Dubai and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
20.05.2016 - 24.05.2016 97 °F
This vacation wasn't exactly planned. Early in March, Danielle got an email from someone way high up at her company that they needed a rotator in India. Her company, Deloitte, has a program where US staff and India staff rotate to each other's countries in an effort to build bridges and cultural understanding. Danielle loves working with the Indian staff of Deloitte, and I told her unequivocally she should do it. Within four weeks, she was on a plane to Hyderabad, the tech capitol of India. I told her that I would meet her after her eight week stint was concluded, and we would travel around and see the sites in India. Our friends John and Brianne had done something similar after John's rotation in India, and we decided to follow in their footsteps.
Danielle flew business class on Emirates, and I had always wanted to fly with the airline because they have a program where you can stay in their hub of Dubai for up to a week for the same cost as a direct flight. After daily Kayak searches for about two weeks, I got a round trip flight to Hyderabad WITH a 5 day stopover in Dubai for the low cost of $983. And so we start the first chapter of this journey in the Middle East.
This is my first trip to the region, and the more I travel, the more I realize it is the best education someone can get. As someone who refused to leave school for a quarter of a century, I know of what I speak. The differences are often enlightening, but as I travel to more places, I have started to see similarities in ways you would not readily expect when traveling to a different part of the world. In the spirit of keeping it interesting, I'll start with the similarities first and then we'll dive into the differences.
The United Arab Emirates is a country located between Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Gulf. While it sounds exotic, aspects are shockingly similar to Southern California. I'll be more specific. It's Irvine. The place is spotless, the crime rate is ridiculously low, the per capita income is high, religiosity is high, and what is there to do? Malls. Lots and lots of malls. Just think of Irvine and replace "traditional clothes" with burkas. Allow me to present my case.
Look who I found!
Like I said, same mall, different clothes
It looks like the abomination of frozen yogurt has also reached this corner of the world
The same food court as every mall ever
And they even have the same damn Ferris wheel in Irvine!
Just a glimpse at how massive the malls really are
The Dubai Mall is so big that they actually have little red taxis that take people around to different spots
Standard mall chandelier
Quick! What's the first thing you think of when I say "desert"? If you're answer was ice rink, I agree.
A ski slope IN THE MALL
The waterfall in the Dubai Mall
I've been looking for this store my entire life!
Good life advice
Ferrari hand bags
Okay, this was admittedly different
And making good on my promise, I went to see X-Men Apocalypse a week before it came out in the US, but in 4D!
Watching a 4DX movie is kind of like riding the Indiana Jones ride, but for 2.5 hours
I go to malls for the same reason I get pedicures: there is a clear need or I was dragged by someone else. In the case of this trip, I went out of sheer curiosity since it honestly seems to be the national pastime of the UAE. I went to three malls in three days, enough to keep me out of them for the next 10 years, but it was fascinating to see how wealth seems to have the same inevitable result, regardless of country.
That being said, there are definitely unique features of the UAE. The Dubai Mall has its own aquarium which is curated quite well. The exhibits are fun and informative, and there are some animals I've never yet seen before.
At the Dubai Aquarium
Do you see him?
A yet unidentified animal
Dubai is also home to the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, at 2,717 feet. Construction took less than 10 years and was funded by the country's massive oil wealth. Although it was completed recently, reports show that Azerbaijan is in process of building a skyscraper that is a full 700 feet taller.
The burj in the waning hours
The Burj Khalifa through the bridge lattice
Chandelier at the top of the Burj Khalifa
A view of downtown from 124 stories up
And the Arabian Sea in the distance
The actual top
Hold on to those sun glasses
The evening fountain show at the foot of the Burj
This is not the only massive structure that the city boasts. The city is seemingly filled with cranes, tractors, and endless caravans of construction workers. The hotel I stayed out was located on an artificial island that was made to look like a palm tree. I had seen it on "Modern Marvels" years ago and knew I had to stay there at least once. The resort was impressive, but it was hard to actually see the palm image that can seen from the satellites (see map below). The rationale behind the building boom is that the country is trying to diversify its investments beyond oil wealth. The sheer volume of sky scrappers was impressive, and it will be interesting to see if this boom ends up going bust.
Satellite view of the Palm Island, you may need to zoom out a bit
The living room of our Palm apartment
What's the thread count on that?
I thought it would be criminal to NOT take a bath in that thing
The Burj Khalifa from the hotel
After a relaxing weekend, Danielle flew back to India to finish the last week of her rotation. I woke up early for a full day tour of Abu Dhabi, the largest Emirate (think of it like a State in the US). Abu Dhabi is the richest Emirate, and it accounts for over 80% of the land area of the country.
Before the UAE was the wealthy state it is today, it was a collection of fishing villages along the Arabian cost. Dubai and Abu Dhabi were inhabited by Bedouin camel herders, and the main income was through the fish trade. It obtained it's independence from Britain in 1971, and within 10 years, black gold was discovered under the sands of the sleepy nation. The King at the time, Sheikh Zayed, used the wealth to modernize the country, investing heavily in infrastructure projects.
One of the latest projects is a mosque that began construction in 1999 and finished in 2009. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque was built to house over 40,000 worshipers at one time: 30,000 in the outdoor courtyard and 10,000 within the mosque itself. I've only seen a few structures in my life that have made me so awestruck (the White Temple in Thailand and Diego Rivera's mural in Mexico City are just two that come to mind), and this was definitely added to the very short list.
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
The main domes
Reflecting pool in the front
One of the four minarets, the top is 24 karat gold
The courtyard used for Friday prayer
The sconces that resemble palm trees
Capturing the shadows
One of three massive Faustig chandeliers, this one weighs 12 tons
You can also see the largest hand woven rug in the world below
Beautiful copies of the Quran
A lotus rendering
Another of the seven chandeliers, the total cost of these chandeliers was about 8.2 million US dollars
The mosque was really the highlight of the day trip, but we went to some other assorted sites that were fun to check out. I didn't learn anything spectacular, so I'll keep my rambling short here and just present some other pictures which may be of interest.
Abu Dhabi skyline
The King's Palace
The nation's flag over the waterfront
A mural of the king made entirely out of postage stamps
Hmmm, I know this guy
The last adventure on this stop was a trip to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve to ride a camel and then....eat said camel. A van picked me up from my hotel and shuttled me off to the foot of the preserve where I met up with my fellow travelers to venture into the Bedouin-style camps. We saddled up and then we slowly meandered through the desert on the way to the camp. The camel ride was very serene, and I couldn't get the theme from the Playstation game, "Uncharted," out of my head. I met a cool pair of couples from England and Switzerland, and we mused about soccer, terrible airlines (we collectively decided their was a tie between Ryan Air and Spirit Airlines), and our respective terrible politicians. If there's a common theme to bond with fellow travelers, it's sport and loathing of politicians.
"Sallah, I said NO camels!"
I already realize how ridiculous I look, and I don't care
The camels with the park brake on
Surveying the land
Silhouettes on the dunes
It had cooled down to a balmy 95 degrees
Camel, the other, other, other white meat
Sunset over the camp
The most intriguing parts of the UAE are probably what's not readily seen. As someone who likes to travel internationally, it behooves me to be educated about world affairs. For this reason, I didn't go into the UAE blind, I knew they had a lot of human rights violations, freedom of speech/press are non-existent, and numerous foreigners have been disappeared for comments that may cause "instability." My goal was to talk to the people of the UAE and get their side of things. The only problem was that I didn't actually meet anyone from the UAE, and it wasn't for lack of trying.
I was in the country for four days, and I met people from the Philippines, Brazil, Uganda, Ethiopia, South Africa, Angola, Yemen, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. I did not meet ONE person who was actually from the UAE (other than the scowling woman at immigration control, let's not count her). I'm usually able to get some kind of testimonials when I'm in a new country, but no one would comment on the labor practices or the rationale for continuing to build so many towers when large portions of already existing skyscrapers seemed vacant. Seemingly in the dark, I had to put the pieces together myself using known data and my own personal observations, Thomas Bayes would be proud.
Foreign workers outnumber individuals in the UAE by a factor of 9 to 1. The natives, or Emirati, actually refuse to hold service sector jobs because they view the service sector as below them. Approximately 80% of Emirati work for the government and the majority of the remaining 20% work for state-owned operations (finance, oil, etc.). The only time I saw them was in the mall drinking coffee with one another or shopping in very high-end stores, probably a symptom of having the world's 7th largest per capita income (that's three spots above the United States). Given that the tallest building in the world was built in six years, and the observation that construction was seemingly proceeding 24/7 while I was there, it was easy to see firsthand the abuse of foreign workers in building this new haven for the super-rich.
As Aldous Huxley once said, "Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored." After experiencing the spotless malls, impeccable hospitality, engineering marvels, and seemingly endless towers, I left the country with the guilt that I had propagated the system. Instead of advancing a nation through innovation and social progress, the nation had become prosperous on the backs of the poor and disenfranchised. I doubt I will return to the small oasis in the desert, but I may one day in order to see what becomes of this new Tower of Babel.