We spent a total of 12 days in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The country was not on our list of must-see places, nor did we have a strong desire to visit, but once we were in the Middle East we discovered many flights connect through it.
From Amman we landed in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE. The city is unbelievably expensive, and finding affordable accommodation was challenging. Hotels in Abu Dhabi start in the $200 range and really the sky is the limit in terms of luxury. By a stroke of luck I discovered a Korean guesthouse which cost $50 a night. The guesthouse serves Korean style meals, catering to Korean businessmen who travel to Abu Dhabi for work. The owner explained these men choose to stay in her home primarily because they prefer to eat Korean food during their travels and do not know how to prepare it themselves. We enjoyed sharing dinner with the other guests and learning about their lives back at home.
Due to the cost of accommodation in Abu Dhabi and our lack of interest in the city we only stayed two nights. Two nights was more than enough time, as the only place I wanted to visit was the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. You may not have heard of this mosque but if I tell you Rihanna got kicked out of it does that ring a bell? Rihanna decided to do a photoshoot at the Grand Mosque and her sultry posing was not well-received.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Religious sites around the world have varying dress codes but the Grand Mosque has the strictest I have encountered. For women a head covering is required, as well as long sleeves and a long skirt or pants. Men are required to wear pants and at least a short sleeve shirt.
I saw many tourists purchasing beautiful head coverings and dresses but I instead chose to borrow an abaya from the mosque. Right before you enter, women who do not meet the dress code are directed toward a changing room where you are handed an abaya to use while visiting the mosque. Having to wear an abaya doesn’t seem like a big ask, especially when they are supplying them. The abayas came in a few different colors (burgundy, blush and blue) and we were handed them at random. A few women did not like the color they were provided and requested their preferred color. I do not recommend asking for a color that better suits your complexion because those women received major eye rolls.
Although I am not used to wearing a full length dress the abaya was quite airy and comfortable.
The mosque is impressively sprawling and palatial yet still has intricate detailing.
The flower details on the columns were my favorite feature.
You can tell from the columns, chandeliers, archways, and floor detailing how much thought and effort was put into the design. If I had to sum up the place in one word it would be opulent.
Seeing the Grand Mosque was our big excursion while in Abu Dhabi. After our two days in the city we took a public bus to Dubai. The two cities are very well connected so travel in between the two is fairly easy and only takes two hours.
We visited Dubai twice in a short period: once in the days leading up to South Africa, and a second time when we returned from Africa (I’ll post on South Africa next time). Since we were heading to Africa straight from Dubai we used a lot of our time to prepare for the trip by getting vaccines and anti-malarial pills. In order to do this we made an appointment at the local hospital and the entire process went very smoothly. The only notable difference from home was the waiting area; men and women each have their own lobby so we were briefly separated.
Dubai boasts the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa. Our taxi driver mentioned Saudi Arabia is trying to increase tourism in their country so they are building one even taller than the Burj Khalifa. Dubai caught wind of this and now has plans to construct one higher than Saudi’s. Talk about a race to the top… The Burj Khalifa is so tall you have to throw your head back to catch a full view of it. You can take an elevator ride up but we decided to stay at ground level.
All of Dubai seemed to be under construction with new buildings popping up left and right. While the Burj Khalifa is unique and one of a kind, a lot of the other structures and attractions around the city are cut copies from around the world. The waterfront promenade has a fountain show exactly like the one at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. I suppose the only difference was the music playing along with the show was not in English.
We watched the fountain show on Thanksgiving night and it was a good distraction from the homesickness I was feeling. Thanksgiving is my absolute favorite holiday so it was the first time in two months I was really feeling far away from home. A little FaceTime with the family was enough to cure it!
In the past I have heard people refer to Dubai as the Middle Eastern Las Vegas and I found this sort of true. In terms of grandiosity related to the buildings the two are similar but people do not behave the same in Dubai as they do in Las Vegas. What happens in Dubai does not stay in Dubai because the country has cameras everywhere. You can’t walk more than four feet without spotting a camera above you and the constant surveillance made me feel uneasy. It’s not about having something to hide but some behaviors which are acceptable in the Western world are punishable crimes in the UAE, public displays of affection being one of them. The debauchery displayed on the Las Vegas strip would never be acceptable in Dubai due to its conservative nature. The country wants tourism so even though it is becoming progressivley more relaxed on its rules I did not feel relaxed being watched.
Case in point with this sign posted at the beach, note number two:
The beach in Dubai was meticulously maintained without any evidence of litter or trash. We tried to walk into the Burj Al Arab Jumeirah, the five star private island hotel people deem to really be 6/5 stars. Turns out the place is so exclusive you can’t even reach the lobby unless you make a reservation in advance at their restaurant. I guess at $1,000 plus per night exclusivity means no onlookers. We got as close as two peasants can get.
If you like never-ending shopping malls, ostentatious displays of wealth, tall buildings, and sitting in the lap of luxury the UAE is the destination for you! The glamour and newness made it difficult for us to get a pulse on the actual culture and local people. It was fun to see the place for ourselves but I don’t think we will be going back without necessity.