Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Before we actually arrived on the African continent we arranged a short one-night stopover in Dubai. It's one of the seven regions which make up the United Arab Emirates. The city has been called an interesting mix of "sand, sun and shopping" because of its combination of Western comfort and convenience with the unique charm of the Middle East. Not long ago it was simply a tiny coastal village, but today modern day skyscrapers stand alongside historic mosques and wind towers in a city with a population of just over one million.

This romantic, glamorous setting has been achieved in some sections of the city. There are vast artificial islands, new beachfronts, and impressive malls that even boast indoor skiing. In the first picture below you can see an aerial photo of the Palm Islands, created for the obvious objective of more coastline for the tourist industry. And the construction doesn't seem to be letting up. Some estimate that 15% to 25% of the world's cranes are in Dubai. I think that's a rather ridiculous figure, but it is easy to see that construction is booming. The importance of commerce was everywhere, and in the third picture below you can see this manifest itself where optomistrists, jewlers, and a "Tasty Bite" all reside in the same building as an ornate mosque.

Yet the Dubai we primarily saw was probably more typical of what most of the city's residents see on a regular basis. Step away from the strip of expensive five-star hotels and you'll find that Dubai is simply a commercialized Middle Eastern city. Our hotel, the Admiral Plaza Hotel (last picture above), was billed as a three star hotel but I didn't think it was any better than a standard American Holiday Inn, if that.

I found Dubai interesting in that much of its population is comprised of expatriates, both from neighboring Arab countries and also from the West. I think I saw as many Indians, Pakistanis and Asians as I did Arabs. Our hotel even had two Indian bars, one of which we visited. Nevertheless, Arab influence was everywhere in the language, dress, and architecture. Perhaps because of this relative diversity, and also as the headquarters for United Arab Emirates Airlines, the city has become an important tourist destination and economic hub. The relatively booming economy has even attracted the likes of Michael Jackson and other American pop stars.

I was surprised by how busy the streets were for a late weekday night. A majority of shops were open past 10pm and it wasn't the strict Muslim environment I expected. Indeed, although there weren't many women on the street, we did walk past two who propositioned us, saying "I give you massage?" I certainly didn't expect prostitutes in Dubai. Nevertheless, in spite of its growing commercialism, the city retained strong reminders that it was a tradtional Muslim society. The picture on the right shows a mosque in the Dubai airport.

On the economic front, we were told that Dubai had no taxes by a fellow traveler, but further research revealed that's a common misconception. Dubai contains a number of "economic free zones" which have various economic incentives, including little or no taxes for certain industries, to encourage investment and commercial development. Oil accounts for only 6% of Dubai's gross domestic product and its city leaders appear to prefer tourism over oil.

All in all Dubai was an interesting city and I'm glad to have spent a night there. But Africa was calling my name and I was ready to head to the continent. Click here for our Mt. Kilimanjaro climb.

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© Joshua Claybourn. 2006