If you thought New York was the Empire State, check out these statistics. The Middle East is home to the world’s busiest airport, the world’s second largest building by floor space and the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. Welcome to Dubai, UAE. Located on the southeast coast of the Persian Gulf, Dubai is one of the seven emirates, each governed by an absolute monarch, which make up the United Arab Emerites, a country established in 1971.
First Impressions. Almost everyone in Dubai isn’t from the UAE so that makes for some interesting people watching. Still, while waiting in line for an hour at the airport at immigration, I had a startling thought. I realized that as an American I had been sensitized to regard Arab looking men as suspicious. Most of the images we see and stories we hear stain our conscience with the prejudice. The awareness is often the first step toward change, so I noted my thoughts and feelings and forged into Dubai expecting good things. And turns out there were many good things to experience!
My friend and I stayed in historic Bur Dubai at the very chic XVA Art Hotel in the Al Fahidi Neighborhood. With 13 well appointed rooms, the hotel is the former home of the Seddiqi family, the official Rolex dealers of Dubai. Also on the grounds are an award-winning restaurant, a concept design shop and art gallery specializing in contemporary art throughout the Arab world. It would not be an understatement to call it an oasis in the desert – a hidden gem. As in, it’s not easy to find. Walking down the narrow streets of the neighborhood once known as Bastakiya, we wandered until we came upon the artistically marked entrance. But once inside, we breathed deep and relaxed into its charm and peaceful atmosphere. I highly recommend this homey boutique hotel.
After nearly 13 hours in the air everything about the hotel felt like relief. The central courtyards are adorned with art. Everywhere interesting contemporary pieces hang on the walls, from the trees, sculptures, paintings, mixed media. It’s too cool. And the restaurant serves the most delectable Middle Eastern food, coffees, and you have to try the signature mint lemonade. Delightful.
The Dubai Mall
We had no trouble hailing a taxi from Al Fahidi Street near the hotel and made it over to the Dubai Mall in about 15 minutes for about $12. We had looked at a map before setting out thinking we could walk from the hotel. Once we got going in the taxi we realized there was no way we could have walked! When your short on time, taxi can be your best option.
Pulling up to the entrance of the mall, the night air was refreshingly cool and not chilly. Signs for luxury brands beckoned us: Cartier, Tiffany, Van Cleef & Arpels. There was quite a bit of commotion on the sidewalk out front where a row of cars was parked. They had been valeted – and they were not just any cars. Lamborghini, Porsche, Rolls Royce, Bentley, one after another, each more impressive than the next, with signs posted to the windshields, “Please don’t touch the car.”
The signs were a mere suggestion for most people, who shamelessly posed while their friends took photos of them with the cars with their Smart Phones, posting to their networks as if to say, “Look what I bought today!” One guy asked me to take a photo of him and his family standing in front of a black Porsche. When he looked at the photos I had taken with his phone he handed it back to me. “Can you get more of the car?”
Be warned. The. Mall. Is. HUGE! If you are going to the top of the Burj Khalifa, be sure to leave yourself plenty of time to find the location within the mall where you can collect your tickets at the will call or go to the self-service kiosk (which are right next to one another but not well-marked). The staging area for entrance to the tower is on the LG level of the mall, but you can’t access LG from just anywhere in the mall. I asked several people working in the retail stores how to get to LG and none of them knew or looked like they had never even heard of it! Once we did find it, we presented our voucher (having purchased advanced tickets online), got our tickets, and were asked to return to queue 15 minutes before our 7:30pm time. Nothing to it.
With half an hour to spares we headed straight to the Bateel shop we had passed on the way. If you plan to buy dates, as I did, you might consider seizing the opportunity. When you eat food that comes from very close to the ground upon which you stand, there is almost nothing better. The Middle East is well-known for growing the world’s best dates and you can taste the difference. The many varieties of stuffed dates of all kinds are as delicious as they are gorgeous. I asked to buy two of the pistachio stuffed dates, one for me and one for my friend. “Here you go” said the man behind the counter placing them into my hand. “Next time you buy.” And buy we did!
Standing a gargantuan 2,722 feet in the air, the 148th floor observation deck is the highest in the world. Was I brave enough? Having bought the tickets to the top in advance of our arrival in the country, I didn’t allow myself the option to chicken out. We booked out tickets online in advance. They say sunset is the best time to be at the top of the tower, so I recommend looking at the time of sunset for your trip and then book as far in advance as possible, as these are the most coveted tickets and the first to be sold out.
It doesn’t take long to get to the top. Elevators shuttling successively smaller groups of people, we move in the well-oiled machine with ease, being entertained with videos along the way. A fair portion of the viewing area is enclosed; being up there at night we got the best photos on the outdoor observation deck. Although I am not afraid of heights per se, I don’t like being near what my brain perceives as an open ledge. Since you can see through the walls top to bottom, it can feel a bit like if you go too close you might fall off. Safe to say that I could never make a living as a stunt double for Mission Impossible. Remember Tom Cruise in Ghost Protocol? Yeah, he really did that. As in, himself.
The decision to build Burj Khalifa is reportedly based on the government’s desire to diversify from an oil based economy to one that is service and tourism based. Exactly how the building was built and the human rights violations of the laborers who did so is another story altogether. In a country where flogging, amputation, stoning and crucifixion are legal punishments and speaking out against Islam can get you put to death thanks to Sharia law, I wondered if all the glitz and glam would serve as attractions to beguile the tourist, namely me. Despite the fact that my comfort zone is wide and my taste for adventure high, I questioned whether or not I should look over my shoulder much less mind my P’s and Q’s.
Standing at the base of this structure and looking skyward, surrounded by dancing fountains and light shows, one thing is clear. This skyscraper perfectly reflects the character of this city. Modernity. Technological advancement. Money. And lots of it.