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Thousand and one night?
Tehran (Iran), February 10th 2013 

The last stop on our 6-weeks journey through the gulf region is the United Arab Emirates. Also called the UAE, this group of seven emirates decided form one country together. Most well-known emirates are Dubai and Abu Dhabi. We eventually visit three of the seven emirates, namely besides Dubai and Abu Dhabi, we also spent some days in Sharjah.

The United Arab Emirates do eventually not make a huge impression on us. This has probably to do with the fact that our expectations weren’t set correctly. Based on what we read in travel guides, we expected to find some corners in the country still to be traditional. We read for example that the town called Al Ain in the Abu Dhabi emirate was one of the best places in the region to see an authentic camel market, where merchants from all over the region meet. The book wrote about an atmospheric happening on a dusty piece of land where people in traditional cloths trade in these characteristic animals. But the reality was so different. The place is nowadays a concrete construction behind one of Al Ain’s biggest shopping malls. There wasn’t a lot of trading going on, and some of the merchants were more interest in charging us for taking pictures of camels than selling them. It didn’t take long before we decided to go. Another highlight of Al Ain is the camel race that takes place in the weekend, just outside the town. After asking around for the exact place, day and time, people told us that no racing was happening anymore for some time. That meant that the two main reasons for us to come to Al Ain both weren’t there anymore. That made our visit to Al Ain’s zoo, the highlight of our visit to this little town in the UAE’s desert.

A local tourist at the Burj-al-Khalifa in Dubai

But the biggest disappointment for us was the fact that the UAE does not have any Arabic atmosphere anymore. And that isn’t that surprising, because less than 20% of the people that live in UAE are native Arabs. The UAE is nowadays very depending on the hands and feet of millions of low wage workers from the poorer regions of Asia, like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines. These are the people you see as bus drivers, restaurant workers, receptionists, shop merchants and supermarket cashiers. And of course, these low wage workers are very nice people, but they are not the main reason to come to Arabia. The result is that you won’t see a lot of Arab people anymore after you cleared immigration and customs at the airport or one of the few land borders. Arab people do not like manual work, which means that you won’t see them a lot in daily life. Most of them have management functions in one of the shiny skyscrapers and don’t spend a lot of time in the streets of the major cities. Besides that, Arabs are family-people and that means that they spend most of their free time together with their (extended) families outside the public eye. If you take a stroll through a suburb of Dubai or Abu Dhabi you will notice the huge houses that are built within high walled compounds. Family privacy is very important in Arab culture which means that people are not really outgoing. You won’t even see children playing in the streets or in parks. It must be a huge culture shock for the Asian expats who work here and who are so used to living in the streets.

Does this mean that there is no reason to come to the UAE? Absolutely not! There is a lot to see and to do, but don’t expect the thousand-and-one-night atmosphere. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are huge cities built on the wealth earned from their huge oil and gas reserves. Especially Dubai had a period in where there were no boundaries and in where the buildings literally grew into the sky. One of the results is the more than 800 metres high Burj-al-Khalifa which is at this moment the highest building in the world. But the financial crisis and real estate bubble resulted in some ‘minor’ problems for Dubai, which needed a loan from Abu Dhabi’s ruler Sheik Khalifa to finish the building. That why the Dubai rulers were so generous to name the building after him. And you won’t have to go very far to visit another highlight of Dubai. The world’s largest shopping mall is just a stone throw away and houses an ice rink and a world-class aquarium.

The corniche of Abu Dhabi
The older and more atmospheric part of Dubai is the area called Deira. The area can make shady impression and is overrun by Russian tourists who often have a second apartment in Dubai, probably to escape the harsh Russian winter. Many shops in Deira focus on Russians (can you imagine fur shops in hot and steamy Dubai?) and the presence of the huge number of Russians also resulted in an army of Russian speaking sinister characters (probably for the Caucasus region) who try to sell illegal stuff. At least that is what we expect after having seen many times that these guys try to whisper something in the ears of passing Russian tourists. They often thought that we were Russians too, so we heard a lot of whispering too those days. And that can be very annoying after a couple of days.

Abu Dhabi is so much different. The city makes a much relaxer impression in our opinion, but lacks the highlights that Dubai has. We spent almost a week in Abu Dhabi, but you can visit the city also as an easy daytrip from Dubai. But also in Abu Dhabi are the Arab people as rare as the nowadays threatened Arab Oryx. If you want to see and meet them, go to the shopping malls, because that are the places they like to visit. Abu Dhabi has a nice corniche which is a big plus in comparison to Dubai which hasn’t a lot to offer to walkers. We spent the last few days of our visit to the UAE in Sharjah. This low profile city/emirate has the image to be one of the most conservative emirates, but for us Sharjah was a positive surprise. The number of tourists is low and the native Arab populations seem to be much more outgoing. We saw many of them on the streets (even groups of unaccompanied girls) and was for this reason a perfect ending of our trip to the United Arab Emirates.

Who should go to the UAE? We think that the UAE is a perfect destination for people who are looking for a holiday full of activities, shopping and beaches. Indeed, the UAE doesn’t have a lot of Arab atmosphere anymore, but it has still a lot to offer for people who come with the right mindset. In the UAE you can race in sand buggies in the desert, ski on the sand dunes, do sky diving or spent days in shopping malls, amusement parks and aquaria. Also the hotels are good and the food variety is unlimited and for formula 1 addicts there is even a Ferrari amusement park in Abu Dhabi. Possibilities are endless, but know where you a coming for.

The waterfall in Dubai Mall
The impressive entrance of the Dubai Mall Aquarium
Seen and to be seen at "The Walk" in Dubai
A beautifull mosque in atmospheric Sharjah
Sunset in Sharjah

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