In this day and age, it's almost impossible to visit a new country without having learned something about it that will impact the way you experience your trip. Whether you've read the Wikipedia page on the capital city or watched a CNN news report about a newly elected leader, most travelers walk into a new nation with a pre-conceived notion of what they will experience and how they will feel about it. It's an information age and we have the ability to be quite educated about a country prior to our arrival, for better or worse.
The UAE was perhaps a victim of this phenomenon when it comes to my visit. I'm going to go ahead and just get this out of the way - I did not enjoy my time in the UAE, and I didn't expect to enjoy it when I arrived. I was quite wary of spending time there prior to booking our trip for two major reasons. The first is that I'm an openly gay man that would be traveling with his same-sex partner to a country with a notoriously poor record on LGBTQ issues. The second was the equally notoriously poor reputation regarding labor issues the UAE has earned when it comes to the way it recruits, treats, and in some people's opinions enslaves foreign laborers from Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. If you're interested in learning more about either of these topics, Google is your friend.
Despite thinking this trip might not be such a great idea, I tried to approach our stop in the UAE with an open mind. I have many friends who refuse to travel to a variety of places in the world due to various political or social controversies, but that isn't a philosophy that I have adopted. While I do not judge anyone's personal desire to take a stand on an issue, I'm a firm believer in the idea that minds will not change nor will arms be opened if we stand in our corners ignoring one another. So I travel and meet people, people whom often are very different in their world views than myself, and hope that somehow our interactions register as little micron movements in the march toward a better world.
As I mentioned at the very end of my in-flight review of the Emirates flight that brought us into Dubai, my stay in the UAE didn't get off on the right foot. The immigration official essentially ignored me while processing my paperwork and then threw my passport back at me before shooing me away. I'm not easily flustered though, so I quickly shook this off and meet up with my friends and boyfriend on the other side of the immigration booths and we picked up our luggage. Fully loaded with luggage, we marched out of the airport and headed toward the very empty taxi queues.
Seeing a woman in our group, the taxi queue guardians directed us into an empty line for taxis that was reserved for solo female travelers or those traveling with women in their group. We started to load our luggage into the back of the hot pink mini-van taxi when a tiny Indonesian woman in an equally hot pink uniform with hat and headscarf came barreling at us with her hands in the air and an indecipherable litany of curses directed at us. We quickly discovered that she hadn't known we were traveling with a woman (our lovely lady had been hobbling along a little further back due to her foot injury) and she was under the impression we were a bunch of foreign men trying to commandeer a women's taxi. With that all sorted out, we hopped into the cab and she hurriedly insisted we give her the name of our hotel immediately so she could take off in the correct direction.
With the hotel identified she rocketed off into the steamy Arabian evening, weaving and darting her way through Dubai's fast paced traffic with what appeared to be little concern for her or our safety. She had this odd habit of riding the gas and then riding the break, creating a sensation within the car of constantly rocking back and forth. When we mentioned the frantic pace was making several of us uncomfortable and ill, she proceeded to lecture us on why she needed to be rushing. She explained that she had a quota for rides given per hour in order to make enough money for the day. She was in the UAE for several years working to pay off her employer for bring her over to the country and she was hopeful she'd make additional cash to send home to her family after her stint here in Dubai was done. The fewer rides she took in that hour, the longer she'd have to work in Dubai, and she wasn't interested in making sure we felt safe or welcomed in the UAE. She needed to drop us off and get back to the airport as soon as possible, and she wasn't going to have any of our lip service today.
So there we were, in Dubai for less than an hour already and we were coming face to face with the foreign labor issues so commonly cited as a reason to frown upon the UAE. I have no idea if everything this woman unloaded on us was true, but it certainly set a frame around the remainder of our time in Dubai. At least for me.
The next day was soon upon us and we set off to enjoy one of those quintessentially over the top and audacious experiences that defines modern Dubai - high tea at the Burj Al Arab hotel.
Taxis are pretty inexpensive in Dubai, so we hopped in one outside of our hotel and took the 20 minute ride over to the Burj Al Arab for our 4:30PM reservation. Despite being a seven star hotel, reservations for a high tea sitting can only be made by emailing them directly and requesting availability - no modern online booking form available. High tea is also served at a variety of spots inside the hotel, and we had selected the Skyview Bar at the top of the hotel as the location we wanted to enjoy - it was said to offer great views of the Arabian Sea and the urban sprawl of the city.
The per person cost was way more than I'd paid in the past for any type of dining experience - 450 AED, which was about $125 USD. The cost has since increased to 620 AED though! They try to soften the blow of the price by including a free glass of champagne, but as a non-drinker I couldn't care less. Still, Dubai is known for these types of ostentatious activities, and we wanted to do one while visiting.
We arrived at the gates of the Burj to see hordes of tourists collected outside trying to snap a picture of the building. Built like a boat's sail, it rises on the shore and cuts a particularly impressive figure against the undulating blue of the Arabian Sea. A security guard checked our reservation details and waved us through, and the cab circled to the front of the hotel before dropping us off in the drive way. We snapped a few photos of the lobby, which honestly struck me as extremely tacky for a hotel that charges over $1000 USD per night for a basic room. Fake gold and turquoise paint was splattered every where. Different strokes for different folks I suppose?
We hopped in an elevator to the top of the hotel where a hostess greeted us and noted that we were the third table to arrive today. She did a cursory check of our clothing to make sure we were within the "smart casual" dress code required by the restaurant and we apparently passed muster. Seating is on a first come, first serve basis so the earlier you arrive for your seating the more likely you are to get a table next to the windows where the best views are. We lucked out and got an excellent table overlooking both the shoreline and the sea.
Greeted by our waitress for the evening, the service began. While it's technically a high tea, they start the event off with the previously mentioned glass of champagne. A menu is provided that allows you to select from a variety of teas and coffees to enjoy for the remainder of your experience. Additional glasses of champagne are available for purchase at about $30 a glass, so clearly we skipped that mess and guzzled down our weight in roobios. The food available is served in stages, though the waitstaff are flexible enough that they'll provide you with pretty much anything you want any time you want.
My favorite dish that afternoon was the camel's milk creme brulee. A delicate little pot of deliciousness with a local flair. Definitely a winner in my book.
Completely stuffed and happily sated, we decided to settle our bill and head outside. We'd estimated how long it would take us to enjoy our tea time, and had asked that the taxi come back at a certain time to pick us up. We'd overestimated how much time we would spend snacking on crumpets though, so to pass the time we walked the grounds of the hotel to see what all the fuss was about.
As with just about every place of business we entered in the UAE, it was staffed by foreigners brought in as laborers. Everyone greeted you with a smile but very few of those smiles felt genuine. This was one of the most overwhelming, pervasive aspects of the UAE that I wasn't able to shake - that everyone was for the most part unhappy. It's a weird sensation to be constantly surrounded by such excess and luxury and yet no one you meet seems any better for it save for the few native Emiratis you see from time to time. Everyone else seems stressed, distracted, or lonely - thinking of home, thinking of money, thinking of family.
Our taxi arrived just as the sun peaked behind the horizon off in the empty desert beyond Dubai, and we headed back to our hotel to catch up on some much needed sleep after the go-go-go pace we kept in Jordan.
The next day we woke up and relaxed a bit by the pool. Our decision to come to the UAE was motivated largely by a desire to relax. While there are historic places and cultural activities to engage in, they are few and far between. Much of it is forgotten or has been swept away to make room for the adult playground that the UAE has now developed - an endless stream of restaurants, pools, and shopping malls.
We hopped on Dubai's metro and headed toward the Dubai Mall, a massive complex located next to the tallest building in the world - the Burj Khalifa. As you walk the extended walkway from the metro station stop into the mall, you're treated to views of this epic building. The Burj Khalifa was our real destination - we had purchased advance tickets to go up to the observation deck later that evening. We figured we'd spend a little time exploring another portion of the rampant consumerism of Dubai.
The Dubai Mall is grand in so many ways. Size. Scale. Expense. Yet at the end of the day it's still just a mall. There's only so much wonder you can have walking past a Claire's Boutique or Chanel, even if it is in a foreign country. The mall did have some unique features though. While a vast majority of it looked just like any other shopping mall, some sections contained more traditional shops selling gold or spices. The architecture of these areas was modified to resemble an Arab souq. It was clearly an attempt to bring some local flair to the mall, but it just ended up feeling cheesy and fake.
As none of us were particularly avid shoppers, we ended up taking a wander through one of the more interesting aspects of Dubai Mall - the Aquarium. While certainly not as big as a full fledged museum, it was impressive to have such a comprehensive facility in the middle of a shopping mall.
Soon enough it was time for us to head up to the top of the Burj Khalifa. I had read online that it was a good idea to purchase tickets ahead of time as they often sell out. Sure enough, when we arrived with our tickets there were quite a few people at the ticket desks expressing frustration that the remaining tickets for the day were for much later in the evening when viewing conditions weren't ideal.
Accessing the observation deck is a bit of an ordeal. You have to hand over your ticket and then make your way through a gauntlet of lines, stairs, and elevators before finally arriving on the 124th floor. Making our way to the windows, we gazed in awe at the expanse before us.
The electric glow of the modern cityscape of Dubai contrasted against the pitch blackness of the Arabian Sea and the endless desert on either side. It's likely the most beautiful thing I saw on my visit to the UAE. It might look like any other view in a modern city, but you have to realize that the buildings seen in the picture above are only slightly smaller than the Sears Tower in Chicago. The scale of the Burj Khalifa is astounding.
Our final day in the UAE we decided to get out of Dubai and head over to its rival to the south - Abu Dhabi. We arranged with the hotel to have a car for the day, which ended up costing us very little when split between four people. Our driver, a gentleman from India named Syed, picked us up a little after breakfast and had us rocketing down the highway between the two cities in no time.
It's odd to see just how little there actually is in the UAE. Sure, there's certainly life outside of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but for the most part the land between the two cities appears to be a throwback to the time before the Burj Khalifa and indoor mall aquariums.
The big site for the day was going to be the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. The mosque is a newly built house of worship that is essentially the love child of two of the pillars of the modern UAE - God and grandeur.
The goal of arriving in the late morning/early afternoon was to avoid having to walk around the site after the sun had been out for too long. Much of the outdoor space is covered in marble, and being a mosque you're required to remove your shoes prior to entering. Marble that's been baking in the Arabian desert doesn't generally feel too great on bare skin or even feet that are covered in socks. Despite an earlier arrival, I still struggled at times while walking about the courtyard - hopping to and fro on my feet to keep from burning them too badly. Sadly some of my photos ended up with blurred people as I didn't keep very steady while snapping shots here and there.
After taking in the elaborate white marble work that was done in the courtyard, we continued to the interior area of the mosque. This was even more stunning than the exterior. Unlike mosques I've visited in other Muslim countries, this one was carpeted in lush fabrics from wall to wall. Had you burned your feet outside, I'm confident the plush materials blanketing the floors would be more than enough comfort for the remainder of your stay.
The white marble stonework continued on the inside, this time inlaid with even more colorful pieces of geometric and natural art. Unlike Christian churches which tend to depend very heavily on depictions of Biblical scenes for decoration, Islam frowns quite heavily on the depiction of individuals and therefore you'll often find mosques adorned with repetitious patterns or representations of things in nature.
In the middle of each of the seven major section of the mosque hung massive Swarovski crystal chandeliers. Beams of light were ensnared in their grasps and swirled around the labyrinth of shards before cascading a rainbow ribbon of illumination onto visitors below.
Despite the sheer expense and ostentatious manner in which the mosque was built, the other thing that struck me as quite unique compared to any other I've visited in the world was that this mosque was essentially empty. It advertised capacity for over 40,000 worshipers yet I counted less than ten people actively praying. 98% of the occupancy were tourists wandering through the seemingly endless length of space inside a walking path created with velvet ropes, as if the mosque was moonlighting as an exclusive nightclub on the weekends. Toward the end of our exploration of the interior of the mosque a class of local school children were escorted in with an instructor and started receiving an lesson on the tenants of Islam.
The emptiness of the mosque really struck me. It's very clear that massive amounts of cash and time were spent by various individuals to craft this beautiful house of God, and yet no one was there. I'm hopeful that this was simply a reflection of my singular visit, but my online research since seems to indicate that the emptiness is more of a feature of the facility than an anomaly. My mind kept flashing back to all the unhappy faces of the imported foreign laborers, the frantic cries of our taxi driver as she raced through traffic to meet her quota to avoid issues with her employers. So many of the faces I'd seen during my time in the UAE were suffering or under duress due to money, and here I was wandering through what was likely billions of dollars worth of material goods that a handful of worshipers and a bus load of tourists were traipsing through for an hour or two.
Syed did his best to take us around Abu Dhabi to sights that he thought we might enjoy, but other than the lovely Corniche that was a good location to stroll around and enjoy some skyline views, we never really clicked with anything along the way. We went to historic sights that ended up just being modern recreations of historic architecture with people dressed up in farcical costumes in an effort to appear authentic. We went to visit local artisans making handcrafts but that just ended up being a small room where men and women were lounging about until they saw us approaching the door. It's a difficult sell to call something a local crafts shop when the workers are clearly only working when visitors are watching.
The perfect example of how we struggled to find something that resonated with us in Abu Dhabi? Our driver finally drove us all the way out to Ferrari World, a Ferrari themed amusement park out on Yas Island. We hadn't intended on visiting the theme park, but our driver took us there anyway and insisted we take a look around. After 15 minutes of wandering through a parking garage and various walkways to get into the building, we were treated to the sight of a Ferrari race car in front of some food concession stands and ticket booths to enter the park.
I snapped a picture, shrugged at my friends, and we wandered back to our awaiting car.
Maybe I had bad luck on my trip, or maybe I'm being a bit close minded about the UAE, but this just wasn't a place that I felt comfortable. The fear I felt as a gay man in a country with less than friendly laws about people like me and the general malaise and dissatisfaction I felt and heard from the majority of the people I encountered never allowed me to settle in and feel comfortable to absorb and experience life in the UAE. How can you be comfortable when fear and discomfort are always in the back of your mind?
That being said, I can certainly see the appeal of the UAE to certain types of travelers. If you love fine dining and shopping for the latest and greatest in fashion and consumer goods - the UAE might be for you! If you love inexpensive cab rides to outlandishly luxurious hotels and night clubs, you might find the UAE comfortable. There's definitely a type of person that fits into the UAE's tourism niche.
I'm just not that person.
I remember telling my friends when we had arrived back in Chicago that the only reason I'd be likely to spend time in Dubai or Abu Dhabi again was if I was flying through on Emirates or Etihad and needed a long layover. They are, in my very humble opinion, excellent layover cities. They offer a variety of clean and relatively inexpensive hotel options in locations where public transportation and taxis are cheap and standardized Western chain food options are plentiful for visitors. If you need 12 hours to sleep, eat, and recuperate before jumping on another plane to some far off destination, these are ideal locations. They'll get the job done admirably.
But as standalone destinations I found both cities to be seriously lacking. What good is the tallest building in the world if the cab driver taking you to see it is a ball of stress? What good is a beautifully ornate mosque if no one uses it to worship and it feels hollow? Dubai and Abu Dhabi feel like two kids from the countryside that grew up too fast, moved to the big city, and forgot their roots. They were so eager to leap onto the modern stage that they forgot to keep up their own unique personalities.
So there they are - two gleaming, modern cities that have everything. Except soul.