For many, the Middle East comes to focus when they hear the name ‘Dubai’ mentioned. Surprisingly what many do not know is Dubai is the modern face of the larger United Arab Emirates (UAE), fêted for many things ancient and modern
Despite its harsh climatic conditions and the vast seas of ubiquitous sand, the original roots of the UAE run deep – very deep, in fact – to centuries before oil stuck in the 1950s, to when they were first exported commercially in the year 1962. The earliest recorded settlements in the UAE date back to the Bronze Age. In the 3rd millennium BC, a culture known as Umm al-Nar arose near modern Abu Dhabi. Umm al-Nar’s influence extended well into the interior and right down the coast to today’s Oman. There were also settlements at Badiyah (near Fujairah) and at Rams (near Ras al-Khaimah) during the third millennium BC.
But it was the discovery of oil that proved to be the elixir for this desert nation, transforming this once unknown and reticent fishing village into one of the most prosperous countries in living memory. With Abu Dhabi becoming the first of the Emirates to start exporting oil, the country’s society and economy were transformed forever, for good. And it was the late, lamented Sheikh Zayed, ruler of Abu Dhabi and the President of the UAE during its inception, oversaw the development of all the Emirates and directed oil revenues into health care, education and the national infrastructure UAE is today a vivacious nation that is rich in history and steeped in culture, that is equally acknowledged as the preferred entry points for travels into the Middle East region, from any global destination.
To be found geographical on the eastern side of the Arabian Peninsula at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, UAE has Saudi Arabia to the west and southwest and the Sultanate of Oman to the southeast and on the eastern tip of the Musandam Peninsula, as well as an Omani enclave within its borders. The UAE have coastlines on the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf, sharing sea borders with Qatar and Iran.
The Seven Emirates
To put things in proper context, the United Arab Emirates, oft times known merely as the ‘Emirates’, is a federation of seven independent Emirates. A hereditary Emir governs each these constituent Emirates and all of them come together to choose one of their members to be the President of the UAE Federation. The seven Emirates that together form the UAE are Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Quwain. The largest Emirate is Abu Dhabi, which accounts for 87% of the UAE’s total area (67,340 square kilometers). The smallest Emirate is Ajman, which encompasses only 259 square kilometers. Intentionally the islands, man-made and natural, have been left out. The capital city of the UAE is the bustling Abu Dhabi, which also happens to be the state’s main center of political, industrial and cultural pursuits. Dubai is the most populated Emirate with 35.6% of the UAE population. The Emirate of Abu Dhabi has a further 31.2%, meaning that over two-thirds of the UAE population lives in either Abu Dhabi, or Dubai.
The wealth discovered in the UAE acted as a powerful magnate to attract people from all over the world, who thronged to its shores to capitalise on the country’s massive growth and development opportunities that presented itself. Today, the population is incredibly varied and diverse. At the end of 2012, the population of UAE was recorded to be at 8.2 million, with 11.47% being the ‘real’ Emiratis (locals). Most of the rest come from the Indian Subcontinent of India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, or Bangladesh (about 60%); other parts of South-East Asia, particularly the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia (another perhaps 20%); and “Western” countries (Europe, Australia, North America, South Africa 5%), with the remainder from everywhere else.
A Land of Mesmerizing Contrasts
UAE is a mind-boggling study in contrasts. Besides the mega malls and skyscrapers can be found quaint little ‘souqs’, where even to this date trading takes place just as it did centuries ago. Besides the global brands and the fancy cars can be found people who still faithfully follow their traditional Bedouin customs and modest lifestyles. Undoubtedly, generous credit is due to those who had the vision and have successfully dared to convert their dreams into realities – retain the old-world charm of this country, yet convert it to make it one of the most modern of nations within the region, if not in the world.
Places to See and Things to Do
The United Arab Emirates, one of the world’s fastest growing tourist destinations, has all the right ingredients for an unforgettable holiday – sun, sand, sea, sports, unbeatable shopping, top-class hotels and restaurants, an intriguing traditional culture, and a safe and welcoming environment to name a few. For want of space we shall limit our scope to cover only the key attractions found in the two of the largest Emirates of the UAE, namely Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Dubai has rightfully earned its names as ‘The City of Superlatives’ for its coveted collection of the ‘biggest’, ‘largest’, ‘tallest’ presentations. Juxtaposed against these modern marvels are also some ancient wonders too.
Dubai Museum: A definite stop by, this museum retraces the social history of the Emirates. From ancient reed houses to pearl diving implements, rare collections of artifacts are kept for public display. The reconstructed centuries old ‘traditional souq’ replete with authentic sights and sounds adds to its aura.
Jumeirah Mosque: Built in the medieval Fatimid traditions, this is the largest mosque in the city showing stunning samples of Islamic architecture and Arabic calligraphy. This is one of the few mosques where non-Muslims are allowed entry.
Burj Khalifa: Standing tall at 828 metres and 160 floors this is the world’s tallest structure by a long shot, over 300m taller than its closest contender is. The observation deck at the 124th floor is the second highest in the world after the Shanghai World Financial Center. Dominating the Dubai skyline, is the tower houses nine hotels and a Las Vegas-inspired fountain system. Advance booking is required to visit the observation deck.
The Dubai Fountain: At 270m (900ft) in length and sporting a jet that shoots water up to 150m (500ft), the Dubai Fountain is the world’s largest dancing fountain with classical, Arabic and world music. Daily shows start every evening at the Burj Dubai Lake.
The Palm Islands: These are arguably one of the world’s modern man-made marvels. The Palm Islands are an artificially created archipelago just off the coast of UAE in the Persian Gulf. The Palm Islands are made of the Palm Jumeirah, the Palm Jebel Ali and the Palm Deira. Besides these, there are also two other artificial archipelagos namely The World and The Universe, located between the Palm Islands.
Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo: Set right in the centre of Dubai Mall, this aquarium is one of the largest of its kind in the world with a record-breaking acrylic panel and 270-degree glass walk-through tunnel. Best of all, the bold can go for a dive in the aquarium amongst the sharks, stingrays and enormous groupers. Some other note worthies would have to be Dubai’s enviable shopping options, excellent golfing facilities, beach and desert safaris to name just a few.
Abu Dhabi has its fair share of places to see too.
Abu Dhabi Heritage Village: Take a trip back in time to discover what life was like for the town’s early inhabitants – the Al Bu Falah branch of the Bani Yas tribal group from Liwa who moved to Abu Dhabi in the 1790s. The town quickly evolved as an important pearling centre. Pearl divers and boatmen tended their date gardens and camels in the oasis and desert of the hinterland during the winter and trekked back to the coast in the summer months to dive for pearls.
Sheikh Zayed Mosque: This is the world’s sixth largest mosque and of course the largest in the UAE. This mosque is truly a masterpiece of modern Islamic architecture. Entry into the mosque for non-Muslims is restricted. Khalifa Park. The best park by far, built at a cost of $50 million. It has its own aquarium, museum, train, play parks and manicured gardens. This marvellous place for leisure and entertainment built on an area of half a million square kilometres is the first of its kind in the region. With very distinctive architectural designs and landscaping unseen before in the region, the Khalifa Park is set to give the people all the stunning facilities for enjoyment, sports, leisure and enlightenment.
Corniche: Abu Dhabi’s spectacular waterfront stretches for miles from the Breakwater near Marina Shopping Mall almost up to the Mina Zayed port. It has a walkway for the entire length, and certain stretches have sandy beaches. There are also many activities like go-cart riding, playgrounds and even stages for shows.
Flagpole: At 123m, this is the world’s tallest flagpole, located on the Marina Island across the Marina Mall. The pole has an automatic mechanism for hoisting and lowering the gigantic UAE national flag measuring 20×40 metres. It has an Internet web camera installed at the top and a maintenance lift to carry two people that goes right up to the top.
Yas Island: Looking to unwind? Looking for adventure? Looking for recreation? Looking for entertainment? Yas Island is the place to be. The island is the site of a US$36 billion development project. The island holds the Yas Marina Circuit, which hosts the Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Other notable attractions here include the Ferrari World, Yas Island IKEA, Yas Marina, Southern Marina, Warner Bros. Theme Park, Yas Waterworld and the mega Yas Mall.
Abu Dhabi also has several large green swathes, many of which include play areas for children, and the city is interspersed with lovely fountains, bright neon lights, and sculptures.
The intricately carved, beautiful doors found across much of the Sultanate open the way to Oman’s rich cultural and historic legacy. One Omani photographer is keen to preserve the past for future generations.
One of the first things visitors notice when they take the time to walk around any Omani town are the amazing doors. As well as being an elegant way to enter someone’s home, these doors often have an old and colourful history. You can find them all over the Sultanate, and down the East African seaboard, most notably in Lamu, Mombasa and Zanzibar on the Kenyan and Tanzanian coasts.
Research suggests that some were carved by skilled Omani and Indian carpenters, and each one tells a particular story in their design. An Omani businessman, Nasser al Kindi, wants to record these snapshots of time. He is a keen cameraman, although he has never received any formal training in photography. He says that intuition is the key to art. “I think you have to listen to the place you are photographing. If you are into nature photography, then you have to understand the symphony that is there and close your ears to everything else.” The thing that first grabbed his attention to the world of photography was the sound the camera shutter made. His initial enthusiasm has matured now into a growing appreciation of the value of the past to modernity. He says he has, “an affinity to beautiful things that are vanishing, such as the old doors, which people think of as being from the past, so I wanted to capture these beautiful details that in a couple of years might not be here anymore.”
Similarly, growing up by Fort Mirani in Muscat and later travelling across Oman and much of the world, Nasser found the landscape continuously shrinking as it makes way to development. He said he often finds himself at the crossroads between two worlds; “one with its trumpeting development, a jigsaw of cement and asphalt, and another with its serene and unobtrusive way of living. Sadly, the latter is forever making way for the former.” A few years back, on a visit to Al Aijah, a village in Sur that overlooks an arresting view of the marriage between land and sea, Nasser was dazzled by the inhabitants’ zealous interest in maintaining old doors in new houses. Over time, he captured on camera an astounding number of these ancient doors, with their shapes, wood, intricate carvings, colours, locks and the playfulness of light as it changes the hues of the wood and the shadows they absorbed.
Nasser says people are continuously “traversing between one world and another, as technology becomes more advanced, often leaving behind, sometimes sweeping away altogether, beautiful yet irreplaceable facets of a fast changing world.” These old Omani doors are often neglected objects of art. Some of the doors he photographed in Nizwa bear their maker’s inscriptions; they are over 1000 years old and still going strong! The photographic collection depicts the different art forms that prevail in various towns. Nasser says that when some of his Omani friends look at the collection, they instinctively know in which part of Oman the photograph was taken!
“The elegance of the blue door lent to it by its simplicity, so characteristic of Nizwa as an old stronghold of Ibadhi architecture (Ibadhi: the predominant sect in Oman, found also in East Africa and to a much lesser extent in parts of Algeria, Libya and Morocco).”
Dhofar is famous throughout the region as a ‘must visit’ summer destination to cool off – during the ‘Khareef Season’. But there are much more awe inspiring facts about Dhofar than these soothing summer showers!
The southernmost coastal strip of land stretching to about 560kms within the Sultanate of Oman is the Dhofar Governorate. Size wise, this region is the largest of the Sultanate’s 11 Governorates, occupying one third of the country’s combined land area. The mountainous Dhofar region lies just adjacent to Yemen on the south-west and the Arabian Sea on the east. With the vast seacoast running to many kilometers of unspoilt sandy white beaches on one side, and the mountains rising up to 1,500 metres on another, and fertile plains in-between, the Dhofar topography is indeed an enviable amalgamation of nature’s bounty at its best.
What is interesting about this geography is that while the rest of the country is predominantly made up of arid and desert lands, only this part is distinctly the opposite. It would be appropriate to say that in Dhofar one can enjoy and experience a different Oman – one with a refreshing tropical twist. Now combine that with the white sandy beaches, swaying coconut and banana palms, quaint little pastel-painted houses standing in for the fortified mud brick mansions that can be commonly found elsewhere in the country and you get a destination quite like no other, either in the Sultanate, or even across the entire GCC region!
The Governorate’s eleven Wilayat’s are Salalah, Taqah, Mirbat, Sadah, Shalim and Halaniyat Islands, Dalkoot, Rakhyut, Thamrit, Mokshin and Al Mazuna, with Salalah being the capital and the largest city. Lying 1,040kms south of the capital city of Muscat, the Dhofar region’s history and even its identity have largely remained unique. Fabled in antiquity as the point of origin of the world’s legendary and much celebrated frankincense trade, Dhofar of yore boasted one of the world’s oldest and most cosmopolitan civilizations – whose excavations continue to amaze historians and archeologists even to this day. Numerous excavations done over long periods of time suggest that this fertile land mass may have supported some of the earliest human settlements outside of Africa going as far back as 75,000 to 100,000 years.
The region as a whole rose to prominence, and economic prosperity, much earlier than most other parts of the Sultanate, thanks to the lucrative local frankincense trade. Frankincense was traded through the region from Neolithic times onwards, gradually developing into the so-called ‘Incense Route’, one of the ancient world’s most extensive and important commercial networks. Frankincense was transported over the sea from the coast of Dhofar westwards up the Red Sea to Egypt, Africa and Europe, and east into the Arabian Gulf and on to India. By land, caravans headed up via Shisr across the Empty Quarter to Bahrain and, westwards, into Yemen and then north to Medina, Petra and, ultimately, Egypt.
A string of ports developed along the coast of Dhofar to service the frankincense trade, include Sumhuram, followed by Mirbat, Sadh, Hasik and Zafar (the forerunner of modern Salalah, and the origin of the name “Dhofar”). From around 300 AD onwards, the international frankincense trade went into a gradual decline, although Mirbat and Zafar, at least, continued as major commercial centres, exporting horses and spices in addition to frankincense and attracting many foreign visitors, including Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta. Moving to more recent times, there are numerous attractions certainly worth a visit while in the region. Some of the more notable ones are:
Al Hafah Souq – Replete with a variety of products, including traditional textiles and clothing, gold and silver jewellery as well as many other traditional handicrafts. Is also the perfect place to buy the best kinds of gum and incense, not only in Dhofar, but also in the entire Sultanate.
Khawr Al Maghsayl – A lagoon (khawr) that lies at the eastern end of Jabal Al Qamar (Moon Mountain). The lagoon’s importance lies in hosting some important species of indigenous and migratory birds that inhabit the lagoon due to the abundance of food throughout the year. Some birds migrate from Africa, some from Europe and others from India, while others are permanent residents of the lagoon.
Khawr Ruri – This is the largest reserve in the Governorate of Dhofar. It is considered the most attractive to tourists as it contains Khawr Ruri port, famously known as Samharam. Nearby, there are important ruins that date back to prehistoric times. The port was often mentioned in Greek, Hellenic and Arabic historical scrolls, being the main port for the export of frankincense in Dhofar. Therefore the khawr has gained special status, as it is not only a nature reserve, but an important heritage reserve as well, and has been included in the World Heritage List.
Al Balid – The most important ancient port on the Arabian Sea and part of the famous Frankincense Trail, history dates back to before 2000 BC. Some archaeological research confirms that the city’s prosperity dates even back to the Iron Age. In the year 2000, Al Balid was registered by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Samharam – The location tells the story of an ancient civilization and its then thriving frankincense port dating back to 1000 BC, which acted as a link between Dhofar and other parts of the world. It is reported that the port acquired fame and significance as jars of invaluable Omani frankincense was shipped from the Samharam Port at the behest of the Queen of Sheba. Further archeological excavations in Samharam city unearthed a number of scrolls, an old temple, coins and historical artifacts all of which indicated a close historic association with India, the countries between both rivers (Tigress and Euphrates), and the Nile river area.
Wadi Darbat – This wadi carves its way through hills and highlands until it reaches Khawr Ruri, where it empties into the Arabian Gulf. During autumn, the wadi’s water descending from the mountains forms magnificent waterfalls cascading from a height of up to 30 metres (100 feet). The wadi is distinguished by its virgin nature and thick botanical cover, in addition to a natural spring and a number of caves. The wadi’s water is the source of the water filling Teeq Cave’s cells.
Dhofar’s Beaches – The Governorate’s most important beaches are Al Maghsayl, Raysut, Al Hafah, and the shores of Wilayat Taqah, Mirbat and Sha, noted for the purity of their sands and the beauty of their surrounding rocks and scenic nature.
Dhofar’s Lagoons – There are a number of lagoons such as Sawli, Al Baleed, Ad Dahareez, Atheeb and Salalah, where one can see large numbers of flamingos and a wide variety of migratory and endemic birds. Some of these lagoons have been established as Nature Reserves too.
Nature Reserves – There are eight in all : Khawr Ruri, Khawr Al Baleed, Khawr Sawli, Khawr Al Maghsayl, Khawr Al Qurm Al Sagheerand Al Qurm Al Kabeer, Khawr Awqad, Khawr Ad Dahareez and Khawr Al Taqah.
Aside of all these amazing attractions, the biggest draw for the region happens when the much awaited Khareef Season gets going during the peak summer months. The entire region becomes lush and green, with soft drizzles and softer mists wafting along, as waterfalls, rivers and natural springs gush forth in gay abandon, creating an almost idyllic modern day Xanadu!