United Arab Emirates

The United Arab Emirates is an elective monarchy formed from a federation of seven emirates. These are:

  • Abu Dhabi
  • Ajman
  • Dubai
  • Fujairah
  • Ras Al Khaimah
  • Sharjah and
  • Umm Al Quwain

Each emirate is governed by a ruler and together the rulers form the Federal Supreme Council which then elect a president and vice president. In practice, the ruler of Abu Dhabi serves as president while the ruler of Dubai is vice president and prime minister.

It is located at the eastern end of the Arabian Peninsula and shares borders with Oman and Saudi Arabia, while also sharing maritime borders in the Persian Gulf with Qatar and Iran.

Having been here now, the burning issue that I have is…

Why is it that the people of Dubai don’t like the Flintstones…while the people from Abu Dhabi do.

Ever since I knew we were coming to the UAE I have been dying to put this onto the blog.

The UAE is certainly the most liberal nation in the rest of the Middle East. The dress standard is casual with much skin being exposed by the foreigners and a relaxed attitude towards alcohol. It is freely available but exorbitantly expensive.

Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi is both a city and an Emirate and is situated on an island in the Persian Gulf. The annual rainfall for the area is less than 2 inches. The majority of the city is on the island but most of the residents live in suburban districts on the mainland. The city is connected by bridges to the rest of the country. 

The Al-Mafraq bridge is a multi-layer interchange bridge and it has 27 lanes which allow roughly 25,000 automobiles to move per hour. 

The city was planned in the late 1960’s by a Japanese architect for an expected population of 40,000 (now around 1.5 million). Abu Dhabi has a 2030 plan that seeks to build numerous skyscrapers. It has a number already built and more under construction. There are also, many other skyscrapers over 150 m either proposed or already approved for construction.

Having hopped off the plane we were aiming for our hotel. To get there using a taxi would have been 170, the Uber was 130 and the bus was 8. So the bus it was and we got delivered about 250 meters from our hotel. Upon arrival, we found out that the room that we had booked was fully sold out. So they chose to upgrade us to a suite. And what a lovely suite it was too. No more grotty backpacking for us. We were on the 16th floor of a 19 story, hotel with multiple rooms, a laundry, a kitchenette and just generally an incredibly lovely place to be.

As we drove in on the bus we drove past possibly the most colossal building that we had ever seen. This was the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. So the next morning it was back on the bus to check this out properly.

The mosque was started in 1996 and more than 3,000 workers and 38 contracting companies worked over the next decade to build the mosque. It was designed to last and the materials chosen in its construction reflect this. These materials include marble, stone, gold, semi-precious stones, crystals, and ceramics. Overall it covers over 2.2 hectares and can safely hold 41,000 people. It is the largest mosque in the UAE and the third largest in the world.

We have been to some pretty amazing places over the years and this one is right up there with the best of them. the manicured gardens coupled with the quality of workmanship, inlaid marble, gemstones the whole thing just reminded me of a modern day Taj Mahal, but bigger. Oh and based on the photos above, can you tell the difference between Jill’s phone and mine.

Qasr Al Wasan is the presidential palace of the United Arab Emirates. It was built in 2017 and opened to the public in 2019. It is primarily used for official purposes like hosting foreign leaders and for meetings of the country’s supreme council and federal cabinet.

Yas Island is a purely commercial enterprise here in Abu Dhabi aimed entirely at the tourism market.  It is a 25 km2 island and one of the largest tourism projects in Abu Dhabi. It is most famous for the Marina Circuit that has held the Formula One Grand Prix since 2009.

But beyond the racing, the Island hosts numerous 5 star hotels, golf course, high end residential developments a huge water park and a Warner bros theme park. Entirely manufactured Yas Island was named the world’s leading tourism project in 2009.

Ferrari World is a mostly indoors theme park based on the famous car brand. It has the world’s fastest roller coaster (Formula Rossa) and the ability (if you meet the criteria) to do fast laps in a Ferrari. 

Oh and obviously someone from Abu Dhabi had been to Las Vegas. The ground in certain areas of the city was littered with the business cards of the local hookers.

Something that I first saw in Las Vegas back in the 1990’s (and still occurs today).

Well Abu Dhabi has learned and embraced this too.

Abu Dhabi was okay. Our hotel was fantastic, and the things that we saw were good but most of the tourist things on offer (theme parks and shopping malls) were not really to our tastes. The architecture is amazing and everywhere you look when you are driving around you see fantastic buildings on monumental scales. The city has certainly come a long way from its fishing and pearl diving roots.


Dubai is thought to have been established in the 18th century as a fishing village, however ceramics dating back to the 3rd and 4th century, have been found in the area. In 1822, a British naval surveyor noted that Dubai was populated with a thousand people living in an oval-shaped town surrounded by a mud wall, scattered with goats and camels.

Dubai is a constitutional monarchy that has been ruled by the Al Maktoum family since 1833. In 1901 it was established as a free port with no taxation on imports or exports and also gave merchants parcels of land and guarantees of protection and tolerance. In the 1950s an airport was built on the salt flats and the first hotel sprung up in 1959. And in 1966 oil was discovered which prompted a construction boom that brought an influx of foreign workers, boosting the population by 300% in 7 years.

But they knew that the oil reserve was limited when oil revenue started to flow in 1969 one of the first projects was to establish deep water free port.

This was the first of a heap of projects designed to create a modern trading infrastructure, including roads, bridges, schools and hospitals. 

After many conflicts in the Middle East Dubai kept its focus on free trade and tourism. but it was not until after the Gulf War that this started to be realised.

In the 1980s and 1990’s the city took a strategic decision to become a leading international tourism destination. This stalled for a while with all of the conflict in the Middle East but after the Gulf War, everything really took off. With massive investment in advanced infrastructure and the completion of incredible projects with unmatched speed and scale, the city has become one of the most futuristic cities in the world.

It has quickly become a city with the world’s tallest building, richest horse race, tallest choreographed fountains, largest man-made island, most luxurious seven-star hotel and the most visited mall. It has the second most five star hotels (behind London). And ours was one of them. And importantly, we scored yet another room upgrade.

Dubai has been a centre for regional and international trade since the early 20th century, but oil only made up 1% of Dubai’s GDP. Its economy now relies on revenues from trade, tourism, aviation, real estate, and financial services. The real estate boom has seen some of the most fantastic marina and land reclamation developments ever conceived. So much so it needed a google earth capture to show it properly.

Most importantly, I got to catch up with yet another old rugby buddy (Dave) who had set up camp with his wife (Emma) and kids in Dubai.

Getting their take on life in Dubai was truly fascinating.

Our evening involved a fantastic catch-up over some of the most expensive beers that we have had since being in Iceland. We had dodged the booze throughout the Middle East until now because the pricing was ridiculous. But a couple with an old mate seemed obligatory.

The transport system is huge (however mostly still for vehicles). That said, there is a metro system in place for the downtown area and a bus system connecting the major hubs. We used the Metro to head to the Dubai Mall and Burj Kalifa and found out a few interesting things in our travels.

The Metro is largely used by the lower paid workers:

  • these tend to be mainly South Asian or African
  • their jobs tend to be more physical in nature
  • their jobs tend to be more exposed to the elements

These factors combine violently (particularly in an Olfactory sense) especially in combined spaces. As cool, cheap and air conditioned as the Metro is, there is another price that needs to be paid.

The fun thing about the metro is that you go past the car yard section of town. So from perched high on your train you get to look down on more supercars than you can count as you whizz past.

But in the grand scheme of things, Dubai is a city of roads, traffic jams and skyscrapers.

The real estate boom has led to the construction of some of the tallest skyscrapers and the largest building projects in the world. Some of these include:

But of course, the big show in town is the Burj Khalifa. This is the worlds tallest building. It is an 830m-tall (163 storey) skyscraper that dominates a skyline that is filled with skyscrapers.

According to Guinness World Records. It takes 2,909 stairs to get to level 160, and ladders are used for the last three floors

We did get a recommendation (thanks KAT) to have the afternoon tea on the 152nd floor of the Burj Khalifa. He did warn that it was expensive, so we looked into it. For Jill and I to have tea and tiny cakes with a window seat towards the top of the Burj Khalifa would have set us back $571 Australian. We passed.

At the bottom of the building is the Dubai Fountain. This is the world’s tallest performing fountain. At around 275 meters long the fountain sits on a lake of 30 acres (Burj Lake) and at the appropriate times it performs to a selection of different melodies (from classical to contemporary Arabic and world music). The fountain has five circles (of varying sizes), two arcs (with powerful water nozzles), over 6,600 lights and 25 colour projectors. When operational, the fountain has over 80,000 litres of water in the air at any given moment.

The fountain starts going off at 6 pm and goes off at 30-minute intervals from then through until around 11 pm.

Once the sun goes down the Burj Khalifa chimes in on the 15-minute mark with a bit of a light show of its own just to add to the spectacle. As I’m sure you can imagine, this place is a favourite for the Instagram crowd.

The Burj Al Arab is the world’s only 7-star hotel. It has been built on its own artificial island off the coast.

Interestingly, the cheaper room prices start at a little over $220 a night.

But on closer inspection, the price to simply have a tour and look around (when not staying there) started at over $100 Aussie a head ($170 with a glass of bubbles) and there was an option to have a cappuccino with gold sprinkled on it (cos you need that). Needless to say 7 star luxury does not gel with our backpacker budget and we did not make it here. We did see it several times (through the smog) as we travelled around, but did not enter the building itself.

The beach area is nice, and importantly it is free. Unlike Europe, there was no exorbitant prices for daybeds, no obscene pricing for food and drinks just an accessible outdoor space for people to enjoy. And the vast majority of the people who were there enjoying the beach were Russian. In fact the majority of the people at our hotel, on the streets, and in the restaurants were all Russian. Clearly, there has been a mass exodus of people fleeing the war and setting up camp in Dubai.

I must admit the camel rides up and down the beach did throw us a little. One thing that stood out was Ain Dubai (a big Ferris Wheel thing). It joined a bunch of cities with such structures but being Dubai it had to be bigger than all that had gone before it. Opened in 2021, it operated for 5 months before it was closed for enhancement work. It has been closed ever since (no real explanation).

The Dubai Mall is the world’s largest shopping mall, complete with indoor go karts, cinemas, Olympic sized ice skating rink, Aquarium & Underwater Zoo, trampolining, haunted house, a 150 million year old dinosaur skeleton, and even the National Opera House. Oh there is a shop or two in there too (more than 1200 actually). But my favourite bit of all was the air conditioning.

The Museum of the Future is a stunning building that we flew past on the metro. The museum aims to give an insight as to some possible futures based on imagination, innovation and progress, thereby offering visitors a “glimpse into the limitless possibilities that lie ahead”.

We read the reviews and while the building looked awesome, the experience allegedly fell short, so we passed.

After catching up with Dave and Emma we tried to hop the Metro back to our hotel, but at 10:30 it was too late. The metro had shut down and been locked up. The place was full and bodies were everywhere, but the only cheap transport option had been removed. So we hopped a car to take us back. This blew our price out dramatically and more importantly put us in contact with dodgy transport drivers and shonks. The metro ride was 8 AED each, a ride share would have been 70 AED and the shonk that we got tried to charge us 150 AED. After some choice words (form both Jill and I) he got 100 (mainly because I only had 50’s and he was not going to give any change).

Transport operators, the world over, are typically terrible and are the source of the most rip-offs, and scams of tourists. Having to deal with these has been one of our biggest frustrations and has consistently left us with a sour taste in our mouths. This sort of thing has dramatically tainted our overall views of several cities and countries and is a big factor in whether or not we would ever return.

Look Dubai was not for us, but we did still see the attraction that it could hold. For the same money that you would pay for accommodation (modest) in Europe, you get lavish accommodation here. The beaches are better and the shopping is as good if not better. The sights are amazing (if you like modern urban landscapes) and the attractions are world class.

From a barren desert in the early 1990’s the city has come an incredibly long way and is unrecognisable. It is a perfect example of what can be achieved if you turn your mind (and open your wallet) to something. So the real question is what could seriously be next for a city like Dubai.

Obviously, it is the Downtown Circle.

The Downtown Circle project will seek to establish ” a sustainable and self-sufficient vertical urbanism.” I have no idea what that means but what is proposed is to build a 5-storey high, 550 meter tall mega structure to encircle the Burj Kalifa. The circle will have a three-kilometre circumference and will be composed of two main rings, which are held together by a continuous green belt – the “Skypark”.

The Skypark has been designed to act as a green lung, seeking to replenish the air with oxygen and intends to incorporate a series of activities and research centres. A fleet of suspended peripheral tram-like pods (hanging underneath) have been designed to transport passengers from one node to another in the Downtown circle. The projection is that this will come to pass by around 2040.

So in a very Las Vegas fake kind of way, Dubai has it all. I certainly don’t want to bag the place because it has a lot going for it. Unfortunately, those things (like super shopping malls) are not the sort of things that Jill and I tend to want to seek out.

Leave a Reply

Travelling the world in a pre and post COVID state