“How do you describe the indescribable? What do you say when ‘unbelievable’ is insufficient?!” That was the opening of our 2005 Longboat Observer article on Dubai, United Arab Emirates. And we meant every word of it. We had just returned from our second visit to Dubai; the first was in 2002, when the remarkable redevelopment of the country had just started. Simply put, Dubai’s rulers had the vision to transform a rather poor country with comparatively modest oil reserves into the transportation, commercial and economic center of the Middle East. They succeeded in attracting most of the major international companies to locate there.
Our 2005 article fully explained the remarkable multi-faceted creativity that was under way, including the social liberalization. We have always looked ahead to another trip to Dubai to see the completion of great projects that were well along in 2005 and new ones that were being planned. At the same time, we wanted to explore some of the other Emirates (there are seven) and neighboring countries. But it was the recent world-wide economic problems in general and the financial collapse in Dubai that urged us to return this spring to find if our “star” was surviving or fading.
We were extremely lucky and found a seven-day Royal Caribbean cruise that started and ended in Dubai, with stops in the Emirates of Abu Dhabi and Fujairah and the countries of Oman and Bahrain. This seasonal cruise started last fall and ended with the one that we were on in April. It will be back this fall when the hot summer weather gives way to more moderate temperatures.
What happened in Dubai was the same thing that occurred in Miami, Las Vegas and many other areas of the United States: If something was good and needed, more must be better. One of the most amazing developments that we previously reported on was The Palm — a huge residential-and-commercial area built right in the sea. It was in the final stages during our 2005 trip. But they also had started on two more of them … not a good idea.
And so it was throughout Dubai. For instance, there is a major center for communication companies with several office buildings. But there are only so many Fox News, Reuters, Associated Press, TV networks and the like to locate there, and building continued like there was no end to the number of these international companies. Many buildings are now empty or undergoing slow completion.
Nevertheless, Dubai continues to amaze us. In addition to completing some earlier projects, there are some new bright spots. We stayed at The Address, a new luxury hotel chain with five locations started by one of the quasi-governmental companies. It rivals any famous five-star chain at better prices. We ate in a beautiful dining room on the night of our arrival and were delighted (a word we rarely use) with cuisines offered at a score of stations. There is a new elevated transportation system with stations that are unrivaled anywhere. Retail malls are remarkable, very large and feature every type of luxury product. The main floor in the center rotunda of one mall has eight large retailers; everyone is a world-class jeweler, such a Cartier and Tiffany.
Then, there is the Burj Khalifa, the tallest man-made building in the world. It is also one of the most beautiful. Our timing was perfect, and the building had just opened to the public a month earlier. Every day, 3,500 visitors line up and pay $30 to go to the observation deck on the 124th floor — a total of more than $100,000 a day, which is not much considering the cost of building it. Unlike similar structures, there is no changing of elevators — just straight to the deck in about one minute! Another 36 floors of corporate offices are above it for a total of 160 floors. We were treated to a private tour before the masses were allowed to enter. Since we returned to the States, Dubai announced the restructuring of some loans and the future is brighter.
Abu Dhabi is the rich uncle of Dubai. This more conservative and oil-rich Emirate is now flexing its economic muscle with its own magnificent creations. In competition with the much acclaimed Burj Arab hotel, Abu Dhabi built its own Emirates palace, a magnificent marble edifice that oozes money — or, more properly, dirham. As we strolled through the stately reception areas, we found something that looked like a large vending or slot machine. It turned out to be the area’s first gold vending machine, with the price readjusting to the market every four hours. Just like Dubai, construction is everywhere, but Abu Dhabi is apparently building for current need and not in unrealistic anticipation.
Credit Abu Dhabi with rich creativity and the finances to support it. One major construction area is Saadiyat Island (island of happiness) — truly unique. This massive, built-from-scratch project will be home to residences, businesses, nine five-star hotels and a golf course. Then add three of the finest art museums and a performance center designed by four internationally known architects. The project will open in stages beginning this year, and full information on this transforming development can be found on www.saadiyat.ae/en. This website is a travel and intellectual wonder, worthy of the project. Abu Dhabi comes very highly recommended!
Fujairah is topographically different from the other six Emirates, with more mountainous terrain. Again, construction and redevelopment abounds. Fujairah also has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. They are deep, long and natural (no replenishment here). Its geographic position places it on the south side of the narrow Strait of Hormuz, the strategically important waterway for oil shipments that is frequently threatened by Iran, which is on the north side. Taking advantage of the world’s political concerns, Fujairah is now involved with building an international pipeline to bypass the strait and position itself as a transportation hub.
Oman and its capital, Muscat, were the biggest surprises. In our ignorance, we expected tin shacks and mud huts. Not so! Again, modern buildings and new construction are creating a new skyline. The economy seems sound, and there is enough oil to support broader development. Although slightly more conservative than the Emirates, there is still freedom of thought and dress.
Bahrain is a moderately oil-rich island that is located north of the Emirates and sandwiched between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In fact, it is connected to Saudi Arabia by a 17-mile $1 billion causeway. A major part of the country is built on filled-in land. Again, development is everywhere. It’s interesting, but only worth visiting as part of a tour of the area.
Dubai is a great place to start. Excellent airline connections are available either by flying overnight or with stopovers in Frankfurt, London or other European cities. The addition of a seven-day cruise is an easy way to see a lot. We are not enthusiastic supporters of Royal Caribbean, whose adequate ships are not supported by committed management, either on board or in its main office. We recommend that the choice of a cruise line be made by cost and schedule.
This can be a most memorable trip, and perhaps you will bring back a photo that wins the “It’s Read Everywhere” online photo contest in The Observer.
The Middle East is always in the news for confrontation and strife. Certain areas are not good destinations for casual travelers. But the Emirates and surrounding countries reviewed here are safe, open and welcoming. The leaders are royal families led by sultans and sheikhs who understand the value of development and tourism. This is an extraordinarily interesting trip that will provide you with many lasting memories and expand your horizons. Go now so that you can return again in a few years to review its progress, as we hope to do.
Stuart and Lois Scheyer are in their late 70s and are residents of Longboat Key. They each log more than 100,000 air miles a year. They will be pleased to answer any travel questions and can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]. Travel Easy — Travel Light —Travel Now