Dubai, the second largest of the seven United Arab Emirates, is a land of contrasts: beautiful coastline, backed by an expansive desert; traditional wind towers and minarets in the shadows of soaring skyscrapers; time-honored souks selling gold and traditional wares near enormous shopping malls filled with contemporary brands. Dubai has developed into a global community with over 200 nationalities in residence and is a model of stability in a deeply unsettled region. Whether you visit for work or play, Dubai will make you reconsider any preconceived perceptions of this desert oasis.
The Creation of a City
Historically, Dubai was a quiet settlement that survived on fishing and pearl diving. In 1830 it was taken over by the Bani Yas tribe led by the Maktoum family which still rules the emirate. Sheik Maktoum granted tax concessions to foreign traders and a trading empire was begun on Dubai’s large creek and natural harbor. The discovery of oil in 1966 led to improvements in infrastructure and further increased trade. In the 1990s, a concerted investment in tourism and a huge boom in development ensued, creating today’s architecturally stunning Dubai.
What to See and Do in Dubai
Because modern Dubai is only just over 20 years old, there’s a limited number of historical attractions for visitors. Two opportunities that are worthwhile are the Al Fahidi District and the Heritage Village.
Al Fahidi District is a collection of century-old buildings made from coral – the first permanent structures beyond reed huts – topped with wind towers that functioned as an early form of air conditioning. The Sheik Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding there presents a humor-filled explanation of Muslim culture, dress and values while guests enjoy a “family-style” lunch of traditional dishes while seated on floor pillows.
In the Heritage Village, you’ll find camels, displays of local handicrafts and a small tourist market. On most nights, and especially colorful during the Ramadan season, the Village also celebrates UAE music, dancing and local dishes in a bazaar-like atmosphere.
Dubai’s modern and sometimes outlandish architecture is a true marvel that boasts one superlative after another. You can get a bird’s eye view of the city and the vast desert beyond from 148 stories up in the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. Beside it, you can shop over 1,200 stores of the Dubai Mall, the world’s largest mall, or see the nightly show of the Dubai Fountain, the world’s highest dancing waters. Also nearby is the Souk Al-Bahar, a charming Arabian-themed souk packed with restaurants.
A flight-seeing trip aboard a seaplane or a helicopter is a breathtaking way to get a panoramic view more of Dubai’s incredible development along Jumeirah Beach and the coast:
- The world’s only 7-star hotel, the iconic sail-shaped Burj Al Arab
- The Palm, the world’s largest man-made island shaped in the form of a Palm Tree
- The World Islands, an artificial archipelago constructed in the shape of the world
Once you’re acquainted with the city, a trip into the desert is a must. Our Virtuoso UAE partner is the premier desert tour operator to take you four-wheeling through the desert dunes to a desert camp where you can be a Bedouin for the day: watch a falconry demonstration, ride camels, feast on Arabic delicacies and listen to traditional music under the endless, starry desert sky. Travel Maestro tip: Do not miss a desert safari…trust me on this!
Safety and Etiquette in Dubai
Dubai is a traditional Muslim society, but is the most relaxed of all the emirates. While there are no strict rules for dress, female visitors should respect the cultural mores by covering shoulders and knees. Men are also expected to dress appropriately. Despite the heat, business dress is of the formal suit and tie variety, although most Emirati business men choose to wear the dishdash (white robe) and traditional white Keffiyeh (head scarf). If visiting Jumeirah Mosque, the only mosque in the city open to non-Muslims, ladies need to wear modest clothing and a head scarf. Shorts and swimsuits are fine only at hotel pools and private beaches. Travel Maestro tip: Air conditioning in public spaces is often set on frigid and evenings in the desert can be quite cool, so be sure to pack a jacket or sweater.
Although the government doesn’t encourage alcohol consumption, in deference to tourists and Western expats, alcohol is available to non-Muslims only in hotel restaurants. There are two retail suppliers of alcohol, but you must have an alcohol license to purchase, which is only available to residents working in Dubai. Travel Maestro tip: Visitors are allowed to take up to four liters of alcohol into the country, which you can purchase in the airport duty-free zone.
Friday is the official day of rest and prayer for the Muslim city. The weekend is Friday and Saturday, with Sunday being a working day.
Dubai is an extremely safe city where threats stemming from U.S. and British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan are virtually unheard of. Officials boast that the city is crime-free and it is arguably safer than many international cities, although petty theft can occur occasionally, so commonsense precautions are prudent.
On a personal note, besides the many incredible “best ofs” in Dubai and the unabashed luxury that permeates the lifestyle, my most poignant take-away was the realization that with all of the unrest and outright war we see in the press, all countries of the Middle East are not the same. Dubai’s Muslim culture is not one of hatred or oppression. Americans are both welcome and safe in Dubai, as are over 200 other nationalities. The Dubai leadership is stable and visionary, planning to increase tourism to 20 million visitors a year by 2020 – and they are on track with about 11 million this year. If a visit to Dubai wasn’t on your radar before, it will be in the future! When you’re ready to see this fast-growing city for yourself, contact your Covington travel advisor to arrange a trip that will make a lasting impression.