United Arab Emirates: Introduction

  • © MPOnlineRedaktion, marcopolo.de

    © MPOnlineRedaktion, marcopolo.de


Sand and sunshine are two commodities that the countries in the southeast of the Arabian Peninsula have always had in abundance, but in the 1960s they also discovered oil, the magic wand with which the people of the region reinvented their world. Where the ground was once covered by sand, today the sky is reflected in ponds and lakes, hills are covered by lawns, and ambitious architecture, even artificial islands, create a dramatic cityscape. Computers control the irrigation of countless tropical plants, and large palm trees line the urban highways, meticulously maintained by a legion of gardeners from Asia.

Alongside typical Arabian souks, bazaars full of traditional crafts and exotic scents are many luxury shopping malls, which amaze visitors with their extravagant architecture and huge range of expensive goods. Holiday dreams of a sun-drenched paradise come true on the silky white sands of the hotel beaches. For a change, take a journey of discovery into the desert, where you’ll spot wild camels and antelopes, to one of the beautifully restored old towns, or go to see Palm Jebel Ali, one of the 21st-century wonders of the world.

A source of income after oil: tourism

After the unification of the emirates in 1971, the seven rulers (emirs) agreed on a common foreign, defence and economic policy, but the individual emirates are still largely autonomous. Abu Dhabi and Dubai developed into hypermodern cities, fuelled by the oil boom. Preparations are already being made for the time when the oil runs out, estimated to be in 20 to 40 years' time in Dubai, and in around 100 years' time in Abu Dhabi. The economy is diversifying, with tourism an increasingly valued source of income for the whole of the UAE.

In light of the total area of the UAE being just 86,000 sq km, it does not take long to travel from one emirate to another. It is just 140km (88mi) from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, and the northernmost emirate, Ras al-Khaimah, is only another 90km away. They are linked by broad highways running through the desert. Dubai, a sheikhdom of just 3900sq km, keeps the world on the edge of its seat with its evermore audacious, record-breaking structures. Its famous artificial islands, where expensive hotels and holiday villas cater for the super-rich, are the most dramatic evidence of Dubai's appetite for innovation. It also has the second-largest shopping mall in the world, the highest building on earth, enormous artificial marinas, all encircled by a skyline of skyscrapers; on almost every visit to Dubai you'll find something new and worthy of superlatives. Protecting the environment and the climate are not yet big issues here, as is demonstrated by Dubai's ice rinks, ski slope and countless air-conditioned malls. If a green project is undertaken, then it's for image reasons rather than out of environmental convictions.

The tallest building in the world, the world's second-largest shopping mall

Those with a taste for traditional Dubai are drawn to the Creek, the arm of the sea that flows through Dubai. As has been the way for decades, the passage to the other side is still in loud, open barges that smell of diesel, and peopled by migrant workers from India and Pakistan. On the Bur Dubai side, you can still discover a network of narrow streets between the imposing commercial establishments; heavily restored, smart and clean, the old quarter presents a picture-book image of Arabia.

The only places to see what Dubai was like before the oil boom are the museums, where yellowing black-and-white photographs depict dusty streets, wind-tower houses made of coral, and Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al-Maktoum, drinking tea, riding a camel or engaging in falconry. Such scenes are very much pictures of the past. When oil was discovered in 1958, the world courted the Bedouin ruler, who used the oil billions to turn the small trading port into the fastest growing city in the world, and where his subjects enjoyed a life of ease and luxury. Nonetheless, following the international financial crisis of 2008, real estate prices fell here too, with many building sites put on hold at the end of 2011, including Palm Jebel Ali and The World.

Abu Dhabi is also obsessed with being 'higher, more expensive, more spectacular'. The richest of the emirates, thanks to its vast oil reserves, it gave its citizens the imposing Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, an oriental dream of marble and gold that took ten years to build, and the Emirates Palace hotel, which is so magnificent as to have an air of an Arabian Versailles. Currently, a number of well-known architects are building not one, but several museums on the 'Island of Happiness'.

Sharjah, whose capital is just 15km (9mi) from Dubai, is the third-largest emirate and in recent years has made a name for itself as being an important cultural centre in the Arab world. The capital has superbly restored old palaces, excellent museums and galleries, and has been proclaimed the 2014 Islamic Capital of Culture. Since Sharjah has little oil, the emirate began focusing on tourism as early as the 1970s.

Less glamorous: the emirates without oil

Future projects in the other four sheikhdoms are somewhat more modest: Ajman, Fujairah, Umm al-Qaiwain and Ras al-Khaimah do not have oil. Life here is far less glamorous than in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and the past still lingers: many people still make a living in time-honoured ways, such as agriculture and fishing, and some of the towns still have a traditional Arab appearance. These emirates are dependent on the financial aid of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and the overall budget of the United Arab Emirates. Such support has allowed the development of good infrastructure, with several spectacular construction projects. Five-star hotels attract visitors who appreciate the lower prices and more relaxed atmosphere of the smaller emirates. Among their important tourist attractions are the sandy beaches of Ras al-Khaimah and Fujairah as well as the majestic Hajar Mountains.

What was true in the past is still true today: the ruling dynasties own the land and therefore also the oil. But the sheikhs allow their people to share in their wealth; young married couples are given homes, water, electricity and zero interest loans, and education, training, pensions and care for the elderly are paid by the state. The per capita income and standard of living are among the highest in the world, which may be why the Arab Spring of early 2011 did not have repercussions in the UAE. Two neighbouring states, Yemen and Bahrain, experienced serious protests; in Bahrain, Saudi and Emirates troops were drafted in to support the king and the situation calmed down.

Shopping and luxury alongside falconry and camel races

The region is easy to access for Europeans. After just a six or seven hour flight passengers arrive in a land of constant sunshine, long sandy beaches lapped by the warm waters of the Arabian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, desert adventures, outstanding service and luxurious hotels. At first glance, Abu Dhabi and Dubai seem not much different from their Western models. This is a false impression, however, because the Arab way of life and traditions are nurtured even in these hyper-modern surroundings. Prayer, in the home or at the mosque, still structures the lives of the locals, and camel racing and falconry are the most popular hobbies – after shopping and driving luxury cars.

The United Arab Emirates is not just for visitors who want to sit by a pool and go shopping: excellent roads make it easy to travel independently through remote desert landscape (just watch out for camels, which cross the roads from time to time). Organized tours will take you into a landscape of high sand dunes that shimmer red and yellow in the sunlight, or into the Hajar Mountains, which twinkle in the morning sun. It is magnificent scenery, unchanged for millennia, and hospitality, a cornerstone of Arab life, which make for such a wonderful destination.

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