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.
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.)
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.
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.
Image by: this guy on Flickr