Dubai is like nowhere else on the planet. Often claimed to be the world’s fastest-growing city, over the past four decades it has metamorphosed from a small Gulf trading centre to become one of the world’s most glamorous, spectacular and futuristic urban destinations, fuelled by a heady cocktail of petrodollars, visionary commercial acumen and naked ambition. Dubai’s ability to dream (and then achieve) the impossible has ripped up expectations and rewritten the record books, as evidenced by stunning developments such as the soaring Burj Khalifa, the beautiful Burj al Arab and the vast Palm Jumeirah island – testament to the ruling sheikhs’ determination to make the city one of the world’s essential destinations for the twenty-first century.
For the visitor, there’s far more to Dubai than designer boutiques and five-star hotels – although of course if all you’re looking for is a luxurious dose of sun, sand and shopping, the city takes some beating. If you want to step beyond the tourist clichés, however, you’ll find that Dubai has much more to offer than you might think, ranging from the fascinating old city centre, with its higgledy-piggledy labyrinth of bustling souks interspersed with fine old traditional Arabian houses, to the memorably quirky postmodern architectural skylines of the southern parts of the city. Dubai’s human geography is no less memorable, featuring a cosmopolitan assortment of Emiratis, Arabs, Iranians, Indians, Filipinos and Europeans – a fascinating patchwork of peoples and languages that gives the city its uniquely varied cultural appeal.
Planning a Trip: The most important factor to consider in planning a trip to Dubai is the climate. From mid-October to mid-April, while much of the northern world is buttoned up in the cold, Dubai is bathed in sunshine, blue skies, and moderate temperatures. This is high season here, and the time that most outdoor activities and special events occur. It’s also the most expensive period.
During the rest of the year, Dubai is hot In summer, it is excruciatingly so. Think of Dubai’s seasons in reverse: During the winter months, everyone spends their time outside, and in the summer months, folks stay put in the air-conditioned inside. The one benefit of visiting Dubai during the off-season is that prices drop, and if you’re primarily coming to shop in the extravagant malls, the outside temperature may not matter much.
But if you want to spend time at the beaches, theme parks, or in the desert, stay away during the sultry summer months.
Some travelers wonder whether Dubai is affected by the turmoil in some parts of the broader Middle East. The answer is no. Dubai is moderate politically, advanced economically (despite recent debt troubles), and stable socially. The many national and ethnic groups inhabiting and visiting Dubai do so in relative harmony. In fact, Dubai is one of the world’s safest cities. The one thing to remember is this is still an Islamic society, and as such there is an expectation that non-Muslims will respect local customs. This means you shouldn’t wear provocative clothing or engage in overt public displays of affection in places frequented by Emiratis. Dubai might remind you of a Western resort in some of its beachfront resorts, entertainment spots, and nightlife venues, but at its core it remains a traditional society.
Walking: Negotiating Dubai by foot, even combined with public transport, is highly challenging due to the lack of pavements, traffic lights and pedestrian crossings. It is not unheard of here to be forced to take a taxi, merely to reach the other side of the road.
Beware of summer heat!
Tickets & Passes: Dubai’s local public transport is operated by the Roads & Transport Authority (www.rta.ae) and consists of the Dubai metro, buses, water buses and abras (water taxis). A worthwhile RTA package called ‘One Day in Dubai’ allows for travel on all public transport covering the main city sights. For trip planning and general information, call the 24-hour hotline or visit the website.
Before you can hop aboard a local bus or the metro in Dubai you must purchase a rechargeable Nol Card (nol is Arabic for fare), available from ticket offices in any metro and some bus stations. There are also ticket vending machines (with English instructions) in all metro and bus stations, at some bus stops and other places such as malls and the airport.
There are four categories of Nol Card. If you’re only going to use public transport a few times, get a Red Card, which costs Dh2 and may be recharged for up to 10 journeys. Fares depend on distance and are divided into five zones. For Red Cards the cost ranges from Dh2.50 to Dh6.50.
Day passes for unlimited travel in all zones are Dh14. Children under five years of age travel free.
For full details, see www.nol.ae.
Monorail: The elevated, driverless Palm Jumeirah Monorail (www.palm-monorail.com) connects the Palm Jumeirah with Dubai Marina. There are only two stations: Gateway Towers near the bottom of the ‘trunk’ and the Aquaventure Park at the Atlantis hotel. The 5.45km trip takes about five minutes and costs Dh15 (Dh25 round trip).
History and Culture: Culture in Dubai is rooted in Islamic traditions that form UAE National’s lifestyles. It is highly important that when tourists visit Dubai they must respect and behave suitably, as the minority group of Emiratis are very protective over their culture and traditions.
Dubai is famously known as the entertainment capital of the Middle East which attracts many party lovers from all over the world, especially those who are wealthy enough to splash out on the most expensive places in the city. With Dubai promoting such an image, it still forbids the nationals that practice Islam to indulge in any of the entertaining services offered. In that respect these services are often located in the more touristy areas rather than in residential parts.
Alcohol is not forbidden in Dubai, as long as it is confined within an area like a hotel, bar or nightclub. Residents are free to drink in their own homes as long as they have an alcohol licence issued by the municipality. It is illegal to drink in the street or in public places. Pork is also available for the consumption of visitors and expatriates.
It is advised that visitors and expatriates do not flaunt their Western culture habits in the streets, where they can be viewed by nationals who may find it offensive. There have been various complaints in the past by nationals who have expressed their views through the media about their home-land being taken over by the Western world.
Having said this, it does not mean the locals are against foreigners visiting Dubai, it is just common courtesy to respect your hosts. Emiratis are traditionally known for their warm hospitality and they are very generous when offering refreshments to guests.