For many, the Middle East comes to focus when they hear the name ‘Dubai’ mentioned. Surprisingly what many do not know is Dubai is the modern face of the larger United Arab Emirates (UAE), fêted for many things ancient and modern
Despite its harsh climatic conditions and the vast seas of ubiquitous sand, the original roots of the UAE run deep – very deep, in fact – to centuries before oil stuck in the 1950s, to when they were first exported commercially in the year 1962. The earliest recorded settlements in the UAE date back to the Bronze Age. In the 3rd millennium BC, a culture known as Umm al-Nar arose near modern Abu Dhabi. Umm al-Nar’s influence extended well into the interior and right down the coast to today’s Oman. There were also settlements at Badiyah (near Fujairah) and at Rams (near Ras al-Khaimah) during the third millennium BC.
But it was the discovery of oil that proved to be the elixir for this desert nation, transforming this once unknown and reticent fishing village into one of the most prosperous countries in living memory. With Abu Dhabi becoming the first of the Emirates to start exporting oil, the country’s society and economy were transformed forever, for good. And it was the late, lamented Sheikh Zayed, ruler of Abu Dhabi and the President of the UAE during its inception, oversaw the development of all the Emirates and directed oil revenues into health care, education and the national infrastructure UAE is today a vivacious nation that is rich in history and steeped in culture, that is equally acknowledged as the preferred entry points for travels into the Middle East region, from any global destination.
To be found geographical on the eastern side of the Arabian Peninsula at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, UAE has Saudi Arabia to the west and southwest and the Sultanate of Oman to the southeast and on the eastern tip of the Musandam Peninsula, as well as an Omani enclave within its borders. The UAE have coastlines on the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf, sharing sea borders with Qatar and Iran.
The Seven Emirates
To put things in proper context, the United Arab Emirates, oft times known merely as the ‘Emirates’, is a federation of seven independent Emirates. A hereditary Emir governs each these constituent Emirates and all of them come together to choose one of their members to be the President of the UAE Federation. The seven Emirates that together form the UAE are Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Quwain. The largest Emirate is Abu Dhabi, which accounts for 87% of the UAE’s total area (67,340 square kilometers). The smallest Emirate is Ajman, which encompasses only 259 square kilometers. Intentionally the islands, man-made and natural, have been left out. The capital city of the UAE is the bustling Abu Dhabi, which also happens to be the state’s main center of political, industrial and cultural pursuits. Dubai is the most populated Emirate with 35.6% of the UAE population. The Emirate of Abu Dhabi has a further 31.2%, meaning that over two-thirds of the UAE population lives in either Abu Dhabi, or Dubai.
The wealth discovered in the UAE acted as a powerful magnate to attract people from all over the world, who thronged to its shores to capitalise on the country’s massive growth and development opportunities that presented itself. Today, the population is incredibly varied and diverse. At the end of 2012, the population of UAE was recorded to be at 8.2 million, with 11.47% being the ‘real’ Emiratis (locals). Most of the rest come from the Indian Subcontinent of India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, or Bangladesh (about 60%); other parts of South-East Asia, particularly the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia (another perhaps 20%); and “Western” countries (Europe, Australia, North America, South Africa 5%), with the remainder from everywhere else.
A Land of Mesmerizing Contrasts
UAE is a mind-boggling study in contrasts. Besides the mega malls and skyscrapers can be found quaint little ‘souqs’, where even to this date trading takes place just as it did centuries ago. Besides the global brands and the fancy cars can be found people who still faithfully follow their traditional Bedouin customs and modest lifestyles. Undoubtedly, generous credit is due to those who had the vision and have successfully dared to convert their dreams into realities – retain the old-world charm of this country, yet convert it to make it one of the most modern of nations within the region, if not in the world.
Places to See and Things to Do
The United Arab Emirates, one of the world’s fastest growing tourist destinations, has all the right ingredients for an unforgettable holiday – sun, sand, sea, sports, unbeatable shopping, top-class hotels and restaurants, an intriguing traditional culture, and a safe and welcoming environment to name a few. For want of space we shall limit our scope to cover only the key attractions found in the two of the largest Emirates of the UAE, namely Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Dubai has rightfully earned its names as ‘The City of Superlatives’ for its coveted collection of the ‘biggest’, ‘largest’, ‘tallest’ presentations. Juxtaposed against these modern marvels are also some ancient wonders too.
Dubai Museum: A definite stop by, this museum retraces the social history of the Emirates. From ancient reed houses to pearl diving implements, rare collections of artifacts are kept for public display. The reconstructed centuries old ‘traditional souq’ replete with authentic sights and sounds adds to its aura.
Jumeirah Mosque: Built in the medieval Fatimid traditions, this is the largest mosque in the city showing stunning samples of Islamic architecture and Arabic calligraphy. This is one of the few mosques where non-Muslims are allowed entry.
Burj Khalifa: Standing tall at 828 metres and 160 floors this is the world’s tallest structure by a long shot, over 300m taller than its closest contender is. The observation deck at the 124th floor is the second highest in the world after the Shanghai World Financial Center. Dominating the Dubai skyline, is the tower houses nine hotels and a Las Vegas-inspired fountain system. Advance booking is required to visit the observation deck.
The Dubai Fountain: At 270m (900ft) in length and sporting a jet that shoots water up to 150m (500ft), the Dubai Fountain is the world’s largest dancing fountain with classical, Arabic and world music. Daily shows start every evening at the Burj Dubai Lake.
The Palm Islands: These are arguably one of the world’s modern man-made marvels. The Palm Islands are an artificially created archipelago just off the coast of UAE in the Persian Gulf. The Palm Islands are made of the Palm Jumeirah, the Palm Jebel Ali and the Palm Deira. Besides these, there are also two other artificial archipelagos namely The World and The Universe, located between the Palm Islands.
Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo: Set right in the centre of Dubai Mall, this aquarium is one of the largest of its kind in the world with a record-breaking acrylic panel and 270-degree glass walk-through tunnel. Best of all, the bold can go for a dive in the aquarium amongst the sharks, stingrays and enormous groupers. Some other note worthies would have to be Dubai’s enviable shopping options, excellent golfing facilities, beach and desert safaris to name just a few.
Abu Dhabi has its fair share of places to see too.
Abu Dhabi Heritage Village: Take a trip back in time to discover what life was like for the town’s early inhabitants – the Al Bu Falah branch of the Bani Yas tribal group from Liwa who moved to Abu Dhabi in the 1790s. The town quickly evolved as an important pearling centre. Pearl divers and boatmen tended their date gardens and camels in the oasis and desert of the hinterland during the winter and trekked back to the coast in the summer months to dive for pearls.
Sheikh Zayed Mosque: This is the world’s sixth largest mosque and of course the largest in the UAE. This mosque is truly a masterpiece of modern Islamic architecture. Entry into the mosque for non-Muslims is restricted. Khalifa Park. The best park by far, built at a cost of $50 million. It has its own aquarium, museum, train, play parks and manicured gardens. This marvellous place for leisure and entertainment built on an area of half a million square kilometres is the first of its kind in the region. With very distinctive architectural designs and landscaping unseen before in the region, the Khalifa Park is set to give the people all the stunning facilities for enjoyment, sports, leisure and enlightenment.
Corniche: Abu Dhabi’s spectacular waterfront stretches for miles from the Breakwater near Marina Shopping Mall almost up to the Mina Zayed port. It has a walkway for the entire length, and certain stretches have sandy beaches. There are also many activities like go-cart riding, playgrounds and even stages for shows.
Flagpole: At 123m, this is the world’s tallest flagpole, located on the Marina Island across the Marina Mall. The pole has an automatic mechanism for hoisting and lowering the gigantic UAE national flag measuring 20×40 metres. It has an Internet web camera installed at the top and a maintenance lift to carry two people that goes right up to the top.
Yas Island: Looking to unwind? Looking for adventure? Looking for recreation? Looking for entertainment? Yas Island is the place to be. The island is the site of a US$36 billion development project. The island holds the Yas Marina Circuit, which hosts the Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Other notable attractions here include the Ferrari World, Yas Island IKEA, Yas Marina, Southern Marina, Warner Bros. Theme Park, Yas Waterworld and the mega Yas Mall.
Abu Dhabi also has several large green swathes, many of which include play areas for children, and the city is interspersed with lovely fountains, bright neon lights, and sculptures.