Dubai City of Merchants, City of Gold
When I relocated to Dubai in 1997, I imagine that friends and colleagues were somewhat surprised by the move. Most had never been to Dubai. Some weren't even sure exactly where it is. But over the past couple of years, a number have paid a visit to the area and I am afraid that the secret is out! Whether the trip was for business, pleasure or a combination of both, they've found more than enough reason to want to return.
One of the more surprising aspects of Dubai, which until 1971 was a Protectorate of the United Kingdom, is the diversity of its landscape. The countryside ranges from 700 kilometres of white sandy coastline to the west, to rolling desert dunes with multicoloured sands, to the Al Hajar mountain range at Dubai's eastern border - a rugged and stark lunar landscape.
The city itself, originally a small fishing settlement taken over in 1830 by a branch of the Banj Yas tribe led by the Maktoum family, is today a fascinating blend of modern and traditional, roughly divided into two areas separated by a creek that runs through its heart. The old part, called Deira, where you will find the gold souk, lies to the north. The southern part, Bur Dubai, where we are located, is the modern area, where the pace of life is more like Manhattan. The Creek, a natural inlet f om the Arabian Gulf, is a working waterway from where traditional Dhows set sail as they have done for over 100 years, delivering all kinds of cargo around the Gulf and surrounding regions. A feature is the Abra, or water taxi. A multitude of these small, basic wooden boats, each carrying up to 30 people, criss-cross the Creek, ferrying passengers in a matter of minutes at a cost of less than 10 pence. The experience is not to be missed but ladies beware - the journey is an adventure, and short skirts and high heels are definitely out.
Dubai's globally central location is excellent for trade - the perfect crossroads for doing business into the Middle East or even further afield. It is the gateway to the Arabian Gulf and the Indian sub-Continent and is within two hours flying time of Bombay, Teheran, Jeddah, or Kuwait. It is virtually equidistant between London, Jo'burg and Hong Kong, while there are direct flights to Melbourne. It has become the world's number one transhipment centre for physical gold in both small bar and jewellery form. In 1997 Dubai's gold imports were 660 tons. Although this fell to 377 tonnes in 1998, it retained its leading position. Dubai is a veritable turntable and visitors to Dubai's famous gold souk will find jewellery in all kinds of different carats and styles with as many as 15 tonnes of the yellow metal held in the hundreds of jewellery outlets. Apart from gold, tourists will find many world-class, five-star hotels either located on beautiful white sandy beaches or in the heart of the city. There is even a 5-star resort located in the desert which can only be reached by 4x4 or by camel! Dubai will shortly boast one of the world's tallest hotels (reportedly a shade higher than the Eiffel Tower) which has been erected a few hundred metres offshore on a manmade island. For the businessman, Dubai has become the conference capital of the world, with a major event being held virtually every week between October and April. The annual four-week long Shopping Festival in the spring attracts over 2 million visitors.
Although people always associate the United Arab Emirates with oil, Dubai's real natural resource - which it will never run out of - is its climate. For several months of the year, it's close to paradise, with warm sunny days and cool evenings. Not surprising that there are world-class sport s facilities ranging from the familiar - golf, tennis, diving, and horse racing - to the somewhat less traditional pastimes, such as desert safaris, camel racing and rides, sand boarding (similar to winter skiing but on hot sand rather than cold snow), dune driving, and wadi bashing. I have tried the last two but not very successfully. My first experience of desert driving ended with my 4x4 stuck nose down in the bottom of a 'goldfish bowl ' (desert drivers will know what that means) and I had to be rescued by a local Bedouin, much to the delight my colleagues. My first visit to the Wadi (or mountain valley) was no more successful as my expensive new 4x4 broke down miles from civilisation and eight of us had to cram into a Friend's (yes, I have one) small jeep and drive 100km through rugged mountains to safety. Still, the experiences have not put me off and I always offer to take visitors to the desert or wadi - if they dare! See you in February.