Farewell Abu Dhabi, Farewell Desert

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Hotel Pool
Hotel Pool

Today’s itinerary is a little R and R, a trip to Dubai, then to the airport and finally home. We start with breakfast by the pool. A buffet with many familiar treats including eggs and sausage (non-pork of course), some local fair (somasas) and surprise, gravlax. The pool is a pleasure to all, heated to bathtub warmth and big enough for reasonable laps; it also has a bar in it for those inclined to imbibe while partially submersed.

Packed and ready to go at 1 pm. My driver is port Mohamad’s (my friend and guide from day 1) regular taxi driver, Muhammad. The trip to Dubai via cab is an indulgence but also a necessity in that there is currently not any practical or reasonably priced alternative between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The UAE has exploded in growth but intra-city mass transit has not yet caught up. The taxi ride turns out to a blessing as Muhammad seems to know some fact about every site, building and landmark we see, and at least three opinions to go along with them.

A great number of those thoughts revolve around the general belief that Abu Dhabi and Dubai have grown much too much over the last 20 years and especially over the last 4 years. The results: unaffordability, loss of character, congestion and, as he expressed it, a religious belief that sea infill projects offend nature and God’s plan for the earth. “We don’t need to make more land,” he emphasizes. It is a world view that speaks to unsustainably and would make many an environmentalist weep with sympathy.

Muhammad talks very directly about the huge real estate bust the region suffered through as the result of the 2008 credit crunch and global recession. Many of the conference waterfront developers talked about changed development time frames and project adjustments, but apparently the downturn affected and continues to affect the region the way Miami and Phoenix are submerged in lost productivity in a depressed and saturated real estate market.

If Abu Dhabi is the UAE’s seat of government, their Washington DC, Dubai is their New York. A city of commerce with dozens of brand new skyscrapers crowned by Burj Khalifa (more on that later). It has a brand new metro too.

We first visit the beach, joining a family that is out for the day. The site of everyday people doing everyday things, like hanging out at the beach, wearing everyday clothes never gets old. Veil controversies aside, I am glad at least one corner of the world is holding onto at least a piece of its distinctive culture. Not to say the West has not made strong inroads here; there are plenty of McDonalds, KFCs and Dunkin Donuts. Sorry, UEA.

Palm Island from the taxi (left) and from the International Space Station (right)

We head from the beach to the famous Palm Islands development the signature Dubai infill project. The palm layout of the project is lost at ground level. It has the feel of Battery Park City with mosques. Speaking of mosques, there is literally one every five blocks in the neighborhoods we drive around. Muhammad tells me the Palm community is suffering financially with high vacancy and some questionable construction. Of course, he also does not like that it is rock and sand over what used to be sea. Crowning the Palm is the imposing and beautiful Atlantis hotel. It is a five star hotel complete with a dolphin pool.

We move onto the obligatory visit to the indoor ski slope at the Emirates Mall. It is a really big mall with a ski slope inside it. Given the barren winter we are having back home I am tempted for a second to play in the artificial snow mountain in the middle of a desert.

Old city market

Thankfully the temptation fades in light of the late hour and we head out to the old city and market, as well as the oddly named Dubai Creek. It is only odd because of what we in the US commonly call creeks. It is a river that connects to the Arabian Sea, filled with boats and dense and active markets on both sides.

Water Taxi
Water Taxi, Dubai

We take a water taxi to the other side and Muhammad treats me to a local chicken shawarma. It is delicious and the river is a treat for the eyes, especially at sunset. There are dozens of affordable taxis (about $.50 per ride), tour boats, party boats and small cargo boats. I have been told by a few folks that many of these boats are bringing goods to Iran, with whom trade is tricky and has been hit hard by the U.S. backed embargo. In any event, this waterfront with its human scale skyline and minarets on the shore speaks eloquently of Dubai's true character in stark contrast to the modern and sterile high rises and malls that have taken over much of the rest of area.

Party boats in Dubai


Burj Khalifa, designed by SOM
I will, however, make an exception to the sterile remark with our final stop in Dubai, Burj Khalifa. It is the tallest building in the world and rises like some silver wedding cake or Christmas tree stretched out to ridiculous propositions. It is so big and awesome, it just leaves you slack jawed and giggling at the audacity and, yes, beauty. It is a pretty exclusive address with many of the Dubai royals calling it home. It has security that would exceed the White House and rivals Fort Knox. Fortunately, my friend Manju resides there and gets me through security for a tour. I joke about eye ball scans and he informs they do have facial scans necessary for entry. Yikes! 

We leave Manju, Burj Khalifa and Dubai. I fight sleep as Mohammed continues to inform, pontificate and entertain on the drive back to Abu Dhbai and the airport.

Now I am waiting at the airport. In line to get my boarding pass, I see a guy checking in four radial tires. Different.

The trip has been overwhelming, fascinating and exhausting. I am glad I came and these blog entries have been a good disciplined way for me to organize my thoughts and remember.

I look forward to sharing more when I get past that long flight and see you all back home.

-- Roland Lewis


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