Wednesday 29th January 2020 to Wednesday 5th February – Our Man in the Persian Gulf.

When MAE announced in his last email to his public that he was planning a week in Dubai two regular readers (both of whom know him well and had been to the emirate) separately mentioned that they didn’t think it would be his kind of place. Well, yes, and then again, no. Yes, it is one of the premier examples of rapid (over-rapid?) urban development. Its population has rocketed (sorry) from 72,000 in 1970 to 2,878,000 today. This growth has taken place hand in hand with the development of high-rise building. It ranks third in the world for the number of skyscrapers (after Hong Kong and New York) with 148 buildings over 150 metres, including the world’s tallest, the Burj Khalifa, at 830 metres. Yes, living and working conditions for migrant works can be attrocius. Yes, there seems to be a shortage of open spaces within the city. Yes there are roads with eight lanes in each direction – one with 10 lanes is under construction. Yes many of its major sites are enormous shopping malls containing just about every outlet and every brand you’ve ever heard of. They, and the ever increasing number of gigantic luxury hotels, both have more and more outlandish offerings - think indoor real-snow ski slopes and bedrooms with views into a massive aquarium. (This last brings a new, and rather more wholesome, meaning to the term “sleeping with the fishes.”) His correspondents had reasons to warn that such a place might not hold much interest for a lover of high culture such as MAE.

But, on the other hand there is the old cliché that a change is as good as a rest, and you’d be hard pressed to find a bigger contrast to dear old Eastbourne. Your man (as a member of the Twentieth Century Society) is anyway something of a fan of modern architecture. He appreciates that a well- designed skyscraper can get the pulse racing in a way that few other human creations will – think of the Empire State Building in New York or the Seagram Building in San Francisco. And, whatever view one takes, Dubai is a place that demands to be visited. There is nothing shy and self-effacing about Dubai. And given that Islam, in its different manifestations, is constantly in the news, it is important to view how one form of the world’s second most adhered-to religion, less than 100 miles from traditional strictures of Iran, copes with the city’s determination to be a modern business and tourism centre. I set off on the seven hour journey to Dubai from Gatwick with much anticipation.

Enjoyable economy flight with Emirates from Gatwick to Dubai. Nice curry. Good value. Met by old chum Hamish whom I had not seen since the 1980s. He was in pink trousers to ease recognition. Not necessary as he has not changed greatly. We drove through the evening traffic along the impressive but rather scary Sheikh Zayed Road (the Emirate’s main highway) through canyons of skyscrapers to Hamish and his wife Christina’s lovely home on the spectacular Palm Jumeirah, which was my base for the visit. After a long flight and a good night’s rest, relaxation was the order of the first day, including a swim in the crystal clear water of the Palm Lagoon and a walk on the long sandy beach which is for the sole use of residents and their guests. For my whole visit the daytime temperature was in the low to mid-twenties and sunny - perfect after a long wet English winter. In the evening we went out to an oriental restaurant called Asian District at a nearby area called The Pointe. Dubai is known for its shopping malls but this recently created development (opened 2019) of shops, restaurants and a cinema within the Palm breakwater impressed me as a relaxed place to stroll outdoors – though it might, I suppose, not be so pleasant when the mercury reaches over 40 degrees in July. We sat at an outdoor table on the upstairs terrace at the restaurant (****) overlooking the lagoon and ordered a wide selection of favourites (bao buns, dumplings, satay etc.) and I enjoyed a cold beer. I had read that restaurants outside hotels were unable to serve alcohol but that seems to be changing. We were entertained by an excellent firework display put on as part of the Dubai Shopping Festival (26 December to 1 February in 2020). A version of the January sales I suppose, with lots of reduced prices, and I liked the idea that Dubai, a city whose shops are a USP, should have a festival solely devoted to retail therapy.

Regular readers will know that MAE is something of a devotee of the turf. He makes an annual visit to the Plumpton Racecourse Christmas meeting (see review December 2018). So he was very keen to visit Meydan racecourse during his stay in Dubai. Meydan is the centre of horse racing in the Middle-East and is the personal dream of Sheikh Mohammed the Prime Minster and ruler of Dubai. He first became interested in racing when he was taken to the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket when he was a student in the 1960s, and he now owns a huge horseracing empire including the Godolphin training operation and the Darley stud. Meydan, as one might expect, is something of a contrast to Sussex’s beloved Plumpton. Meydan is a place of superlatives. The towering grandstand is a mile long and there is (like most places in Dubai) a five-star hotel (trackside) with 285 rooms. As at American courses there are both grass and dirt tracks. My host Hamish and I arrived mid-afternoon and parked easily in one of the vast covered car parks. We walked into one of the huge grandstand foyers and out onto the course level terraced enclosure. Admission appeared to be free. Even though this was one of the lower level race meetings, as opposed to the Dubai World Cup Carnival meetings which lead up to the Dubai World Cup itself ($7.2 million to the winner), the prize to the winning owner of each of these races race was around £22,000. That’s about five times the prize for winning the average race at Plumpton. The audience, save for Hamish and myself, was entirely made up of locals dressed in their traditional long white thawbs and headscarves (called the ghutrah in Dubai). The only other non-Arabs seemed to be the jockeys many of whom were Irish. Betting is not allowed under Islamic law though I did see signs of what might have been some illegal on course gambling. A competition where entrants try to forecast the winners of all six races is allowed, apparently with a big prize such as a car. We arrived too late to have a go at this and having watched the second (on turf) and third (on dirt) races we headed off. I think this is the only time I’ve ever been to a racecourse and come away level financially!

On the way back to the Palm we stopped off to have a look at one of Dubai’s largest shopping centres, the Mall of the Emirates. The place is huge with 630 retail outlets including a vast range of brands from Harvey Nicholls and M & S to Burberry and Bvlgari. It’s bit like a giant airport terminal shopping area. Depending on your tastes you will be either like a kid in a sweet shop or shuddering to the depths of your being. What it also has is the World’s largest indoor ski run, with real snow - and penguins. There can’t be many places other where you can see penguins while hearing the Islamic call to prayer.

The next day, a Sunday, is a working day in Dubai. Hamish kindly dropped me off at Nakheel metro station from where I was going to visit Dubai’s old centre on the banks of the Dubai creek. The Dubai Metro is very impressive, running mostly above ground on elevated viaducts giving good views, but going underground in the centre. It is cheap and easy to use with the Nol card which can be bought and topped up at stations. Stations and trains are both air-conditioned. I took the red line to Bur Juman station where I changed onto the green line for three stops to Al Ras station in Deira, the second oldest district. It was from there a short walk through a bustling area of small shops and warehouses to the souks. There are various souks here including the Gold Souk and the Textile Souk, but I was particularly keen to visit the Spice Souk with the intention of buying some Iranian saffron. After one less good experience where a shop-keeper grabbed hold of my arm to stop me leaving, I came across a quieter shop connected to the Negin Saffron Arvan company, which has an office nearby. They showed me various qualities and sold me 5 grams for 90 AED (under £20) in a little gold jar, without any aggressive selling. Having got the booty I went down onto the nearby quay to catch an abra to the Bur Dubai (southern) side of the Creek. An abra is a wooden, motor powered water taxi holding about twenty passengers. It takes about five minutes to cross the creek and costs 1 AED per person (about 20p). It is much more exciting than it sounds as the Creek must be one of the busiest sections of water in the world with large motorized wooden dhows of between 200 to 800 tons called booms (I learn from an academic paper[1] found online*) going up and down the waterway at some speed. From the abra station I walked for about ten minutes to the Dubai Museum which is situated in the Al Fahidi Fort begun in 1787. Despite many of the exhibits being of the old fashioned kind (and none the worse for that - tableaux and dioramas of old tailor’s shops and carpenters shops, Bedouin tents – that kind of thing), I found the illustrated time line showing the recent rapid development particularly instructive. There is also an excellent collection of old boats. Well worth a visit, especially for about 60p. By this time it was past two o’clock and MAE was hungry. Just opposite the museum is the Arabian Courtyard Hotel and on the left-hand corner, as you look at it from the museum, is the Cross-Cultural Café - the perfect place for a light lunch with helpful friendly service. The clue is in the name with burgers and salads alongside Emirati dishes. To show willing, I had a generous cold mezze which came with delicious Arab bread. (****). I then caught the metro back to the Mall of the Emirates station where I picked up a reasonably priced taxi back to the Palm.

On the Sunday evening I got a taste of the ex-pat life with a visit to the Dubai Offshore Sailing Club, courtesy of my hosts. The club was founded in 1974 with the help of the then ruler of Dubai Sheikh Rashid who granted land along the coast. Today it has 700 members and a marina with 152 berths. When we arrived the clubhouse was packed with people watching the France v. England Six Nations rugby match. The crowd being somewhat Anglophile many departed soon afterwards as France won 24-17. We decided to eat al fresco on the terrace overlooking the marina while keeping track of the rugby on our mobile phones. The clubhouse serves a varied menu of curries, steaks, burgers, pizzas, pasta etc. – not surprisingly anything but Middle Eastern food - judging by the very tasty Wagyu beef burger I enjoyed, to a high standard. (****) As the sun set there were spectacular views of distant illuminated skyscrapers, and further fireworks to mark the very last day of the Shopping Festival.

On my second last full day I was booked on to a desert safari with a company called Heritage Desert Safaris. I was picked up at 3.15 p.m. at the nearby Fairmont The Palm Hotel. Already on board the 4 X 4 were my fellow safarists, a nice couple from Yorkshire called Bob and Jess and Pedro who had come from Patagonia in Chile. Our friendly guide drove us out into the Dubai desert, which is an eastern extension of the Arabian Desert, the Earth’s second largest after the Sahara. We arrived at a parking area where we transferred into 1950s Series 1 and Series 2 open Land Rovers. There must have been at least 20 of them. We belted up and headed deeper into the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. In the middle distance we saw Oryx and Gazelles and then stopped to enjoy a glass of Vimto (really[2] ) and a demonstration of falconry as the sun set behind the falconer and his bird of prey. We moved on to a replica of a Bedouin encampment where we were to enjoy a “typical” desert meal which we ate at low tables sitting on cushions or low wooden blocks. And the food was excellent. To begin there was kibbeh, fatoush salad topped with crispy fried pieces of pitta bread, and sambousek (like little cheesy pasties). To follow there was ouzi (long cooked spiced lamb), harees (a sort of cracked wheat porridge with beef – I found it rather bland), chicken breast kebabs, and a spicy camel meat stew. This last meat was quite strongly flavoured and needed the spicing. As a dessert there was lovely fresh fruit and luqaimat which are light donut-style dough balls served with a date syrup. To drink there was camel milk or fruit juices. The melon juice was particularly good. After eating there was traditional entertainment. Two men danced with ceremonial pistols. One wag commented that it would be even more exciting if the guns were loaded – and I read online that (particularly in Saudi Arabia) gunfire is often a part of it. Arab drumming was demonstrated and then the audience were invited to join in. Guests could also go out of the enclosure for a short camel ride and (of course) MAE availed himself of the opportunity. I’m sure many readers will have already tried it but the riding is the easier part – just be prepared to sway from side to side. Mounting and dismounting is the potentially dangerous bit. The camel gets up back legs first and sits down front legs first so make sure in both cases that you lean back a long way to avoid being thrown forward. [There speaks an expert after, at most, a 100 yard ride - Ed.]. After this we headed back on the desert roads to pick up the 4 x 4, and after dropping the others at their hotel our guide kindly took me back to the Palm. MAE is often rather sniffy about such tourist orientated events but this was high quality, great fun and good value. (*****)

Tuesday was his last full day in the United Arab Emirates and your man decided it would be a shame to come all that way without setting foot in another Emirate. Dubai is one of seven emirates which make up the UAE which is a federation. For fans of Pointless the UAE is a country “and by ‘country’ we mean a sovereign state which is a member of the UN in its own right”. The country is a sovereign constitutional monarchy and each emirate is governed by a ruler who together form the Federal Supreme Council. The others emirates are Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fajairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain. I’m told they differ greatly in wealth and influence. MAE chose Abu Dhabi which is the capital of the UAE. It also has the Louvre Museum Abu Dhabi which opened in November 2017 and was designed by French architect Jean Nouvel which was a big draw for an arts reviewer.

To reach Abu Dhabi was relatively easy – I went by bus. I was a little surprised that there wasn’t a fast train between the two wealthiest cities in the country, though I understand various plans have been proposed. Anyway, I was kindly dropped at Ibn Batuta metro station which also serves as a bus departure point, at around 9.30 a.m. and caught the next bus about 10 minutes later. If you have a Dubai Nol metro card you can also use this on the bus to Abu Dhabi and back (but not on the local buses when you get there). Don’t forget to tap in and out when boarding and disembarking. The buses have comfortable reclining seats though I wouldn’t call them luxurious. They are also cheap – about £6 each way and take about 1 hr. 40 mins. I arrived at Abu Dhabi bus station at around 11.20. The local bus to the Louvre leaves a short distance away across a bridge but buy your bus ticket before leaving the bus station. The journey is 7 miles and takes about 30 minutes and will give you some idea of what Abu Dhabi is like. On a first and very brief impression it struck me as much more staid than Dubai. One source I read suggested it was, in American terms, more like Washington compared to Dubai’s Las Vegas. That seems about right given that Abu Dhabi is building major museums and galleries in a cultural district while there are rumours of a casino opening in Dubai.

The gallery is an impressive sight when you pull into the bus stop. Its main feature is a low slung grey dome made of a web of interconnecting aluminium polygons – or are they stars? – which create a perforated roof space allowing the rays of the sun to gently percolate through to the interior. The dome appears to rest on water, supported at various points by plain white cuboid buildings which, from a distance, have the appearance of a desert fort floating in an oasis. (*****) In fact the building is on an island and it is hoped that it will eventually be part of a bigger cultural quarter including a Guggenheim modern art museum, a performing arts centre and a maritime museum. On arrival you cross a bridge into a bright foyer area. The permanent galleries have large windows looking out onto water with inspiring quotations in Arabic, French and English (which sounds a bit naff but actually works well). The exhibits are broadly chronological and try to feature a range of civilization both oriental and occidental. The galleries had a lot of visitors including several school parties but at no point was it too crowded. There are some stunning exhibits, including a large statue of Ramses II, a bronze Islamic Mari-Cha lion from southern Spain or Italy, a Van Gogh self-portrait, and a Leonardo portrait called La Belle Ferronniere - all on loan from various French museums. (The controversial Salvator Mundi attributed to Leonardo, which the Louvre Abu Dhabi bought for a record $450 million in 2017 is still not on show). These splendours make for an impressive days’ visit but if one wanted to study the art of one period or area in depth one would need to go to one of the great European museums. (With that caveat, still *****.)

In addition to the permanent collection, there is a gallery for temporary exhibitions. When MAE visited it was “10,000 Years of Luxury” which was entering its last two weeks. Very suitable for the UAE you might think, with its huge shopping malls full of international brands and its high proportion of supercars and to some extent you would be correct. But this was by no means focusing on ephemeral bling. The show, curated by Olivier Gabet the director of the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, grouped 350 exquisite objects across what he describes as “influential turning points” including “luxury at Court”, “the Industrial Revolution”, and “Twentieth Century Paris”. It made comparisons between what was being created in different parts of the world at similar times. The objects, picked out by spotlights in the surrounding darkness, were (mostly) hand wrought and are all among the most astonishingly beautiful things humanity has created. They have mainly survived because their various owners have recognised them as being objects for the ages. Starting out with the oldest known pearl found by local pearl fishers around 5600 BCE, the exhibition also featured the Boscoreale Treasure of Roman silver tableware. Other exhibits that stood out was an enamelled copper representation of a mythical beast called a qilin made in 18th Century China and a ten-leaved lacquered and gilded screen by Armand-Albert Rateau featuring foxes made in Paris c.1921-22. The exhibition didn’t seek to define luxury but instead showed that is an ever changing concept. The final glass case features, in solitary splendour, a large hour-glass (by Australian industrial designer Mark Newson) – the message clearly being, to your Man at least, that in our own busy world the greatest luxury of all is time itself, and I suspect that is as true in the UAE as anywhere. (*****)

While on the theme of luxury, I made a short visit to the high quality gift shop where I bought the most expensive – but also the most delicious – bars of chocolate I have ever tasted. They were made by a Dubai company called Mirzum. The best of all was the Dark Chocolate with Date and Fennel (*****) which has a thin layer of pure locally grown date sandwiched between layers of 62% chocolate. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) the chocolate doesn’t seem to be available in the UK, but they do have a shop and café at their Dubai factory. I returned, by taxi this time, to Abu Dhabi bus station and caught the coach back to Dubai.

The following morning Hamish dropped me at the airport for my comfortable lunchtime Emirates flight home to London Gatwick. A truly memorable trip (even more so with hindsight from locked down Eastbourne). Many thanks to Hamish and Christina for inviting me and being such wonderful hosts, and not forgetting their lively canine companions Bingo and Nugget. Thanks also to Hamish and Christina’s Nepalese housekeepers Sundar and Mani for looking after me so well.

[1] A survey on the features of the existing motorized wooden dhows and the proposed replacement for these vessels. M.Sayehbani & H. Zeraatgar. Amir Kanbir University of Technology, faculty of Marine technology, Iran. 2005. [2] Vimto, invented in Manchester in 1908, was brought to the Middle East by British soldiers in the First World War. In the 1920s an enterprising Saudi Arabian company called Abdulla Aujan and Brothers bought the rights to sell the sugary beverage on the Gulf. They marketed it as a quick way to restore energy after a days’ fasting during Ramadan and it has become a tradition.


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