A retrospective on the UAE
A retrospective summary of the UAE: it was hot and I was cranky.
“That building over there is about 50m away… nope, too far. There’s a covered walkway to that one though, I’ll go there instead.”
This strategy does tend to restrict one’s options, but when the temperature is 50°C+ one’s attention span is significantly decreased anyhow.
A federation of seven emirates namely, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Al Ain, Fujairah, Ras al Khaimah and Ajman, the UAE came to be on December 2, 1971 (with Ras al Khaimah joining in the following February). Before that it was known as the Trucial States, a group of British Protectorates. The individual emirates are ruled by tribal families, who used to war with each other (all is quiet now).
Abu Dhabi is the largest and the capital and next is Dubai. Abu Dhabi’s ruler (emir) Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan is also the president, taking over after his father’s death in 2004. His father Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan has the moniker “father of the nation” as he was prominent in the formation of the federation.
Oil forms the basis of the economy, but there is a move away from a complete reliance on that. The Emiratis seem to understand the finite nature of the commodity, and are starting to focus on the innovation sector.
Described as having one of the most open economies in the world, the UAE is filled with expatriates. In fact only 25 per cent of the population is Emirati; Indian and Filipino make up a bulk of the expatriate community and a mixture of Western nationalities and other Arab nationals most of the rest.
The entire country is a construction site. Most of the modern infrastructure has gone up in the past 16 years, and little too fast for Dubai who suffered badly during the GFC and was bailed out by Abu Dhabi.
It’s home to many big things including the world’s tallest building, the Burj al Khalifa. I was going to take a trip to the top, but the smog meant the view was not going to be worth it.
A big building of a divine nature is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi (that’s the “father of the nation” Sheikh Zayed). He had a vision to build a mosque that incorporated design elements from around the Islamic world.
Construction started in 1996 and finished in 2007, after Sheikh Zayed’s death.
Built on 12 hectares (30 acres), it has four minarets, 82 domes, holds 40,000 worshippers, has a courtyard measuring 17,000m² (180,000 sq ft) which is covered in a floral design (the Sheikh loved flowers), and then there are the chandeliers and the carpet in the main prayer hall.
The largest chandelier is the third largest in the world with a diameter of 10m (33ft) and a height of 15m (49ft) and is made of Swarovski crystals. It is beautiful and I can only imagine how long the installers held their breath when putting it in.
And finally the carpet; it is 5,627m² (60,570 sq ft) and is made up of 2,268,000,000 knots (that’s 2.268 billion). About 1250 women knotted it over a two year period in Iran. It weighs 35 ton and is made mainly of New Zealand wool (very soft to walk on).
The design is beautiful, again floral in bright colours of greens, yellows and reds. Keeping the design continuous and flowing over such a large area must have been a bit of a logistical challenge, but the end result is wonderful.
Sheikh Zayed certainly thought on a grand scale, and obviously the family wealth is sizeable.
Keeping on the “big” things theme, the malls are immense, and they are about a dime a dozen. I spent a lot of time in them, especially in Dubai because I could eat in some despite Ramadan.
Dubai is a busy port city, junks line the Dubai Creek shipping everything from rice to electronics and cars to the Indian sub-continent. I was a little surprised to see the boats still in use, expecting larger container vessels to have taken over.
Outside of the two main emirates, I took a whirlwind bus tour of Sharjah, (a completely dry emirate – no alcohol at all and home to the UAE’s first airport) and Fujairah where I was looking forward to a swim in the Andaman Sea. Humid beyond a joke I walked down to the water from the deck chairs we had coveted outside a resort, only discover bath temperature water. My disappointment was palpable.
Driving between the emirates, the highways wind through barren desert land, changing from red sand dunes to flat brown scrub land. A common sight along the side is people kneeling on their prayer mats prostrate to Mecca. Religion is important in the UAE, and Islam is predominant, but other religions are allowed.
Overall the UAE is a hard place to sum up; full of expatriates and über development it’s easy to see that the country would collapse if everyone suddenly went home. The disparity between the expats is also pretty stark; Indians, Filipinos and other Arabs work in lower paid service industry and manual labour jobs (often outside in the extreme heat) and the Westerners occupy white collar jobs.
I only scratched the surface of the place. It would be easy to dismiss it as a place with nothing to do other than shop. But I suspect with more time, subtleties of each emirates would emerge; with that a range of quirks and traditions that are slowly starting to disappear amongst the skyscrapers and the Ferraris.