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Exotic Dubai 
From the Traditional to the Ultra-Modern 

by Habeeb Salloum

Perhaps no other city in the world has so many distinctions as the cosmopolitan city of Dubai, the commercial heart of the United Arab Emirates. Due to the romantic setting of its waterways and shorelines covered in dhows (traditional Arab sailing ships), some travellers label it ‘The Venice of the Gulf’; and, being the second gold trading centre in the world after Singapore, it’s also known as ‘A City of Gold’. Dubai enjoys the world’s highest per capita consumption of gold with an average of 36 grams per person.

One city, many names

The architecturally stunning buildings, urbane aura and flower-filled parks have led to its other names: ‘Pearl of the Gulf’, ‘A Model of 21st Century Sophistication’, and ‘the Internet and Media City of the Gulf’. Yet, no matter how people refer to it, Dubai has a great deal to offer visitors. 

A melting pot of culture

Located on the southern shore of the Arabian Gulf, the city has been a meeting place of people since ancient times. Today, there are 150 ethnic groups of people from countries spanning Far East to the Americas, all living and working without much friction in this tolerant urban centre. Dubai is one of the fastest developing commercial and tourism pivotal points in the world. The population of more than two million is throbbing with life, yet retains a relaxed and sophisticated ambience.

Old and new together

For centuries, a leading trading hub, this once sleepy Arabian Gulf town has been transformed, in the past few decades, into one of the most opulent and beautiful cities on earth. However, with a culture deeply rooted in the Islamic traditions of Arabia, Dubai still retains its unique Arab flavour and personality, evolved to fit into an international lifestyle. 

The city is separated by a 14 km (8.7 mi) long natural salt water inlet called the Creek which divides Dubai into two parts: Deira, the so-called new section (today, there are much more progressive sections); and Bur Dubai, the old. Ancient blends with the ultra-modern along the water. Traditional souks and wind-towers (called alfajas) vie for attention with towering skyscrapers, elegant villas and lush green parks. It is a kaleidoscope of contrasts and an urban centre of refinement. 

On top of the curve

As a result of government and private investment, Dubai boasts a wide range of state-of-the-art facilities. This includes 457 world-class luxury hotels and other 21st century structures, such as desalination plants and telecommunication systems. The city’s skyline features some of the wildest architecture in the world, almost fantasy buildings that seem to float in the air like the sails of an Arab dhow. A combination of massive investments has produced stunning hotels with first-class service, pushing Dubai to take off like no other tourist destination in modern times – in 2012, 10 million visitors vacationed in the city – expected to increase to 20 million in 2020. 

Yachts and gold

For visitors, a great way to begin exploring this futuristic city is to hire an abra (a small wooden boat) and explore the Creek, the historic focal point in Dubai. There are about 150 abras navigating the Creek which take riders across for less than 30 cents, or can be hired by the hour.

The colourful scene of men loading and unloading hundreds of dhows which still ply the ancient trade routes from India to East Africa is like living in the past. On the Deira side, the broad, necklace-shaped promenade is surrounded by stunning, newly-built skyscrapers and the breath-taking Dubai Golf & Yacht Club. Travellers can wander the narrow alleyways which have survived the building boom of recent years. In the Spice Souk, the scents of the Orient can be savoured, and in the hundreds of Gold Souk shops, gold can be purchased at a very low price.
The extensive landscaped Creekside Park and the rebuilt historic area at the mouth of the Creek are found opposite on the Bur Dubai side.

Shopping for days

For sophisticated shoppers, the city is saturated with some 30 large plazas. High-end merchants offer internationally famous name brands. Annually, they put on a month long ‘Shopping Festival’ in January where all products are sold at 50% discount to buyers from across the globe. Gold merchants, keeping alive the label for Dubai, ‘City of Gold’, give away kilos of gold in prizes during the festival.

Step back in time

Historic sites are also well worth a look even in such a modernized city. Most of Bur or Old Dubai has been renovated as a ‘heritage district’. At the top of the monuments from the past is the Dubai Museum, housed in the restored Al Fahidi Fort – a must for any traveller. Colourful and evocative dioramas complete with life-size figures and sound and lighting effects, vividly depict the atmosphere of everyday life in pre-oil days. Galleries recreate scenes from traditional Arab homes, mosques, souks, date gardens and the most spectacular of all – the portrayal of the underwater world of pearl diving. 

Near the museum is a concentration of traditional courtyard houses – under renovation – with wind-towers – the only means of air conditioning before electricity. Beyond, toward the mouth of the Creek, is the restored Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House. A fine example of the region’s typical architecture, it houses displays of historic agreements, coins and stamps. A little further on are two rebuilt traditional villages, featuring potters and weavers displaying their crafts. 

Head out to the wadis

These historic relics, with their exotic aura, are complemented by the striking Dubailand, a Disneyland for children, and seven championship golf courses, as well as journeys to the surrounding desert. Tour companies take tourists on safaris to ride the dunes, sand ski, camel ride, explore the wadis (dry river beds) and feast while being entertained under the starry desert sky. 

Odd and fun ventures

Crowning these activities, will be a visit to one of huge man-made islands in the shape of palms. These three architectural wonders were designed in a shape of a date palm tree with a massive trunk. Called by romantics the “8th Wonder of the World”, they are the first man-made islands in the world. To top all the modern structures is Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world and ‘Ski Dubai Snow Park’ where Dubaians can experience Arctic snow and winter sports under the blazing sun. These and many other fantasy projects ensure that almost all tourists return satisfied from this exotic destination with a modern lifestyle. 

Combining the magic of the East with the facilities and pleasures of the modern world, Dubai stands out as one of the world’s most dominant must-destinations.

Facts About Dubai:

1) Dubai has good connections with the rest of the world. Some 130 airlines operate from the city to almost 220 destinations worldwide. The airport has been expanded and has become one of the world’s inter-continental transit centres, processing some 58 million passengers. 

2) Most western European, American and Canadian citizens can enter the UAE, without a prior visitor’s visa, they can obtain their visas at the entry points.

3) Autos rent at a reasonable price. A small auto, fully insured, costs about $30. per-day – less if you bargain. Roads are excellent, but beware of two legged tigers driving autos.

4) The U.S. dollar is equal to 3.67 UAE dirhams. The rate has remained the same for decades. Exchange cash or traveller cheques at the money exchangers – they do not take commission.

5) A great way of seeing Dubai is to take a tour of the Creek by traditional dhow. Some of Dubai’s major landmarks can be viewed from this waterway.

6) Major international hotel chains are well represented in Dubai. However, there are other very reasonably priced and excellent abodes to be found throughout the city. The choice is wide. There are 373 hotels and hotel apartments in the city.

7) The best time to travel to Dubai is from the first of the year to the end of February during the month-long ‘Shopping Festival’ with its street parties as well as its shopping sales and bargains, held in a carnival atmosphere.

8) No traveller should leave Dubai without going on a desert safari with its sand duning, camel riding and desert feast.

9) For other activities, attend some of the horse racing and camel racing events held during the cool winter months.

10) Dubai is a shoppers’ dream world – its huge modern malls like the Dubai Mall
offer the products of literally all the nations on the globe. The most popular gifts visitors take back home are: Arabian coffee pots, silver and wooden miniature dhows, gold jewellery, Persian carpets and Arabian curved daggers.

Attractions not mentioned in the article worth a visit:

Burj Al Arab (Tower of the Arabs), a fantasy hotel built over the waters of the Arabian Gulf. 

Emirates Towers, modern and pleasing architectural structures.

Dubai Fountains, ranked no.1 of 185 major attractions in Dubai. 

Dubai Metro, a modern and classy city transportation system. 

Dolphin Bay, one of the world’s largest and most sophisticated dolphin habitats in the world. 

Wild Wadi Water Park, with its 23 water rides, among Dubai’s major tourist attractions