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The United States of Arabia

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I arrived in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) after trekking through Jordan and Israel. Flying on Gulf Air, I stopped off in Bahrain for six hours, where I persuaded the immigration guy to let me into the country for a while even though I was in transit. Total cost: $10 for a one-day visa.

Six hours may not count for a country visit by most travelers’ standards, but my rule is to never pass up a country when it comes my way. I can always go back to Bahrain later and see the sheik, meet Michael Jackson, etc.

In the airport’s entrance, visitors are welcomed by an American style food court, featuring Papa John’s pizza and Cinnabon. As used to bizarre cultural icons as I am, seeing the Papa John’s still surprised me a little. I went outside, walked a few blocks, and sat looking out at the island city for a long time. Back inside, I wandered around the airport trying to find all the Arabs. Where were they? Isn’t Bahrain an Islamic Muslim state?

Islamic it may be, although certainly in the secular sense, but Arab it definitely isn’t… and the short experience in Bahrain turned out to be a good preview of life in Dubai.

Arrival

I had arranged to rent a car in Dubai so that I could drive to every other emirate in the country. Landing in DXB after the second short Gulf Air flight, I realized after an hour of searching through car rental row (this is no exaggeration; there are more than 50 agents and companies there) that the car rental place I had booked through Expedia no longer existed. No one had heard of it, there was no guy with a sign, and when a friendly agent from another company helped me call them, there was no answer.

So much for my $15 a day car rental in Dubai, but I was at least able to rent another one for just a bit more. By then, however, it was after 10:00 at night. I had never been to Dubai before and had no idea where I was going to stay.

Thankfully there was nothing to worry about, because I was able to drive into the city with no problems, listening to 101.6 (“Arabian Radio Network”) and checking out all the tall buildings. I ended up in the Indian district of Deira, where I had heard the relatively affordable hotels were located.

I say “relatively” because Dubai is one expensive city. Before I went, my friends asked me if I was going to stay at the Jumeirah.

“I heard about this really cool hotel,” several people told me. “You should go there.”

Yes, the Jumeirah looks pretty cool. I drove past it several times on the way out of town. But the rates begin at $850 a night, which was at least $750 out of my budget.

I ended up paying about $85 for a room at a one-star Indian hotel. After walking around the district and having vegetable curry for breakfast the next morning, I checked out with no plans for the following night’s stay—I just decided to start driving.

Driving from Emirate to Emirate

I drove to Abu Dhabi, parked the car, and walked around for a long time. I found a shopping mall (that’s what you do in the UAE) with a Carrefour and a Dunkin Donuts. The Carrefour was good for a takeaway sandwich and the Dunkin Donuts for coffee for the road.

Over the next three days I spent about six hours a day driving around the whole country, which is not that difficult to do. The UAE is divided into seven emirates, and I visited each of them. I don’t usually enjoy driving long distances, but in this case it was fun.

Each emirate has its own rule of law and local customs. Some are more Western, like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and some more traditional.

(For those interested, the emirates are Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Quwain.)

Omani Enclave in UAE
Image by Rolf Palmberg

There is also an Omani exclave you can pass through as you drive through the country. I took this option, naturally, and then took a wrong turn somewhere as nightfall was coming. It wasn’t dangerous—thanks to the strict enforcement of Islamic law, no place in the UAE or nearby is really unsafe—but at the same time, I did wonder a little about where I was and where I would eventually spend the night. Two hours later, I came out on a main road that I recognized and ended up making it to the coastal city of Fujairah just before midnight.

At that point I was ready to pay for a real hotel, but Le Meridian was completely full. I ended up staying at a Filipino place for mariners a few miles down the street, and I’m glad I did. The bill was a third of the cost of the nicer hotel, and the stay was certainly a lot more authentic.

Speaking of culture, everyone I met on my 4-day driving tour was Indian, Pakistani, or Filipino. I never talked with any Arabs in the UAE, rendering my newly acquired 15 words of Arabic useless.

Departure

After my driving tour was complete, I settled back in Dubai for another two nights before flying back to Europe. I found another Indian hotel and walked around the city. I went to more shopping malls and local markets, and found the markets to be somewhat disappointing. For people who have never been to markets in Africa or the Middle East, I guess they would be interesting. But for the well-traveled, they are uninspiring.

My last night in town, I ate dinner in a Hindu diner where I ordered a set meal for $3. I had no idea what some of the food was, but since it was all vegetarian and most of it was good, I wasn’t too worried.

My flight from DXB was on Turkish Airlines and had been scheduled for departure at 3:00 a.m. At the check-in line, I watched as two people pleaded with the agents while trying to rebook for that night’s flight. Apparently they had been scheduled for the previous night’s flight, but had been confused by the date.

I’ve seen this same scenario play out several times in different airports around the world, and it’s never fun to watch. On flights that leave after midnight, you have to remember that you go to the airport the evening before the flight takes off. Otherwise, you will be a day late when you show up the next day. Thankfully I haven’t made this mistake yet, but I’m not saying it won’t happen in the future.

I stayed awake until our 2:45 a.m. boarding time, where 150 sleepy passengers got on the plane. Supposedly, we flew to Istanbul, but I don’t remember much about it. From Istanbul I went to Brussels and back into the land of the west.

Although for a while in Dubai, I didn’t really feel like I had left the western world. The United States of Arabia exists between east and west, amid a collage of Arabian, South Asian, and Western culture. In forging its own identity, it seems the Arabs of Dubai have chosen economic success over the cultural homogeneity of a place like Saudi Arabia. We’ll see how long that lasts, and how many tall buildings they continue to build for the world’s visitors.

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Image by: this guy on Flickr

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    7 Comments

    • Nathan says:

      Really cool article and highly motivational. What you are doing is what I hope to be doing soon and I’d like to thank you for showing us it is possible.

      I’ll be in Afghanistan soon, but not for travel. Maybe I’ll get luck and get a chance to stop by Dubai, I hear there is lots of gambling there 🙂

    • Chris says:

      Thanks, Nathan. Enjoy Afghanistan! I haven’t made it there yet.

    • Saravanan says:

      Hi Chris,

      It would be great if you get a little in detail. Such as which hotel, which car rental you booked and all that. This would be helpful for people who visit to that particular place. Just a thought!

      Cheers,
      Saravanan

    • Chris says:

      @Saravanan,

      Thanks for the idea. Yeah, I am not entirely sure how to balance the sharing of details like that along with the general flow of the travelogue. I am working on a project for August that will provide a lot more practical info about how I travel, but I’ll consider adding more details to the travel posts as well.

    • Muscat Sally says:

      Hey there. Stumbled upon your blog while perusing the travelblogs website. Interesting and very accurate insight on Gulf “culture” during your short time in the UAE!

      Next time you’re in the GCC area, head on over to Oman. Muscat has a lot of the same characteristics as the other GCC capitals (south & southeast asian populations, modernity, cars, western brands, shopping malls, etc) but you definitely see a lot more Omanis and there is a definite feel of them retaining their culture, more than the other GCC states. I’ve heard that His Majesty the Sultan actually wanted Muscat to be the antithesis of hypermodern Dubai.

    • Too bad you didn’t get 6 hours in Istanbul as well… It is an amazing city.

      Thanks for the stories. Very good. I’m glad I found your blog. I just got back from spending 2 months living overseas – I love the life!

    • Shannon says:

      Hi Chris,

      Interesting bit about Dubai. I lived there for a bit in 2001 – was there when the WTC went down – and you are right on about it I think. I liked it, but it wasn’t that different than living in the US except I worked at a college for Arab women, so I did get the contact with locals in that respect. I just found your blog last week – while trying to figure out how to get myself back to living overseas – and am excited to delve more into your travels and the manifesto. Cheers!

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