Epitomizing an oil-rich sheikhdom isn't a bad life, but what Dubai really wants is to entertain visitors.
Dubai's tourism appeal includes big-time horse races and sporting events, a monthlong shopping festival and a skyline that commands the attention of visitors—not to mention such fascinating hotels as Dubai's own Burj Al Arab and the world's tallest building, the frighteningly towering Burj Khalifa. For jaded, been-there-done-that tourists, this metropolis on the Persian Gulf can throw in camel racing, sandboarding, sand skiing, ice-skating, snow skiing and unique cultural activities.
Dubai's rapid transformation has left it with a slice of old Arabia and a chunk of modern infrastructure. You'll find souks selling gold jewelry and traditional wares not far from modern shopping centers selling electronics and luxury items. Visitors will also see wind towers and minarets rising up from old neighborhoods, dwarfed in turn by office and hotel towers. A new stream of building projects is emerging steadily, making the city an experience not to be forgotten.
But the biggest contrast can be seen in Dubai's landscape: A splendid coastline and beaches are backed by an expansive desert, which in itself is a magnificent paradox of impressive sand dunes and starkly beautiful mountains.
MUST SEE OR DO
Sights—The towering Burj Khalifa and surrounding downtown area, complete with the record-breaking Dubai Fountain; traditional buildings in the Al Fahidi District (formerly the Bastakiya Quarter); striking architecture in the Madinat Jumeirah; the Gold Souk; the Jumeirah Mosque lit up at night; the desert on a four-wheel-drive tour (desert safari); Burj Al Arab.
Museums—History and culture at the Dubai Museum; Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House; Dubai Heritage and Diving Village; Miraj Islamic Art Centre.
Memorable Meals—An Italian evening meal under the stars at the beachside Bussola; a spread of Lebanese meze at Bastakiah Nights, in one of the oldest buildings in town; a taste of Britain in the Rivington Grill, overlooking the breathtaking Dubai Fountain; a seafood feast in the glow of the Burj Al Arab at Pierchic; a dinner cruise on the elegant glass-crafted vessel Bateaux Dubai.
Late Night—Dancing until early morning at Chi the Lodge; mixing bar, club and beach at Barasti Bar; filling up on freshly baked Arabic pastries at the 24-hour bakery Al Reef; camping in the desert under the stars in a traditional Bedouin tent.
Walks—An evening stroll along the Jumeirah Corniche; people-watching along the Creek; strolling through the souks and malls; a pleasant meander past the coffee drinkers along the JBR walk; taking in the art, the fountain and architecture in Downtown Dubai along Emaar Boulevard; hiking in the Hajar Mountains.
Especially for Kids—The Palm's Aquaventure or Wild Wadi Water Park for an adrenalin-pumping splash; Sega Republic and Kidzania at The Dubai Mall; riding go-karts at Dubai Autodrome; cycling around Creekside Park; SkiDubai snow center at The Mall of the Emirates.
Dubai is the capital of the emirate of Dubai, the second-largest emirate in the United Arab Emirates. The city is divided by a large creek, Khor Dubai, which is a natural inlet from the Persian Gulf. Residents simply refer to the Khor Dubai as "the Creek." On the north side of the Creek is Deira, and on the south is Bur Dubai. Although in the city's early days Deira was the smartest, fastest-growing part of town, it has now been outstripped by frantic development on the Bur Dubai side, leaving it with the older, more down-at-heel parts of the city. Bur Dubai has expanded to such an enormous extent that its farthest reaches, from the edge of Jumeirah to Dubai Marina, are now referred to locally as "New Dubai."
Three main roads run parallel through the city: Jumeirah Road (or Beach Road) runs along the coast, Al Wasl Road through the center and Sheikh Zayed Road farther inland. Mankhool, Karama and Satwa are neighborhoods near the center of town. Jumeirah, a residential area popular with Western expats, is in the south, along the coast. Beyond that is Umm Suqeim. These areas are all on the south, or Bur Dubai, side of the Creek. Traveling on Sheikh Zayed Road farther on from Umm Suqueim and after the mass of residential towers that is Dubai Marina leads to Jebel Ali Free Zone. A 12-lane bridge and a floating bridge over Dubai Creek help with traffic flow.
The Jebel Ali Port shares the large volume of traffic with Port Rashid in central Dubai. This is all part of New Dubai, and both population and commerce are spreading outward from the busy central city.
Although Dubai has now started to implement street names, this wasn't always the case. People still tend to give directions based on landmarks. For instance, a likely address for a shop might be "Al Wasl Plaza, near Defence Roundabout, by the Union Bank opposite Spinneys supermarket." Adding to the confusion is the fact that place names translated from Arabic often have a couple of different spellings in English. To ease traffic congestion and improve the road system, the U.A.E. government has installed a Smart Traffic System, said to be the first of its kind in the world, using the latest technology and most advanced specifications. The installation of sophisticated devices can calculate traffic volume, and electronic screens will inform road users accordingly as well as bring attention to road accidents and mishaps along the way.
The area immediately surrounding Dubai is mostly flat desert. The Hajar Mountains are east of the city, and farther to the south is a great desert of sand dunes.
Until the 1800s, Dubai was a quiet settlement, and its people survived on fishing, pearl diving and agriculture. In the 1830s, it was taken over by the Bani Yas tribe led by the Maktoum family (which still rules the emirate). When Sheikh Maktoum bin Hasher Al Maktoum, who was ruler at the time, granted tax concessions to foreign traders, development began, and a trading empire grew, based on gold, silver, spices and pearls. A mix of Arab, Persian and Indian traders settled in the growing town and established Dubai's position as a serious trading center.
The importance of Dubai's large creek as a natural harbor was recognized, and the city began to specialize in the import and export of goods. Dubai and its neighboring emirates accepted the protection of the British in 1892, and the region became known as The Trucial Coast (or Trucial States) among Europeans.
The discovery of oil in Dubai in 1966 led to improvements in the city's infrastructure, as well as to the education, housing and health care of its citizens. In 1968, Britain announced it would withdraw from the region. The various ruling sheikhs recognized that they would be a more powerful force if they united. In 1971, the British departed and the federation of the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) was formed.
Though oil has been crucial to Dubai's development since the late 1960s, trade has always been a cornerstone of the nation's economy, which picked up speed in the 1970s and 1980s with the advent of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the construction of major ports in the city. In the 1990s, Dubai invested heavily in the tourist industry, building dozens of new five-star hotels and resorts, and unleashing a massive marketing campaign that brought millions of tourist dollars flooding into the city.
Since the late 1990s, a huge property boom—fueled in part by the announcement that expats were allowed to invest in real estate—has led to unprecedented levels of development. Flagship projects such as the Dubai Palms and The World (man-made islands and land masses) keep investment levels high, allowing Dubai the option of relying on the real estate market when the U.A.E.'s oil money eventually runs dry.
Politically speaking, Dubai and the U.A.E. have been models of stability in a deeply unsettled region. The U.A.E. went into mourning in late 2004 with the death of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founding father of the nation and president of the U.A.E. The accession of his son, Sheikh Khalifa, took place smoothly, maintaining the stable status quo at a federal level. In Dubai itself, U.A.E. Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum continues to push the city toward yet greater levels of ambition, and despite his absolute rule (the U.A.E. is the only nation in the region not to have introduced democratic representation at any level of government) he continues to enjoy high levels of popularity.
The U.A.E. is the world's biggest exporter of dates, so be sure to try some while you're in Dubai, and buy some to take home with you.
Dubai has banned the traditional use of child jockeys in camel racing. Instead of relinquishing the sport completely, however, a new solution has been introduced: robot riders. Visitors can now watch the surreal spectacle of camels ridden by state-of-the-art electronic jockeys, controlled by their owners via remote control.
Need some gold in a hurry? In Dubai you do not need to wait until the shops open; instead, you can draw gold bars and coins in various designs and weights in a handy ATM. Gold vending machines can be found in Dubai Mall, Atlantis The Palm and at Souk Madinat.
The world's tallest tower, the Burj Khalifa, was all set to be called the Burj Dubai. But when it officially opened in January 2010, at the very last minute it was announced that it was going to be called Burj Khalifa in honor of the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi who had helped Dubai pay off some of its debts.
If you are flying first class from Dubai don't be surprised if you have a falcon in the seat next to you. Although it is becoming more rare, falcons are valued and are valuable parts of many traditional families. As such, they are allowed to fly in the cabin of most regional airlines.
Dubai is swirling with superlatives. Be sure to check out places such as the world's largest manmade island, the Palm Jumeirah; the world's only seven star hotel, Burj Al Arab and the largest dancing fountains by the Dubai Mall.
The Dubai Cruise Terminal is located at Port Rashid, a 15-minute drive from the center of the city. The terminal has been widely praised for its ultramodern design and extensive facilities, including golf carts for the transport of passengers with disabilities, palm-tree gardens, regular cultural exhibits, a currency exchange, ATM, post office and a tourist-information center. Passengers disembarking at the terminal can use the Internet, shop in the duty-free area and eat in the pleasant cafe before being whisked into town by taxi.
Although the original cruise terminal opened in 2001 with the docking of Cunard's QE2, the current terminal was officially inaugurated in February 2010 by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum. The terminal's capacity since opening has been steadily enlarged and can now handle up to seven cruise ships at one time. By 2016, Dubai expects the number of cruise passengers to reach 450,000 with new cruise liners coming to the region.
Cruise passengers typically have a variety of shore-excursion choices, including shopping, activity and cultural tours.
Shopping tours include trips to The Dubai Mall, Mall of the Emirates, the Gold Souk and the Spice Souk.
Activity tours focus either on the shore or the desert, offering Jet Skiing, windsurfing and diving, or sandboarding, dune buggying, camel rides and a desert safari in a 4x4 to visit a re-creation of a traditional Bedouin campsite, finishing with an Arabic buffet and belly dance.
Cultural tours include Bastakiya and Shindagha, two pockets of old Dubai with a high proportion of the city's museums and galleries, and perhaps a cruise along the Creek in either a traditional abra or dhow boat.