My love of horses drew me to
Dubai. I was immersed in a happy, exuberant crowd of over 60,000 who had also been drawn to the annual World Cup horse race, the richest in the world. What a party! Held at the end of March, it's the social highlight of the Dubai calendar. Beautiful ladies in hats, stiletto heels and ample curves and cleavage paraded back and forth, contrasting with local women totally encased in black. The new state-of-the-art Meydan Stadium, the largest and
most opulent horse-racing venue in the world, was crammed.
Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, also known as Sheik Mo, was in attendance, constantly followed by a coterie of Arabs, all dressed in flowing white traditional robes. Oh, yes, and there were eight horse races.
I wandered amongst the throngs next to the track. Contests for best lady's hat and best-dressed couple were being judged to loud applause. At regular intervals, horses galloped down the track urged on by frenzied cheering. After seven of the eight scheduled races charged past, Sheik Mo, appropriately, was the big winner with three triumphant horses.
A magnificent show of dancing, lights and fireworks preceded and built up the suspense for the final race, the Dubai World Cup with a purse of $10 million US. In the thundering chase down the final straight Victoire Pisa from beleaguered Japan nosed out the competition. The party at the stadium continued well into the night.
I had arrived in Dubai with some apprehension, concerned that this might be a repressive society where women are marginalized and North Americans are unwelcome. My worries were quickly dispelled. Driving in from the airport I saw an ultra-modern city of high-rise towers, parks with flowers, multi-lane highways and plenty of traffic. Signs in Arabic and English and frequent mosque minarets pointing skyward were clues, however, that I had arrived in a very different, exotic place. I was learning that Dubai is progressive, tolerant and welcoming.
Dubai, one of seven
United Arab Emirates, has an area of 4,100 sq. km., about 75% the size of Prince Edward Island. Located in the Arabian Desert on the south-eastern shore of the Persian Gulf, it has a population of 1.9 million population, of which 90 percent are foreign workers.
The day after the World Cup, I perched dizzyingly on the observation deck of the world's tallest building, the
Burj Khalifa, which houses offices and a hotel and thrusts almost a kilometre into the sky. Clusters of skyscrapers stretched to the Arabian Gulf, where artificial islands shimmered. I tried to imagine the immense construction boom that created this amazing cityscape, for only two decades ago none of this was here. Dubai is home to the planet's tallest building, most luxurious hotel (the
Burj al Arab, 7 stars), huge cruise-ship port, best horse-race track and to top it all off, an indoor ski hill. How could a city of superlatives rise so quickly from a barren desert?
I descended to the
Dubai Mall, one of the world's largest, with more than 1,100 shops including Gucci, Armani and Versace. Signs pointed to an aquarium, an Olympic-size ice rink, a food court and prayer rooms. I could see why Dubai with its tax-free bargains attracts shopoholics from the entire Middle East and further. People dressed in traditional Arab attire - long black dresses (
abayas) and scarves for women and long white gowns (
kandouris for men - mingled with others wearing modern western clothes including jeans and shorts. At the Mall of the Emirates, the indoor ski hill was jammed with snowboarders and skiers. Outside, the temperature simmered at 32°C.
Dubai's over-the-top attitude is epitomized in its hotels. Atlantis, The Palm, situated on the outer rim of the artificial Palm Island, incorporates an enormous aquarium and water park.
The Poseidon suite - $8,400 a night - stretches over three stories with its own elevator. The bedroom window faces into the aquarium with sharks and manta rays lazily floating past. Pleasant dreams.
At the gold and spice souks I wandered through crowded, narrow old alleyways with the aroma of nutmeg and cinnamon hanging in the air. The adjacent creek was alive with dhows, reminders of historical trade routes. At a small shop, I selected a gold chain for my wife. The salesman weighed the gold with an electronic scale, then punched numbers into a calculator to determine the price. Haggling followed, of course.
Soon I felt like I knew Shiek Mo personally for his face looks down from posters everywhere, a reminder that Dubai is a dictatorship, albeit a benign one. With vision and drive, a distain for bureaucracy and access to abundant petrobucks, the Sheik has transformed this patch of sand into the thriving commercial and tourism centre of the Arab world, a cross between Singapore and Las Vegas. I didn't see a hint of the discontent that is sweeping much of the Middle East.
I removed my shoes and entered the cool elegance of
Jumeira Mosque, one of about 300 in the city. A lady in a black abaya described the five pillars of Islam. "Our religion is gentle and peaceful in nature," she said as she described Emirati culture. I had already noticed that the city appeared safe with little alcohol and no gambling or beggars.
Keen to learn about desert ecology I was driven to the
Al Maha Desert Resort an oasis in the middle of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, about 60 km from central Dubai. I joined an outing into the desert. The dunes, which stretched to the horizon, were like art with sculpted ridges and rich shadowy ripples. Delicate little Arabian gazelles gazed shyly at us. An endangered
oryx, an antelope-like animal with long, straight horns posed against the sky. "Stay back," said my guide, "those horns have killed lions." She explained how the oryx had become extinct in Arabia, The stock was re-built through a breeding program of animals from zoos. Although still endangered, there are now approximately 400 oryx living in Dubai's deserts.
Later, I mounted a camel and we rode far into the desert and walked barefoot among the dunes as the sun danced in oranges and mauves on the horizon. Then I returned to my Bedouin-style villa at the resort whose roof was a large flowing canvas. I sat beside the infinity pool enjoying the warm desert breeze and a sherry before dinner.
Next day, as the airplane lifted into the air, my head was whirling and I felt like I was emerging from the Tales of the Arabian Nights.
Courtesy: Department of Tourism
Hans Tammemagi has written two travel books: Exploring Niagara - The Complete Guide to Niagara Falls & Vicinity and Exploring the Hill - A Guide to Canada's Parliament Past & Present. He is the environment columnist for the Vancouver Sun.