets, watches and necklaces.

We walk back to the stop for the hop-on-hop-off bus. Immediately we are accosted by street peddlers who want to sell us fake brand purses and watches.

Souk Madinat Jumeirah

A new, touristy indoor souk

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Souk Madinat Jumeirah

The next stop on the red route is Souk Madinat Jumeirah. From the old, authentic souk in the old city center to a new, touristy indoor souk near the beach.

Souk Madinat is decorated in Moroccan style, with lots of stores that sell almost the same knick knacks as those in the old souk, but more expensive and often with fixed prices.

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Souk Madinat Jumeirah

Around the souk are over 20 restaurants and bars with outdoor seating by the water. Tourists from surrounding hotels are taken from and back to their hotels in boats that sail noiselessly on the canals.

It's Friday and the weekend has begun. All outdoor seats are taken and all tables are reserved. We have to wait for over and hour until a table is free.

The Mall of the Emirates and Ski Dubai

The longest indoor ski piste in the world

It's also busy in the Mall of the Emirates. It's obvious that today is a day off. People go here to see and be seen. Men parade proudly in their bright white dishdashas and women in their abayas.

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Ski Dubai

The smoke-free Mall of the Emirates is so far the largest mall in the Middle East, with over 400 stores. It also houses Ski Dubai, where you can ski and snowboard in a temperature of -5 degrees centigrade on the 400 meters long piste, the longest indoor piste in the world.

Ski Dubai has different descents and even a black piste. It's an extraordinary experience to watch people ski from behind a window in our summer clothes. Dubai never ceases to amaze us. Everything seems possible here.

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Ski Dubai

There is also an après-ski bar in the Mall of the Emirates, a food court (a large space with tables and chairs with different kinds of fast food restaurants around them), movie theatres and gaming arcades for children.

The mall is super clean. We don't see even one piece of paper on the marble floor. The ceiling has beautiful, round glass domes.

When we take a taxi back to our hotel, it turns out that even late in the evening it's still rush hour, especially on the main Sheikh Zayed Road.

Dhow cruise on Dubai Creek

Khor Dubai is located on an important trade route

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Dhow cruise over Dubai Creek

The next morning we take a taxi to Deira; on the way we cross the al Maktoum bridge, named after the ruling family. The driver takes us to the Radisson hotel, near City Hall, for a boat trip in a dhow on Dubai Creek.

Dubai Creek or Khor Dubai is a natural bay which has a direct connection with the Arabian Gulf, still an important trade route for merchants from India, Somalia and Iran.

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Boats docked in Deira

We sail among traditional dhows and arbas. On one side of the creek we see the Bur Dubai buildings and on the other those of Deira. A tape relates the history of Dubai.

Until the 1970s, Dubai wasn't much more than a sandy port town on the banks of the creek. People lived from trade and fishing. Merchants from Iran, India and Africa sailed in dhows (barges) via the Arabian Gulf to Dubai's harbour.

The old wooden barges that are docked in the harbour are still used to transport merchandise from India and Iran.

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Barges on Dubai Creek

We see stark contrasts here. The wooden barges are docked next to luxury ships, with in the background hyper-modern buildings like the Rolex Towers, which are also called Twin Towers, just like the Emirat Towers, the Chamber of Commerce building and the Emirates Bank.

After the boat tour we walk via a side street near the Rolex Towers to a messy backstreet in the old center. There are mostly stores for the local population here. We enter a Discount Centre and look around for products to take home. We wonder how long prices will stay this low here.

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Boats docked at the quay in front of the Emirates Bank

We take a taxi to Deira City Centre for a bite. On the first floor we see a big, decorated X-mas tree and dancing teddy bears that play music. It's as if we are in an American shopping mall and not in Dubai.

When we want to take a taxi back, we have to stand in line between ribbons, like they have in amusement parks. We have to tell the dispatcher where we want to go. Just before it's our turn, two more men appear. One opens the ribbon and the other tells us which taxi to take. There's a constant flow of taxis here and they all are full in seconds.

The Dubai Museum in the Al Fahidi Fort

The population lived from pearl fishing, fishery and trade

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Dubai Museum in the Al Fahidi Fort

The next morning we walk to the Dubai Museum. Dubai is not only hyper-modern buildings, luxury shopping malls, fancy hotels, expensive cars and posh yachts, it also has a lesser side.

The old centre is a district with a lot of activity in the streets where Asian immigrants live and work. There are mainly stores catering to the local population.

Some street peddlers try to sell us fake-Rolex watches and bags that pretend to be Gucci and Vuitton, but that is the only unpleasantness we experience.

We don't have a map of the old centre, but after asking locals we find the museum. Everyone speaks English.

The Dubai Museum is housed in the Al Fahidi Fort dating from 1787, which was built to protect the town from attacks. The 41 meters long fort is made of rocks from the sea. Inside and in front of the museum stand several cannons.

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Dubai Museum

Immediately past the entrance are examples of boats with which the first inhabitants and merchants arrived in Dubai Creek and also of houses from that era. People lived mainly from pearlfishing, fishery and trade.

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Dubai Museum, wax statues

Dubai's history is portrayed lively, using wax statues. We walk through a copy of a souk where we see crafts workshops, traditional houses and an exhibition about the way of life of the Bedouin in the desert.

We learn about Dubai's history and also about what Dubai Creek meant and still means for Dubai. The Creek nowadays is a gate to a surrealist city with spectacular projects.

On a big screen we see which projects will be realised in the future: Dubai Land, the largest theme park in the world, the first rotating skyscraper, a copy of the French city of Lyon, the very largest shopping mall, the highest residential tower in the world...

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Dubai Museum, wax statues

When is this going to end? Dubai is sometimes compared to a soap bubble: it develops incredibly fast, but it could just as fast collapse in the future.

Sheikh Saeed al Maktoum House

The ancient windtowers are precursors of air conditioning

It's quiet in Heritage Village. We see a central, sandy square with shops around it and closed buildings. It's supposed to look like a traditional Arab village where you can see how pottery and other hand-made goods are made. It turns out that evenings and weekends are better times to see some activity here.

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Heritage Village

Near the exit of Heritage Village we have a bite in an outdoor café on the estuary of Dubai Creek. Then we walk to Sheikh Saeed al Maktoum House, built in Arabian style; it looks out on Khor Dubai's estuary. This used to be a strategic spot, where you could see ships enter the creek.

In the 19th century this was the seat of the government and also the residence of Sheikh Saeed al Maktoum, the grandfather of the current Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid al Maktoum.

Once inside, we're on a central courtyard, a big, sandy square surrounded by high walls and old windtowers. These windtowers, called barajeels, are precursors of air conditioning and offer protection from hot desert winds. The open towers are designed to direct even the slightest breeze to the courtyard.

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Sheikh Saeed al Maktoum House

Around the courtyard are lots of small doors (sometimes we have to stoop), which give entrance to the exhibition rooms .

Inside the restored house are many photos that give a good impression of the fast growth and development of Dubai. There are also pictures of pearlfishers and their fishing boats and dhows. There is a large collection of stamps and coins.

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Sheikh Saeed al Maktoum House

The Sheikh Saeed al Maktoum House is duller than the Dubai Museum, but we find it very informative.

We wander along the creek toward the old city centre; there we take a taxi to Souk Madinat Jumeirah. We have a drink and wait until 7 PM. At that time, a beautiful colour show begins: every 15 minutes the Burj al Arab Hotel gets a different colour: purple, pink, yellow, orange, green...

Dubai Festival City

There is water everywhere in the new city within the city

After breakfast we take a taxi to, yes, another shopping mall. This time it's the new Festival City by Dubai Creek.

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Dubai Festival City Centre

To the right of the main entrance we see a big Ikea and around us flowers and palm trees. Everything green in Dubai grows artificially. Grass, palmtrees and flowers are kept alive with irrigation systems and garden hoses.

Dubai Festival City consists of two parts so far: Dubai Festival City and Festival Waterfront Centre behind it. There still are lots of open spaces with shields advertising the opening of new stores "soon". There also will be a mega multiplex.

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Dubai Festival City Centre

The shopping mall is spacious, designed in straight lines, with lots of light falling through the glass roof. It's painted in light pastel colours. There are many waterfalls and fountains. Outside is a promenade with outdoor cafés on both side of a canal. We think it's the nicest shopping mall in Dubai.

It's New Year's Eve, but nothing happens. No firecrackers or any other kind of fireworks, no mess in the streets. Even the Mall of the Emirates is still open. Two hours before midnight we still wander through stores and people are still skiing in Ski Dubai.

Exactly at midnight the fireworks begin on Jumeirah Beach near Burj al Arab. It's over in 15 minutes.

Jumeirah Beach and Global Village

All countries are represented at the Dubai Shopping Festival

Dubai borders on the desert on one side and on the other on the Arabian Gulf. The hotel shuttle takes us to Jumeirah Beach Park. From 11 AM it gets increasingly crowded. We are surrounded by Russians, Germans and British.

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Jumeirah Beach Park

Indians and Pakistani peek from a distance at the people on the beach. They are constantly watched. It is forbidden to take pictures or video on the beach. Frequently we hear a "correctional" whistle from the "Baywatch tower". Top-less sunbathing is not allowed and there is a ladies day on the beach on Mondays.

In the distance we see Dutch dredgers spout up sand for the artificial islands that are constructed in the sea, like the World Islands.

On our last night here we take a taxi to Global Village, around 10 km outside the city centre. It's busy on the highway. Our driver overtakes left and right and forces other drivers to brake when he cuts in.

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Global Village

Once there, we join a queue of waiting people, mainly Emirati with children. To the right of the main entrance sits a large globe: in Global Village the world is united.

Global Village is a mix of a fairground, local markets and entertainment; it can be visited from December through March every year. There are pavillions from China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Iran, Lebanon and Jordan, but also from Europe and Africa. In the pavillions products from those countries are sold, but you can also eat and drink there. Behind all pavillions are markets which remind us of street fairs.

It's New Year's Day and very crowded. Most visitors are Emirati, Arabs and Asians. In some places it's so crowded that it makes us feel cramped. After one and a half hours we return to our hotel.

Dubai International Airport

Of course this will become the largest airport in the world

At 5 AM we are picked up for our transfer to Dubai International Airport.

United Arab Emirates, Dubai - Dubai International Airport

Amazingly, it's quiet on the road. Dubai wants its airport to become the largest in the world. Of course!

The airport is, as we expected, one big shopping mall. People apparently are never done shopping. We, on the other hand, don't want to see a store for a while.

Just after take off we have a great view of Burj al Arab and Palm Jumeirah.

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