ARABIAN NIGHTS AND DAYS
If there is one word to describe Dubai, the word is eclectic. This eclecticism is derived from the diversity of nationals who reside in the city, its benevolent ruling monarchy which is unlike any other, its magnetism to attract international industry, trade and commerce; as well as its manifest acceptance of foreign culture and religion with no hint of xenophobia.
Dubai is an amazing work-in progress; everything is happening concurrently, not only in parts of the city, but in the entire city. It is like a big jigsaw puzzle with the pieces carefully falling into their designated slots. The frenzied pace of building, contemporary yet distinctive edifices, condominium high risers and state-of-the-art infrastructures such as the above ground metro system designed to snake through the entire city, the largest international airport which is in construction, the 150 stories tallest Burj Dubai Hotel (130 stories are completed to date) the double palm tree man-made islands, with their own respective high risers and villas, all point to support a life style in and through the 21st century; this picture is unparalleled anywhere except perhaps in Shanghai where a building boom is very evident. Witness now the birthing of a futuristic megapolis to peak perhaps in the next five to eight years. A joke making the rounds because of this building and expansion mania and with so many cranes raised, is that Dubai has adopted the crane as its national bird, displacing the falcon.
The locals, namely the native Arabs are the minority, a mere 13% of the population; and nationals from India, (40%), Pakistan (30%), Philippines (20%) all simply referred to as expatriates are the majority of Dubai residents. Nationals from every corner of the world make up the rest of the population. In our 11 nights stay, we have met and talked to people from Goa, Indonesia, Tunisia, Iran, Bahrain, Egypt, China, Taiwan, Japan, Russia, (Uzbistan), Korea, Kenya, Nairobi, Ceylon, Turkey, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Bangladesh, Albania, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Great Britain, etc. and I am sure there as many other countries whose nationals we did not meet. We did run into and talked four Americans, a senior couple from Texas, a college student from North Carolina, who told me that he came because he found Dubai through the internet; all three were tourists. The fourth was a young IT consultant from Boston.
Dubai: Global Recruiter
Dubai has a unique global system of recruiting the best workers and talents from all over the world by the government issuing of a two-month visit visa. This I believe is key to its present economic success. A foreigner of the right age with service oriented skills, education or talents who can contribute to its system, can apply for this visa, come to the city and stay in a window of two months and seek any employment. If successful, the individual can stay for period of the negotiated contract with any company, which is usually for two years but renewable based on meritocracy. Failing to come up with bona fide employment, the applicant must leave the Emirate but is allowed to return at a future date for another try. This system enables Dubai to harvest the youth of third world countries who are educated and skilled, but are presently unable to find work in their own system of the world; it allows at the same time Dubai to harness these service skills at a reasonable pay scale. The current going on rate for the lowest entry level is $1000/month but I have spoken to college graduates who work as wait staff and get paid a less.
Dubai is the second largest and the most progressive of the seven Emirates. Abu Dhabi, the capital is larger and oldest, and most developed while Sharjey is the third most populated and together with four smaller emirates formed in United Arab Emirates in 1971 which is also the year that the British gave up control of the oil industry. There is Ayn Lin which is not an Emirate but part of one and is 90 minutes from Dubai is greener, and known for its camel markets.
Since the UAE unification, the Sheik of Abu Dhabi is traditionally selected by the seven emirates as its president, and the Sheik of Dubai, the Vice President. This tradition has not been challenged possibly because Abu Dhabi has the majority of the 21 ministries who make the selection, namely11, as opposed to the 8 for Dubai. The emirates are autonomous in every aspect of running their own sheikdom, but the President represents the UAE as one nation in foreign affairs. The current President is Sheik Kalifa bin Zayed al Nahiyan who resides in the exclusive section of Al Bateen in Abu Dhabi, and Sheik Muhammed bin Razhid al Maktoum , the Sheik of Dubai is the Vice President.
Employment Demography and Benefits
Almost all governmental positions are occupied by locals, and this is very evident as one goes through Immigration and Customs but the baggage handlers are expatriates, mostly Muslims from neighbor countries. It is easy to separate the locals, who wear white veils and robes are easy to distinguish from the expats because of their national outfit. The police force and military are generally invisible but are mostly locals. On the other hand they may look invisible because they do not wear the security uniforms that one usually associated with such personnel. I doubt this to be so. The security staff employed privately in the malls, parks, and other public places are visible but serve more as source of directions and information. They are expats.
Somehow the different expat nationals seem to fall into certain niches of work or profession. The British are still involved with the oil industry, are well compensated, but as employees of the government and are no longer lords. They are highly visible in academics and education since English is a popular second language in the curricula of schools. They live in exclusive enclaves of well-appointed houses and apartments. European and I presume American businessmen and some from Islamic countries specially Iran and Malaysia live in rented hotel apartments, company owned condos or their own condos in the 22 so-called Free Zone or Free Hold sectors of the city. A Free Zone/Hold section designation indicates that foreigners are permitted to purchase real estate in these developments, elsewhere they are not. Real estates in these zones are on the high end of prices. The high risers have sprouted everywhere.
A majority of Indians and Pakistani expats, of Muslim faith, work at the front or back ends offices of hotels, in constructions, in transportation (taxis) and restaurants, The Filipinos are ubiquitous as well, aside from their Malay features they are easily profiled in a crowd because they stay in small groups and talk Tagalog or some dialects within earshot of everyone; they work as cashiers, receptionists, supervisory or managerial positions (old timers) in different sections of hotels or supermarkets, tour promoters, in-charge of small snack corners, wait staff, and night club singers. Most of the Chinese and Japanese, have established their own export/import business, in electronics, restaurants, have stores selling merchandise and produce from their own country. Commercial signs can be bilingual but are predominantly in Arabic.
Illegal Immigrants and Amnesty
There is obviously a very high demand for manual workers in construction. The workers are generally recruited from small villages in India and Pakistan and economically distressed Arab countries. These recruits are often not paid prevailing wages, have poor work conditions and live-in accommodations; unscrupulous recruiters may have greatly misrepresented the work arrangements at the time of recruitment. Once in Dubai many workers jump ship by going to a competitor, that pays more or the prevailing wages. Because they are now in violation of their signed contracts, they are branded as absconders and have attained illegal immigrant status. The newspapers plaster their names, pictures, work and visa numbers daily. There are about such 50,000 illegal immigrants on record. On our third day in Dubai, the newspapers reported that the government passed a law allowing these illegal immigrants amnesty. Not amnesty to stay but amnesty to leave the Emirate within 90 days at their own expense, with no questions asked or face criminal prosecution thereafter.
The Oldest Profession and Drugs
There is some tolerance for the oldest profession but there is zero tolerance for drugs. Drug pushers when caught are executed. Drug is not even whispered around here. The girlie entertainment and its extended trade are generally provided by young Russian, Iranian, some Chinese women, as well as moonlighters from India. European women are said to be popular particularly among locals. The belly dancers are mostly Russians. There is no focal area of night life, but the clubs that cater to such entertainment are sporadically scattered but are well-known to most cab drivers, The women from border countries can easily cross over the border and moonlight during their visit-visa stay that last for two months, then return home with their earnings, this is according to my cab driver sources. Lately, however verification of bona fide employment and a Dubai residence have been required by authorities of the home countries.
Citizenship, Families and Benefits
There is no venue to attain citizenship, except through marriage to a local but such arrangement is not encouraged and frowned upon, even if a would-be spouse is Muslim. . I have spoken to expats who worked and lived in Dubai for 17 to 25 years but are still non-citizens. Also, they still do not speak Arabic. First it is a difficult language to learn they say, and second the Arabs speak English to everyone else and only use Arabic when they are among their compatriots.
Expatriates are permitted to bring in the immediate members of their families i.e., children and spouses. The cost of living however, is prohibitive and inhibitive, unless both spouses are fully employed; I have spoken to some Filipinos who are able to overcome this hurdle and appears not unusual for them to undertake, and this is evidenced by the family units that shop in the malls and supermarkets. The general option is for the working spouse to use his vacation time to visit his country of origin. After completing a year of employment, sometimes two, as part of a benefit package, the employer pays for a 34-day paid vacation to their home country that includes a round-trip plane fare. There are no health care benefits, save for card carrying expatriates who are entitled to discounts in government owned hospitals and clinic facilities.
Some hotel chains like the Hyatt, offer their employees after years of service, severance pay equal to a month salary per year of employment. The severance pay is untaxed and it can therefore run up to a nice sum after 30 years of work. I met a retired Filipino who is back in Dubai, after working there for 30 years, to celebrate his 40th wedding anniversary with his three children and their families who presently live in three continents. In my conversation with him I detected a well-earned pride of achievement. .
Hyatt also provides vacation accommodations at hotels it owns, in countries of the employee’s origin. Moreover, Hyatt provides excellent living accommodations in a common village it owns as well as, transportation to work or the option is receive a monthly allowance of 750 Dhs. Almost everyone, unless the employee has a family opt for the former.
The Ruling Monarchy
Since 1833 the Maktoum family continuous ruled Dubai. The Maktoums are Bedouin Arabs, from Persia, (now Iran) who led a nomadic life until they settled in Dubai. The current ruler Sheik Muhammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, who is about 60, is a fourth generation ruler.. He is the architect and brain of modern Dubai while his father Sheik Rashid al Maktoum who died in 1990 is considered the father and founder of Dubai. Almost a couple of scores ago, I came across the name Maktoum as a Sheik who loves race horses but never realized the depth of his passion for thoroughbreds until this visit; and ever so rarely he sends a horse from his 4000-horse stable to race at Aqueduct or Belmont and often makes the winner’s circle. I believe it was the father, but I hear the current Sheik has followed his footsteps. The massive concrete arch gate of his residential palace has five large galloping thoroughbreds’ statues atop it.
It is the consensus among expatriates I have talked to, and the locals which is a given, that the ruling Sheik is a benevolent man who genuinely cares for his people, as were his predecessors. I have not heard an ill word said about the current monarchy. This monarchy is often contrasted with the king and ruling monarch of Saudi Arabia, although feared is not loved by those ruled.
What Makes Dubai Tick and Click?
Oil, oil, oil and more oil, is the emirate swimming in oil? This is the natural first notion that one takes, that Dubai like Kuwait is afloat in a sea of oil and hence from it comes its wealth. This is far from the fact; oil contributes only 5.8% to its GDP and the rest comes from elsewhere. The oil wells which produce 35.000 barrels per day, is about 10% of what Saudi Arabia produces in a day, are projected to run dry in 15 years. When oil is discovered in 1958 it accelerated the growth and development of the country. Oil is the impetus that got Dubai on its feet. The British even given their years of exploitation of the country’s oil bonanza did help by drilling and refining the black liquid gold. They are in total control until 1971 when the Sheik decided to put a stop to it. 18% of its GDP comes from tourism and the Sheik is is involved directly in its promotion, through the Ministry of Tourism which he head. The Ministry of Planning and Zoning which he also heads get his imprimatur on projects of any magnitude, large or small, private or public, prior to adoption and implementation.
Aluminum, Desalination and Trade
Dubai imports bauxite from Australia which it smelts, refines and exports or uses locally as fine aluminum. This spawned a new industry that contributes about 20% to its GDP; it concurrently uses the energy by-product from the smelting process to desalinate sea water which is in limitless abundance, and is its main source of potable water. The first water yield from the desalination is for human consumption and use, the second is used for agriculture and plant irrigation and the final yield is returned to the sea. Otherwise Dubai has no natural source for its drinking water; it had only a total of 13.5 cm rainfall last year, despite the persistent high humidity particularly in the summer months. The bulk of its GDP is from trade, commerce and foreign industries that it incessantly attracts. This is evident everywhere. Name any known brand, be it in fast food, fashion, supermarkets, movies and entertainment, technology or any other industry, whether they come from the United States, Asia, Europe or India (Tata Motors) are represented in Dubai. One exception, I have not seen a gas station bearing the name of any of the original Seven Sisters except for Shell.
No Income and Corporate Taxes and the Sheik
The core reason for Dubai’s explosive growth is: it has no income tax and no corporate tax. The system is truly friendly to the working class or professionals who provide a service, since they get to keep what they have earned. The initial expense incurred by a visit-visa guest once they secure a job is they need a sponsor, who must be a local. The local receives a fee for such sponsorship. The only qualification the local is that he/she be at least 21 years old. If the sponsorship is for a business, a corporation, etc the fee paid to the local is usually negotiable but may be as high as 10%. This is paid initially and annually for the longevity of the business. Each local is allowed a maximum of 10 sponsorships, whereas earlier there was no ceiling. It is for this reason that all locals have the best income stratum in the society, besides of course the Sheik, his families and his administration. Speaking of that I am told that there is no evident corruption in the government, but there is occasional corruption in companies that established business there, but they are dealt harshly when found guilty. This makes me wonder why despite knowing this, Halliburton is moving its base office to Dubai. The locals have the best of every world under the system; hence you see pictures of the Sheik in all hotels and other public places including the car plates of locals as visible testament to his popularity.
The Sheik makes governing look easy and he is able to do so since he owns practically everything, from most real estate, to all major industries, to all major malls, the utilities, the major hotels, other business trade, and commercial contracts and transportation. In short he owns Dubai. Many street, plaza, malls, bridge and ports bear his name or that of his predecessor. He is a shrewd businessman, cunningly analytic, yet manifestly takes good care of the 13% locals. He keeps the number of the locals at manageable number, so that this enables him to keep them happy by granting all sorts of amenities not available to the expats. He is also able to keep the 87% of the population happy by offering them a better way of life than what they would experience in their home countries; but with one important proviso, that they remain totally with in his rein, this is doable in a monarchy. The end point is there is no poverty, no speakable major crimes, and no drugs; but the flip side of all these is the road to citizenship does not exist or at least has not been paved.
Sheiks rule by decrees, which some of our leaders would like to emulate. For instance, last year the 22 year old son of Sheik Kalifa bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi died when he crushed his Ferrari while driving totally inebriated. Shortly thereafter, the Sheik decreed that anyone caught driving while intoxicated will have his driving license revoked without appeal.
A Tale of Two Cities
Because Dubai is a city born in the desert, one is reminded of another city also born in the desert of Nevada, called Las Vegas; albeit Dubai has not reach the scale of the building and expansion boom of the latter. Here is a tale of two cities, cities separated by oceans that sprouted in the desert and grew beyond anyone’s vision; one a 21st modern city that is still very much a work-in progress and a potential 21st century megapolis, while the other just continues to evolve into uncharted opulence that refuses to peak. One city is built on sin the other despite the apparent lack of it. Water is an on-going concern for one and the other has resolved apparently this water shortage at least for the time being. . There are no other shows on earth that can presently compete or even compare, with the variety of shows performed in those Vegas resort casinos ; perhaps not even in a lifetime will this existing gap narrow, because Dubai will not likely approve any form of gambling, least of all Vegas style wagering. Alcohol which is generally expensive is restricted to hotel bars and restaurants or nightclubs that generally cater to tourists in Dubai, while in Vegas it has a free flow like water. Dubai residents need a renewable license issued by the government to purchase alcohol for home use.
Besides oil Dubai has no meaningful natural resources. It has sand, which it can not export, palm trees (nahiya), which has limited use, camels, and the sea with its cornucopia of fish and shell fish, consumed mostly locally; it has no factories or manufacturers, and has to import literally everything it needs, from building materials, steel to cement, paint, furnishings, appliances, and most food are all imported. In construction the developers are locally based, but the engineers and architects are foreigners, Europeans and Australians top the list. Incidentally, Donald J Trump has a high riser under construction. Yet Dubai has the ability, vision, cunning and chutzpah to make an international market of itself, within itself and one that feeds and sustains itself.
Their World Trade Center
Their World Trade Center sponsors an annual three-day products exposition from different countries. This year 64 different countries participated. The exhibits are diversified and have no one particular theme, although similar or associated products are usually assigned booths adjacently. I was very impressed with the range and quality of products that were showcased.
My very capable and pretty charming niece (by marriage) Tina has a furniture booth, for the 7th year at this annual show. It is such a total delight to observe her in action; she just melts away her customers into signing orders for future delivery, with her innate captivating smile. All her furniture samples went, and declared the show another success. She has given us a heads up on the tallest cross in the world, which no one talked about, and which I will discuss later. She feels at home in Dubai and she loves Lebanese and Iranian cuisines which are endemic here, particularly lamb dishes and even its tartar version which we had at The Times of Arabia in the Al Qasar Hotel restaurant complex. She gave us leads to sights and places to see and of course restaurants. Pressed for time on her last day we ate Iranian at the Al Sherazade and what else did she order but lamb.
Palm Trees and Pearls
There are two types of palm trees one that bears bunched-fruits which are plucked when ready, usually in July and August, and are candied in their own fructose or turned into chocolate infused or covered dates. The dates are becoming the signature sweets in all the chocolate stores we visited. It is a fledgling industry. Historically, the palm tree despite its spartan source of building material is used for constructing abodes in the desert. Samples of these living quarters, inclusive of how they capture the desert breeze to cool it off, are shown at a small Dubai Museum.
Dubai used to have the biggest pearl industry in the Middle East for many years, but in 1932-33, this industry vanished after cultured pearls are introduced to the market by Mikimoto from Japan. At its peak the pearl industry spawned another industry, the manufacture of Dhow boats used for pearl diving. At one time Dhow boats which are made of wood were a major export to its neighbor countries. The Dhow boat industry still thrives but in a limited scope, since they are used has mainly for night cruises or as means of transport across the Creek that the divides the inland.
The locals are a minority, in both cities, Dubai about 13% and. Abu Dhabi locals make up about 20% to 25% of the population/
The locals do not usually initiate a conversation with strangers, but when spoken to I found them to be receptive, friendly, engaging, and accommodating, not out of politeness, but more as part of their character.. The men are garbed with a head veil (?istmar), which is usually white but may also have red and white square pattern,(reserved for those of position and heritage) a uqula, the band or thick heavy round rope, (I felt it at a special shop) usually black that holds around the head veil, and the kundura, the robe that covers the body and limbs. Sandals are basically worn with this outfit. Only locals are allowed by law to wear this complete outfit. Any expat wearing this outfit and is charged and punished accordingly. The locals carry an ID which they show if challenged. A reverse profiling of sort.
Arabs from Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar which are all Arabian Gulf countries and the other emirates wear the same national outfit. I got the sense that the Gulf Arabs seem to distance or distinguish themselves from the rest of the Arabs, such as the Saudis. Not infrequently the locals have Muslim friends walking, working or sipping coffee with them, but they don only what looks like a kundura, without the uqula and the isthmar. The locals are well cared by the monarchy. Education from kindergarten to college of one’s choice is provided free. Health care from crib to the tomb is provided totally free. The government takes care of the expenses incurred with the first wedding of locals but with a generous limit. The new couple is also provided with 500K Dhs (at 3.66 to the dollar.) to buy a house. If the couple gets into some financial bind and needs additional funds they have access to a one time 500K Dhs loan with no interest.
Marriage and Weddings
Arab men may marry legally four women with the proviso that he is able to provide equal support and maintenance for the four households with no government subsidy. .Some women rebel against such arrangement and can opt out of the marriage and will get the house plus whatever the court decides which usually half the estate. Thus there are divorce and therefore there are lawyers.
The black outfit worn by the women publicly is called abaya which can be of different grades of fabric, the head cover, jihab and the veil. Niqab together can provide a mysterious elegance to beautiful modern Arabian women attending an affair such as a wedding. Speaking of wedding, the Hyatt Regency is the first hotel in Deira, and has just celebrated its 25th anniversary days before we arrived, and it caters to about four weddings a week. The hotel betrays its longevity, but its longevity is what attracts the weddings, since it is an Arabic tradition for a daughter to want to wed where her mother had hers and the granddaughter where the daughter had hers. It is this generational weddings carried to perpetuity that delights the hotel manage.
I am told by Christine, one of the customer relation staff, that the women who are well garbed and fashionably groomed in their fine abayas, niqabs (face veil) and hijabs (head cover) have a separate section for the bride wedding ceremony and the groom has his own ceremony in another room with his male guests. Once at the ceremony the abayas niqabs and hijabs are removed, and exposing dresses or outfits from the finest fashion boutiques- the latest in Christian Dior, Fendi, Ferragamos, and whatever and party. Party they do. Dance yes, alcohol yes, and cigarettes probably.
The women generally avoid attracting attention when they come in for the wedding, and in this particular hotel a separate side entrance is provided, which I sometimes monitor from a distance out of curiosity, through the glass enclosure as they arrive in their limos and expensive cars. The side entrance is partly obscured by a spiral staircase leading to the mezzanine, but furniture arrangement is conveniently provided in the area where one can sit and observe inconspicuously. At precisely midnight the groom comes for his bride and thus starts an Arabian marriage.
A Tale of Two Other Cities
Dubai and Abu Dhabi are keenly competitive economically. While Abu Dhabi is older as a city in its development, it basically reacts to what Dubai does. It copies Dubai’s successful plans and policies. For instance when the Burj Al Arab Hotel was completed in 1999 Abu Dhabi responded resoundingly with Emirates Palace which took five years to complete in 2002. The saying here is how to keep up with the Muhammeds. Dubai is building the world’s largest airport, I doubt if Abu Dhabi will follow suit since they are geographically next door and already has a modern functional international airport.
Abu Dhabi, the capital, is about 170 km (0.6 m to 1 km) from Dubai. Once we negotiated pass Dubai city proper the road to Abu Dhabi which has four lanes on each side of the highway; is straight as an arrow; we reached Abu Dhabi in no time despite the strictly enforced speed limit. Two years ago the same highway had two lanes. We hired a knowledgeable driver, Anthony who owns an SUV to see Abu Dhabi. He did not disappoint.
The Bin Zayed mosque, the largest mosque in the Emirates will be completed at the end of this year. Bin Zayed was the prior Sheik; who died two years ago and is considered the father of the Abu Dhabi emirate. We could only photograph it from a distance, because it was still under construction. The exterior is all beige including the two tall minarets. The exterior is most impressive, and I am sure the interior once completed will be even more overwhelming.
We drove around Al Basteen where Sheik Kalifa’s palace two kms compound is located. Anthony could not give us an idea of how the inside looks, because no one he knows has ever been inside. We could only see its outside walls and the gate. Across the palace are large villas or mansions that serve as quarters for visiting guests or dignitaries. It is neighborhood where the locals try to outdo each other, judging by the incredible sizes of their mansions and their varied beautiful designs and architecture. I was surprised to see one large villa that I mistook as a home belonging to the Chinese Embassy because of its authentic but not ornate pagoda motif. Chinese workers were brought in from the mainland to do its construction .Most of the villas, as are the modern high risers, and most buildings are muted to the colors of the desert. The use of primary colors for the outside is unusual although we did see a blue mosque as we approached Abu Dhabi.
The corniches shore, outlines the as much as possible the entire city is one large scenic postcard. The water is calm and aquamarine clear and free of the usual debris left by humans. It is peaceful and tranquilizing.
We ate lunch at the L’Auberge at the Emirates Palace which is a Lebanese restaurant, with French slant. Lebanese reds are pretty good (Masaya) and this complimented the foie gras and sweet breads which were starters. The baby lamb chops were tasty, quite tender and perfectly grilled. The restaurant is a bit intimidating specially since we arrived early and were the only diners initially. Needless to say the ambience is great and we had a choice table. There is one other patron, a local who is quite rotund, one of a few I saw in this trip who had such physical prosperity; otherwise the local men in general are slim of habitus. He is joined shortly by three expats in business suits, and if I were to venture, the luncheon is a business negotiation for sponsorship.
I have never been inside a palace, except Caesar’s and the Rainier Palace in Monaco if that can count as one. If someone told me that the Emirates Palace is a true palace I would believe her. This is how magnificent and beautiful the palace is. To see and experience the Emirates Palace is reason enough to visit Abu Dhabi. The grandeur of this domed palace is plainly incredible.
A Desert Tour
One Dubai resident I met at the JFK Lounge suggested that to visit Dubai one must explore the desert and time it to observe the sundown. I took his advice and we booked a 41/2 hour desert tour that was to last from 4:30pm to 9:30 in the evening. We are promptly picked up, along with a pair from Malaysia, by our tour guide/driver, who is from Bangalore and fluent in English; he wore a kundura but no uqula and isthmar. We proceeded to pick up at the Le Meridien a young man from Boston who works in the Middle East as IT consultant. Given the bumpiness and the rough ride in the desert that I heard about, I was kind of hesitant about the tour because of my old slipped disc which has not bothered me. The temptation of the challenge prevailed over logic, so I found myself a somewhat apprehensive participant in the convoy of Landcruisers that is to form We made a pit stop at a gas station so that the rest of the group of 10 other identical Toyota Landcruisers could catch up to us. Our driver said at peak season months there are as many as 30 vehicles to a convoy.
Just as we reached our destination, the desert and its beautiful powdery dunes, we made another mandatory stop, this time to deflate all four tires, so that the vehicles will have traction in the sand. So started our 45-minute crazy wild ride in the desert, in a convoy, one Landcruiser at some safe distance of the next. As if we wanted assurance, our driver told us that all drivers are specially trained and licensed for the job, and that he has been doing this once a day five times a week for the last five years aside from his regular job. The desert is beautifully inviting in its monochromatic terra cotta color. Despite the absence of signs or landmarks that I can identify the drivers knew exactly where to proceed and get the most of the roller-coaster drive. Still I dreaded to be in the last vehicle of the convoy. What if something went wrong and no one took notice. I also did not think there was any back up SUV.
There is a lead car that the second car follows, etc.etc.etc. to the last. The drive was directionless except for the challenge to locate the highest dunes and proceed to either drive through it at an accelerated pace and derive the best drop effect as possible or position the vehicle at an acute angle at the edge of the dunes so that it gives the feeling that is about ready to topple. For me this was the scariest segment of the entire drive, but I waited till the drive was done to bring up a nagging question. We started slowly, to get a feel of the desert drive but the pace quickened as the driver started challenging higher dunes and deeper troughs. The tracks of the tires are circumferential at times and continue to swirl around in varying spread with no particular endpoint or directions similar to a Jackson Pollack painting; only this time using a vast and endless canvass, the desert and its sand. The tracks made by one vehicle are very transient because they get erased by the tracks of the next car, which then also makes its temporary imprint. And this process repeats itself for the 11th car to make its final temporary imprint. I guess this is what Pat Boone had in mind when he wrote his love letters in the sand.
There were times that our vehicle is completely covered by windblown sand so that nothing outside is discernible. I was more fearful for our driver but I kept saying to myself that he could drive in this trek of the sands blindfolded, so that eased my concern a bit. Once we reached the edge of the mountains which was our destination we stopped to watch the sunset. Where we are now is an unusual topography of sand and mountain, or mountain in the midst of a desert. As the sun sunk in the distant endless desert horizon choreographed by glorious blends of red colors of the skies everyone watched in awe. Having experienced the same repeatedly in Tucson, Arizona I knew the expected. A sunset in the desert is a sunset in any desert but still it is awesome to behold This reminded me that if the sun sets here, it rises somewhere else and this brings memories back to the sunrise over Manila Bay which I believe is even more glorious because it is one of rebirth. The rebirth of a new day, a new hope.
The Camel Ride and Dinner
Once at the camp, where dinner was to be served, there were five camels resting on their flexed limbs ready to take on a rider. Milan took the third camel, and on cue the double-humped camel quickly rose on its legs almost throwing her off, but luckily she held tightly to whatever she grabbed. The double humped camels do not have speed, as opposed to the single-humped dromedary, which is speedier and can be trained to race. Camel racing without wagering used to be open to the public but this past time is now available only to the locals and by invitation if you are a foreigner, meaning everybody else. Apparently UNESCO voiced objection to the use of children as jockeys and that is why the government close it to the public. I am told that the government is working on some kind of robojocks and if successful it may be opened once again to the public. Camel milk is available at the supermarkets, but I looked for camel meat but did not find it. Apparently camel meat is now available in some local butcher shops. I would have wanted to try it. I am told that the meat is very tender and lean.
The food served was good and plentiful, which was a pleasant surprise in group tours that include dinner. Barbecue of a variety of meat and sausages was served, but oddly enough no lamb and of course no camel. Fruits, salad, pasta made up the rest of the dinner. The passengers of each Landcruiser had separate low tables with cushions as seats; the tables were set around the center area for entertainment. A cash bar with alcoholic beverage with near Manhattan price was available.
The Dance and the Belly
I cannot remember the opening acts, but I remember the two beautiful Russian belly dancers who moved from table to table while performing. I was advised to concentrate on the belly button of the dancer when watching this rhythm of body gyrations. I had no problem in doing this, so that I watched carefully the movement of their nice navels in synchrony with each swing of the hips and fasciculation of the belly muscles in resonance with the music. I guess that is what belly dancing is all about. Milan surprised me, she got up and danced with one of the belly dancers, simulating her every move; I think she was inspired by her sister Grace, who is taking belly dancing lessons; the last time Milan got up on center stage was in Tokyo almost a couple of scores back when she also simulated the moves of a Geisha girl dancing during a tea ceremony performance.
The tire pressures were set back to normal and we are on our way back to civilization. I finally asked our driver my nagging question, if there had been any mishaps during the wild rides. He said only a couple of times the cars toppled over and added matter-of-factly, but nobody was hurt. He said that this happens when the tires have less traction, what traction? What he meant was that if the sand is wet after a rare rainfall the tires have even less traction. Usually if it rains, the tour is cancelled. There were three times that I thought for sure we were going to be stuck in the sand, but with a wiggle here, and a wiggle there, he maneuvered us out of it. The longevity of the tires is a year and they do careful maintenance he added. We reached “home” at 9:30 pm as scheduled and we went directly to the bar for a night cap to temper the excitement of the afternoon.
A Tale of Two Towers
Whatever Dubai does successfully, Abu Dhabi copies and may improve. Take the case of Burj Al Arab (The Tower of Arabia) which Dubai built in 1999, Abu Dhabi answered it resoundingly with the Emirates Palace, which took five years to build and complete in 2002.
Quite possibly two of the most beautiful and most impressive 21st century hotels in the world are not in Las Vegas, but in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Burj Al Arab is as incredible a piece of sculpture, and as one puts a geater appreciation into the thinking and planning of the project it becomes even more unbelievable, the use of computerized planning notwithstanding. It is just like what the pictures show, elegant, proud, sleek and a total instant contemporary classic. But to experience it, is in itself an added notch of experience. Here is a most astonishing building, with an atypical shape, that of a tall huge sail and the boat is the island sculpted from the sand and gravel of the sea; its immediate surroundings are defined carefully by selected palms and greeneries and then laced by clear calm blue waters giving it a two-layered immediate surroundings. Frontally, it is a priceless pristine symmetric sky blue crystal vase with an almost tapered point that pretends to be its roof. From each side, the sides are two symmetric mirror-imaged wind-blown sails in sea blue colors complementing the waters, while the skies above serve as a painterly blue background. This is architect and engineering at its very best, a triumph of art.
The Tallest Cross in the World
The back side is a configured rectangle almost to the height of the edifice, and it is here that controversy surfaced after it completion in 1999; not that there was anything architecturally wrong, but because of its geopolitical address, symbolically there was grave concern. Had this been built elsewhere there probably would be no architectural faux pas, which some considered it to be because it was provocative if not outright offensive. A vertical beam structure divides the rectangle in its entire height, and close to the top of the beam, but a few stories lower are two horizontal protrusions stretched out like two short arms, that I believe happen to house two restaurants. Thus, with the two arms and the tall beam, the tallest cross in the world that has ever been built had been accidentally forged. This was realized at the building’s completion and a controversy started. The Sheik from Saudi Arabia was so enraged by the icon of another faith in the midst of their sacred land that he offered to pay for the building’s implosion and rebuilding. Sheik Muhammad bin Rashid found this unacceptable and retorted that if Burj Al Arab is to go down there would be no Dubai. I believe he was right, for this tower has now come to identify Dubai. The Empire State Building is to New York, the Eiffel Tower is to Paris and now Burj Al Arab is to Dubai. The firm that built this is from the UK, but I still have to find out the names of the firm and its lead architect.
Contrast of the Towers
As vertical as Burj Al Arab is, the Emirates Palace is horizontal. The former is closer to the skies, the latter caresses the earth in spread wing fashion because of its wide footprint. One advantage of the Emirates Palace has over Burj Al Arab is the vast land around it. It has the potential to expand with little or no constraint and without detracting from the beauty of the existing complex. Already in the works is the construction of a multicultural complex, that is just as ambitious as the present complex, consisting of an art museum, a futuristic science exhibit building, a performing arts theatre, a simulated adventure land oriented for kids, a solar system oriented museum and two others that I cannot remember. Frank Gehry is the architect. From the sketches that are made available the buildings are wildly contemporary, like nothing I have ever seen before. Both cities sorely need an art museum, none currently exists, and this is Abu Dhabi’s answer to resolve that need. It would be interesting to see what Burj Al Arab would do; one option is expand the island by more land reclamation, which I think will be foolhardy because it will take away from the beauty of the present masterpiece, which as is, stands in its own island pedestal. On the other hand, Dubai really has nothing to worry about, the Burj Dubai Hotel, the tallest of its kind with varying stocks of what looks like Corinthian columns will be completed at the end of the year.
I have never been inside a palace, except Caesar’s and the Rainier’s in Monaco if you can count that as one. If someone said to me that the Emirates is a true palace I would believe her. This is how magnificent and beautiful this palace is. If the only purpose to visit Abu Dhabi is to see and explore the Emirates Palace, this alone justifies a trip.
If Burj Al Arab is 21st century modernity, the Emirates Palace is traditional Arabian architecture with a giant central dome. The latter is huge and expansive and each section, the entrance, lobby, pre-lobby, lounges, corridors are pictures of size exaggeration. Opulence abounds as it does at Burj Al Arab, yet everything is tastefully appointed. Nothing is garish or tacky. The incredible tapestries that cover the entire oversize walls next to the escalators as one ascends and descend from the huge central cocktail lobby at the Emirates are echoed by two aquaria at the Burj. The tapestries depict land and sea, in terra cotta and aquamarine environs respectively; whereas the mirror-imaged aquaria are enlivened by the continuous motion of colorful undersea denizens that do not apparently sleep. Actually the variety of fishes that the Mirage had behind its registration when it was newly opened in 1989 was more impressive.
So as not to waste words, let me just point out some additional highlights of both towers. Where the exterior colors are muted, the interior is loud and clear and yet balanced. The Burj has gold plated or gold painted pillars that frame its restaurants entrances or high end boutiques and the elevator doors that have ornate decorations. The restrooms are picture perfect and at the Emirates across one regular restroom is a prayer room. At the Burj the high atrium necessarily reflects the exterior shape of the building giving the inside the look of a of an ivory tusk; the alternate sky blue colors of the guest room doors at various floors as seen from below give the atrium a nice effect. At the Emirates the various walls and every door are more ornately decorated in keeping with its Arabian motif. At the Burj as one uses the escalators the differently lit dancing step ladder fountain seems to follow the moving escalators.
We took a convincing simulated submarine ride down after waiting for a few minutes for the rest of the of the seven guests to the Al Mahaara, the seafood restaurant of Burj Al
Arab. There was an oval aquarium from floor to ceiling at the center of the oval-shaped restaurant and tables were arranged around the aquarium and of course the variety of color fish collections that never sleep keeps one entertained, if one opts to allow them. A co-passenger from Taiwan had a tie on but no jacket, he was provided one. This was very impressive with an equally impressive menu. The wine list is a library, with the least priced at $100 a bottle; I ordered this, a mix Sauvignon blanc blend from New Zealand. At these prices no wine should be bad, and it was not. There were two five-course pris fixe menus both equally priced, one a Modern and the other Traditional, we ordered one of each. My second course consist of thin slices of abalone with seaweed swimming in a bowl of clear broth with overwhelming soy sauce taste. The abalone flavor and taste which should also be reflected in the soup was totally compromised. The chef is Australian. The third course was a chocolate linguini with light cream seafood sauce, was more than satisfactory if not perfect. The entrée is a thick choice tuna steak, wrapped around with fresh seaweed, surrounded with what was supposed to be diced Peking duck and cubed vegetables. The combination left the duck limp, greasy and soggy, and then I discovered that it is not possible to blend prime tuna with duck, the taste just don’t mix.I think the chef was being overly creative and innovative and instead destroyed two potentially good dishes. After the meal the comments made their way to the survey sheet with one addition, the beautiful five star restroom, (I took a photo), have faucets not equipped with heat sensors. The maitre’d who used to work as one at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo appreciated the comments, especially about the faucets, thanked me with the Burj ball pen I used as a souvenir. He indicated that the faucet is a first for him and that he will forward the comments to management. Conclusion, it is a most disappointing dinner and doubly so, because it did cost; and because the restaurant checked with us twice, a day before and on the day of the reservation that we indeed are keeping our reservation, along with other details that the faxed sheet we received must be presented to gate guard to gain entrance. We were also given the choice being fetched with their Rolls Royce or flown in with by a helicopter, we opted for a taxi since I can relate with this better. All these enhanced our expectations.
One of our best dinners is at Blues which is at the Marina a beautiful circular area surrounded by waters and yachts, in the midst of expensive well-designed high risers which had a restauranta row. The Blues was suggested as a seafood restaurant and this was our chance to order a live hammour a local spotted fish with sweet flaky meat. I selected a two pound fish and surprisingly the maitre’d suggested that it be steamed with ginger. Scallions and soy sauce. Then I realized I was in a Cantonese restaurant. It is one of the best steamed fish we ever ate, inclusive of some Chinatown New York restaurants. We had two other dishes; a leafy bok choy variation, and roasted squabs and both were very good. I asked for Saafi, a local flat fish almost like a pompret but without the pointy sharp fins, which I saw earlier in a supermarket but it was not available. The glass of faux wine and glass of beer are left untouched. The chef is from Singapore; there was no hint that the place served Cantonese cuisine, not the ambience, not the staff, which included three Filipinos and certainly not the restaurant name.
The next day at lunch I ordered again Hamoor, a skewer of grilled large cubes at the Al Sherazade, the Iranian restaurant. The meat is tough as meat, and I suspected this was from rigor mortis since it was not from an aquarium. The two Italian restaurants Foccacia at our hotel, and Andiamo at the Grand Hyatt were excellent, the latter for its Osso Bucco Milanese, its signature dish. Any Italian restaurant that serves fresh Buffalo mozzarella and burrata in its extensive cold bar is an Italian restaurant. The Nasi Goreng a Malaysian spicy rice dish with the combined texture of risotto and fried rice but not the seasoning, is a meal by itself is excellent, as is the pizza. We had these at the Lobby restaurant,
Incidentally at the hotel, the same glass of Hardy Hill white from Australia is priced much less at the Lobby than at the Foccacia. The Aquarium another seafood restaurant at the Golf and Green Club, 10 minutes from the Hotel by cab is satisfactory but expected more from because of its pre-billing. Come to think I have never had an excellent meal in a golf supported restaurant. Staff is 100% Asian and mostly pretty Filipinas who wear a uniform hair do with a bun, same set of dangling earrings, are mostly of the same height, and of course same styled uniform; it becomes difficult to tell the girls apart. On the way out, I asked Jennifer, one of the girls what is with the hairdo and earrings, she told me this is management mandated. Strange, I thought unless of course the manager has a mania for cookie cutters. The captain is a Filipino an ex-seminarian who poured out the story of his life and experience and Milan as always is a good listener. .
Taxi drivers are hotel and mall oriented, once you deviate from this, specific directions from the concierge must be sought and provided to the driver. This was the case with China Sea restaurant, which is not in the venue of any mall or hotel, recommended by two Chinese expat sisters, with Heena art (temporary tattoo) on their breasts, who we met on a taxi queue after shopping at the City Center Mall. The restaurant is teeming with Chinese patrons or at least Asians and so if one follows the saying, the place must be good. The food is mediocre at best or perhaps we ordered the outside their specialty dishes. The siu lun pao where one expects broth is totally dry. I told Milan this may be due to the desert heat.
One last restaurant is recommended as the best Filipino restaurant in Dubai, the Golden Fork. Our first lunch is the specialty of the house, a seafood platter for two, consisted of a grilled lobster, grilled and fried prawns, grilled and fried squids, a whole grilled bass, small grilled crabs, and fries all for under $50. We went back the following day this time perusing the menu. The long list of Filipino dishes are correctly worded and explained; we selected a few to share and they were authentic and very good. In addition to the Filipino dishes there is an equally long list of Indian dishes, also presumed to be authentic; as hinted by the choices of the other diners; the mystery of the dual menu is solved when I met the owner, a nice Indian gentleman who lived in Dubai for almost twenty years and his co-owner wife is a Filipina. The Golden Fork is a chain of 21 restaurants so far; do not be surprised if it crosses the Atlantic
There is one Catholic Church in Dubai, St Mary’s Church with a very large front yard. It used to be what looks like an old single story warehouse but large. Mass that Saturday afternoon is packed with people flowing over to all the entrances. Oh, if this could only happen in Manhattan churches it will make every monsignor happy. The celebrant is projected on a screen during the homily. To the left of St Mary’s is a Protestant Church, and to its right is a Mosque. The Sheik supports all places of worship. About a block from these is a government run hospital, how very convenient. I did not see a temple or synagogue, possibly there are no members of either community to serve.
Friday instead of Sunday is a day of rest and banks and public offices are closed.
The cab drivers are generally honest and they do not exactly expect tips but will accept them happily. Speaking of tips, all restaurants put a 10% service charge, and additional gratuity is optional At the Al Mahara at the Burj Al Arab there is another 10% added for some kind of made up tax. Restaurant bills generally sum up to .00 decimals in the last digits making the addition easy.
If you need directions at the hotels or malls, the person asked usually takes you close to where you want to go
Overall people are polite and civil regardless of ethnic background. This is something that I did expect and cannot easily relate to, coming from a big city.
Dubai is easily the Middle East shopping paradise, judging from the packed malls at all the times that we visited them. The Mall of the Emirates, the largest and best of all has a large built-in snow ski slope complete with sky rides. It is busy. The Hyatt did have an ice skating rink, which was always busy, but somewhat smaller than the one at Omni in Atlanta, Georgia. Snow and ice in the desert, it must be fun for the local residents.
Souk is a store in Arabic but refers more to an area that specializes on some commodity such as the Spice Souk and the Gold Souk which we did in a walking tour. I bought a couple ounces of saffron which I am told is a bargain. The Gold Souk is an impressive line of gold and jewellery stores on both sides of the alley. Different size nuggets are on display. What is more impressive again is the non-visibility of security in the alley. I was told initially that gold is a good buy here but this cannot be, because the price of an ounce of gold fluctuates with the daily international market price. There is one jewelry store named Milan of which I took a picture. Actually Milan means a meeting place in the Indian language. There is of course the city of fashion, and there is the mercury car. And there is the orchid, my wife
Whereas at home we have downsized our Barron’s, Investor Business Daily and lifted out unnecessary pages from the New York Times, such as the TV Sunday magazine; The ten papers available at the Lobby in English and Arabic are all printed in glossy paper. I think there is something wrong with this picture.
The Gulf Times, a daily in English, is delivered to our room courtesy of the hotel. I would say the coverage is even handed and fair although it did front paged for three days the Paris Hilton on-again, off-again incarceration. The paper called us the world’s number one global warmer instead of polluter.
Although the Al Jazeera channel is listed as available I could not get it in our room. I did not pursue the matter because there are more relevant things to do.
At breakfast they served veal and turkey bacon, but not bacon as we know it. These nonetheless are good and less fatty, and if they are smoked and salted, they are bacon.
The Take-Off from JFK
The departure from JFK via Emirates Airbus 340-500 was delayed for two hours because the aircraft from Hamburg failed to leave on time. The Emirate lounge at JFK made all the difference in making the wait palatable. The lounge is the largest, and in my opinion the best appointed airline lounge at JFK. It served a wide spread of international menu of restaurant quality food that is continually replenished. I never had chicken legs stuffed with goose liver, so this was my choice over seafood and equally appealing prime meat dishes. Yes there is sushi and sashimi and an abundance of Middle Eastern mezze. If one takes an evening flight, remember not to eat before coming to the airport. The alcoholic served is all top shelf, liquors as well as wine.
The multinational air attendants are all pleasant and attentive to the details of an impeccable service. There are 500 channels of entertainment to choose from, sometimes making one wishing (just kidding) that the flight be longer. The airborne food is equal to that served in the lounge; so is the choice of wines. Singapore, Malaysia, and ANA airlines, watch out, service and food are no longer a trans Pacific monopoly.
The Touchdown at JFK
About thirty minutes before we landed at JFK, Elsa and Victor Lazlo took off in a two propeller plane bound for Lisbon. I am referring of course, in my opinion to the most beautiful movie ever filmed, based on the best screenplay ever written, Casablanca,
“Play it Sam,” “Here is looking at you kid,” and “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” are lines so simple and do not need special effects, for effect. The lines while not exactly immortal are saved in many a memory bank. Thus our Arabian adventure came to a close and quite nicely in Casablanca.
NB: The Arabic words are written phonetically and may have some spelling variations.