UAE: El Aurens who?

El Aurens who?

Although I had been to Abu Dhabi and Dubai several times over the years, my visits were limited to an hour or two in the airports en route to Europe. With this depth of experience and knowledge I was of course an expert on the country. My knowledge of the UAE was detailed and very well informed: in this country you could buy pistachio sweets and coffee pots with tall curved spouts, and here the women were masked and the men wore long white dresses …

Having recently spent a few nights in each city, I know how simplistic those early impressions were. Yes, you can still buy coffee pots with long curved spouts and there are still plenty of dates and pistachio sweets – but the clothes worn by people in the Emirates range from the traditional long black (women) or long white (men) robes to Pakistani traditional gear, shorts and flip flops for Westerners and stylish Armani suits for the business men and women from innumerable nations busy on their iPhones cranking up business deals of all sorts.

The UAE is a place where visitors are greeted by signs at the airport proclaiming that the country holds many Guinness Book of Records titles – the tallest this, the fastest that, the most uncouth something else. It is a place where former world champion boxer Mike Tyson performed his one-man show “Undisputed Truth” directed by Spike Jones. I am told it was a knockout performance. It is a place with staggering and spectacular architectural masterpieces and follies, and linking the two principal cities is a 140 km multi-lane highway with signposts telling drivers to “Beware of Road Surprises”. Camels? Impromptu sand dunes? Hitchhikers? An unexpected travelling circus show? It has taxis that repeatedly and annoyingly tell their drivers and their long-suffering passengers “You are crossing the speed limit. Please slow down.” It has shopping malls and shopping malls and yet more shopping malls. It has deserts licking their sandy lips waiting for a moment’s hesitation or inattention by the humans who have dropped vast cities in their midst, slyly sending drifts of sand across the highways and building lots and into the shopping malls as none-too-subtle reminders of what may happen when the oil money runs out.

The carefully monitored and controlled taxis sneering at the creeping sands are fine, but UAE trains are another story. Call me old-fashioned if you like, but I usually like the trains I am travelling in to be driven by someone. I remembered the old film Runaway Train where the driver was dead or disabled or something, and the various spoofs on that 1980s film: “The train now arriving at Platform 15 … er … Platform 16 … 17 …”

I don’t think it is always necessary for red-capped porters to carry my bags to the door, or for conductors to stagger down the swaying corridors calling, “Tickets please!” But it’s usually nice to know that there’s actually someone up front with his hand on the GO button and his foot on the STOP lever. Not so in Dubai. Modernity has done away with unimportant folk such as train drivers and the driverless, automated, high-speed Dubai Metro zaps along elevated rails high above the gridlocked congestion of Sheikh Zayed Road, with air-conditioned aluminium capsules packed with commuters trusting that somewhere, somehow, someone is keeping an eye on things, and that the whole lot will not end in sadness with everyone swimming for their lives in the Arabian Gulf. Or more dangerously – trying to cross Sheikh Zayed Road on foot.

But where are the ancient palaces?

I had gone to the UAE for a number of reasons and was looking forward to seeing some cutting-edge Middle Eastern art, some historical buildings and learning something about the history and development of the region. Several friends had told me that I really should take an afternoon 4WD tour into the desert to go bashing up and down sand dunes and to watch belly dancing by moonlight but I was able to resist these temptations as belly dancing by moonlight is probably just as bad as day-time belly dancing … and was also able to resist the temptation (although I almost gave in) to go skiing in Ski Dubai’s indoor ski resort managed by the daughter of a Hobart friend. Skiing? Dubai? 45 degrees outside and snowing inside? Oh well … why not?

There is no history in the UAE.

Coming from an Australian, whose European history stretches back just a few years, that is not much of an understatement. Until oil was discovered in the UAE about sixty years ago, the area was little more than desert and isolated fishing and pearling villages. It is about the area of Austria, a bit bigger than Tasmania and about one fifth the size of Japan. This tiny country of seven emirates – some wealthier than others – has grown from virtually nothing to a place that makes most of my adopted Thailand look positively Third World. I confess I did not go to any of the smaller towns but the two cities I visited had infrastructure and amenities that put Bangkok and Chiang Mai – and much of Melbourne and Sydney – to shame.

UAE Dubai 13 Dubai Creek 1 copy

Dubai Creek

In Dubai I found minute traces of history as several areas along Dubai Creek (the name suggest a muddy trickle, but it is a spotlessly clean, wide fast-flowing river) where historical desert houses with their intricate wind towers have been preserved or recreated. In Abu Dhabi there is a Heritage Village that may or may not feature the same sorts of places – but it was closed when I visited – and I managed to visit several other places that were closed when I got there. In some of these old houses and forts are displays and dioramas giving a hint of LBO (life before oil). While I did not encounter the ghost of El Aurens, the new UAE flag has four colours, one of which (red) represents the same struggle against the Ottoman Empire in which TE Lawrence was a principal actor. So there really is history there – it’s just a bit hard to find. But then again – trying to find much about Australia’s or New Zealand’s history depends on where you go … and to whom you talk. Very different stories are told by national museums … and by the Maoris or by Australian aborigines …

In many parts of the Emirates are new apartment clusters built in styles paying tribute to the old mud brick and sand desert houses. Just two or three storeys high, they are dwarfed by the rather embarrassingly spectacular Burj Khalifa and the innumerable other modern banking and hotel and residential skyscrapers of glass and marble and steel that twist and turn and jut and protrude as they try to make the definitive 21st century architectural statement and perhaps gain entry to the G B of Records. While these quite exciting creations are visually attractive, there are probably not too many that can claim that Roger Federer and Andre Agassi played tennis on their 200m high helipad-cum-tennis court – a claim made by the so-called seven star hotel Burj Al Arab perched on a small man-made island in the waters of the Arabian Gulf. Another vast hotel on a man-made island is the Atlantis Hotel, perched on the man-made sandbar at the end of The Palm Jumeirah. Such a place is surely thumbing its concrete nose at the gods – or perhaps it has simply forgotten that the mythical city after which it is named fell out of favour with the gods – and sank into the sea. I doubt that I’ll book an ocean-view suite at this hotel for a year or two … just to see how things go … or don’t.

In Dubai and in Abu Dhabi I stayed in apartment hotels where I had plenty of space to spread out, but neither of my hotels had a swimming pool and there wasn’t a butler in sight to grind me fresh Arabica beans or to iron my underpants when I really needed these things to be done in a hurry

In a country where water is so scarce and so valuable it is amazing to see fountains and vast artificial lakes and huge areas of grass and plantations of trees … but not so amazing when one finds out that the local power plants and aluminium smelting factories use the excess heat that they generate to power desalination projects to feed this greedy demand for fresh water. There are many wells – old and new – but apparently 97% of the water used in the UAE comes from desalination. I hope the Arabian Gulf does not become the new Dead Sea.

My first impressions of Dubai was that it was a Disney Land gone mad – and in fact there is a theme park development – Dubai Land – that was being built during my visit and which is due to open in a few years’ time. It will, apparently, be twice the size of the American Disney parks and “twice as big as Hong Kong”.  There is also yet another development called – I think – Mall of the World – that will have wellness centres, hotels and apartments, shopping malls and ‘climate controlled streets’.

I can see the Guinness Book of Records getting their measuring tapes and slide rules sharpened in readiness for yet another World Wide Record. After all – every place needs to have something to be proud of.

UAE Abu Dhabi 13 Grand Mosque exterior

Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

There are the shopping malls and the absurd mini-cities built on man-made islands such as Palm Delta and The World and the Palm Jumeirah I mentioned earlier. There are hotels that boast how much gold leaf they have smothered on their walls or their towers. There is the spectacular and impressive Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi with “the world’s largest hand-made carpet” – although someone needs to move either the carpet or the mosque a few inches to the right, as the edges of the carpet no longer quite match the swoops and curves of the many pillars holding up the gilded domes.

But …

But don’t try to do too much on a Friday. Friday is the holy day for Muslims and most places close – or open very late. I visited the new Louvre Museum site. Closed. The World Expo UAE pavilion. Closed. The Abu Dhabi Heritage Village. Closed. The Marina Shopping Marina: OPEN FOR BUSINESS! (Although over half the shops were CLOSED.) It was a bit like trying to sightsee in Sydney’s CBD on Good Friday

But it is a place that is more than this. It is a success story.

Armani, Gucci and Chanel

The oil revenues have been ploughed back into providing infrastructure and now account for less than 10% of the country’s wealth. Tourism, aluminium, shipping, finance and handicrafts (those coffee pots again) help complete the picture. I am not sure I saw too many Emiratis actually doing any work in any of these areas – although I did see many of them shopping at Armani and Gucci and Chanel, and smoking shishkas (the old hubble bubble pipes) in upscale restaurants. I strolled one afternoon along the dhow wharves on Dubai Creek where scores of battered and faded dhows of all sizes were being loaded with goods for ports far beyond this tiny state. One or two elegantly dishdasha-clad Emirati men were spotted holding pads and pencils and iPads as they checked off the items being loaded, while leather-skinned wharfies from Somalia, Iraq, Pakistan and Nepal did the actual work in the afternoon sun. Days can be so hot even the bus shelters are air conditioned – but the dockworkers toil on as their masters loll under trees.

It is a place where high-class Russian hookers alight from their taxis (“You are crossing the credibility limit. Please slow down”) in impossibly high heels and impossibly tight dresses as they then totter into five-star hotels. At least I think they were ladies from the floating world … but they may of course have been blonde big-bosomed long-legged Bangladeshi night shift cleaning women in their best party frocks. It’s a place where sunburnt English girls on package holidays drink mojitos by the pool while their boyfriends race jet skis up and down the bay as perfect exemplars of Boys Behaving Badly. It is neighbour to another country – Qatar – where over forty underpaid Nepalese labourers died last year from sunstroke and deprivation of basic rights such as drinking water and shelter from the sun. Perhaps the same happens in the UAE, too, but I did not hear of it. Tradition and forward thinking seem to go hand-in-hand. Islam and Christianity and other religions seem to coexist – and although visitors cannot buy a bottle of whisky at a liquor shop, the Friday brunches at the leading hotels are packed with Emiratis and foreigners – not too many Somalian deck hands – quaffing pink bubbly and beers and gorging on oysters, sushi, German pork sausages and superb Brazilian churrasco-cooked slices of rare beef or chicken or lamb or …

Just over the Gulf and not too far from Dubai and Abu Dhabi lies Iran (aka Persia) where Scheherazade was able to spin out one night of pleasure into a thousand and one nights – or so we are told. I think that a visit to the UAE may not warrant 1001 days and nights – but it certainly is a place where becoming a statistic – the first foreign visitor to die from hypothermia while skiing at Ski Dubai – may be worth the journey.


  • Words and photographs © Christopher Hall 2014
  • Date of journey: September 2013
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