To think that in 1975, the only modern building standing in the Dubai desert was the Dubai World Trade Centre!
Around the cute, modest white tower were mostly traditional Persian-style brown structures, fenced in by miles and miles of desert sand. Fast-forward to 44 years later, and the Dubai World Trade Centre is dwarfed by architectural marvels mimicking everything from London’s Big Ben and the Egyptian Pyramids, to Grosvenor House that looks like two imposing Egyptian mummies overlooking the Dubai creek.
There is The Address, an exclusive hotel afforded by the rich and powerful, not to mention the world-famous Atlantis hotel on the Jumeira Palm crescent where, according to our guide Rom Bautista, a hotel room starts at $5,000.
I was last in Dubai in 2016, but remember the city leaving a lasting impression on me. I prayed I would get a chance to visit again. That chance came knocking last month from Emirates Airline, which showed three Ugandan journalists the sights and sounds of Dubai.
I don’t think there is a city in the world I can compare to Dubai; it thrills and scares me in equal measure, because how can so much breath-taking beauty be mostly man-made?
And when you look at what the emirate has in future plans, what you see on the ground today is just a tip of the iceberg. They are determined to become the top tourist destination in the world; if for nothing else, for their tech-smart architecture.
In fact, there seem to be as many construction cranes in Dubai as there are skyscrapers. So much attention is paid to every detail that despite the city being smack in the middle of a desert, there are flowers in full bloom everywhere. In fact, Dubai streets may have more beautiful natural flowers than Kampala!
With small irrigation pipes running through the flower gardens, the whole city is dotted with mostly pink, peony-like flowers.
“There are flowers for every season. When the season for these ones ends, they will be carefully removed and stored in giant refrigerators and fresh ones for another season introduced,” Rom said. “It is illegal to pick flowers, though.”
The things we take for granted here! Natural flowers in Dubai are a prized possession, just like a litre of water is more expensive than a litre of petrol. Dubai has only four per cent of the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) oil, according to Rom.
As a result, unlike other Gulf states Dubai is not putting all its eggs in the oil basket; the city and its ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, are going full-throttle into real estate, tourism and aluminium, riding on an air-tight, incorruptible system that works like clockwork. As long as one has a work permit or tourism visa, life is glorious in Dubai. Otherwise, you cannot go there to beg and pass time.
“Everyone here works, or is a resident with full benefits from the state. It is illegal to beg,” Rom said.
As Rom’s stories continued, we arrived at the city’s latest attraction, the Dubai Frame. The 150m-high structure in Zabeel Park was built with gold-coated steel plates, glass and aluminium and opened to the public in January last year. Like its name suggests, it is a picture frame that puts the city on display; with no offices or apartments, it just houses two museums on the ground floor on either side of the frame.
One museum shows the quaint, old life of Dubai with its pearl-diving, camel-riding natives living in simple houses cooled naturally using wind towers, while the other museum is an explosion of 3D technology displaying what the Emiratis envision for the future of Dubai.
After taking the elevator to the top of the frame, we walked across a glass-floor bridge that is not for the faint-hearted to the other side. When you look out the glass windows on one side of the frame, you will see what remains of old Dubai. The other side of the frame shows the skyscrapers and the many record-breaking structures that make up the new Dubai, or Downtown Dubai.
And later this year the city is unveiling the world’s tallest Ferris wheel, very much like the London Eye.
City of Records
If there is any structure boasting of being unique or too big, Dubai is intent on breaking that record and keeping it. Right now it is home to the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building at 828m.
As we queued to get on a lift to take us to an observation deck at the top, there was a collective gasp from tourists as we watched on screens footage of Tom Cruise perform his own stunts off the Burj Khalifa, as he shot his Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.
With news that Saudi Arabia is soon unveiling the Jeddah Tower that will break Burj Khalifa’s record, Dubai is in advanced stages of building the Dubai Creek Tower, which at 928m will comfortably claim back the Emirate’s spot at the top.
With the Dubai Mall baffling even the biggest shopaholic with its record-breaking size, China is constructing a mall that will take over from Dubai Mall as the world’s biggest.
Well, and Dubai is not just sitting back; as we drove to the mall that annexes the Burj Khalifa, the guide pointed to construction works across the road, where “Dubai Mall is expanding to retain its position as the biggest in the world”.
Even the Dubai Creek Tower will have a neighbour in form of a $2bn tech-driven mega mall that will equal the size of 100 football fields!
The world’s only seven-star hotel, the Burj Al Arab, is also found in Dubai, just as are at least three man-made islands that have stunned architecture enthusiasts. There is Palm Jumeira and Palm Deira that look like palm trees from an aerial view, and the former is dotted by exclusive villas and hotels such as the Atlantis.
The World is the other island where land was reclaimed from the Persian Gulf by pumping desert sand into the water until what looks like the globe from an aerial view was created.
Dubai is home to the world’s only desert-based ski slopes – ridiculous as that may sound – yet the country retains a lot of desert too, with oryx and gazelles roaming the sands.
The vast desert is also home to the desert safari, a must-do for a visitor. In 2016, I almost passed out with fright as the custom-built Toyota Land Cruiser flew over the high sand dunes and spun at unbelievable angles as it hurtled down on the other side.
I was determined to conquer the dunes this time. With Arabian Adventures’ Crazy Khan at the wheel of a model 2018 Land Cruiser, I soon lost that battle in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve.
With a sore throat from screaming so embarrassingly and Crazy Khan looking for the highest dunes to zip around, I was relieved when a colleague begged that we pull off the track to catch our breaths.
There, we watched one of the most beautiful sunsets as we frolicked in the sand and later continued to the camp where Sumaya the belly dancer, an exquisite meal and a camel ride pushed my fears out.
If you planned to go to Dubai to catch sight of the local Emiratis, good luck. It is no coincidence that Rom our guide is from the Philippines, Khan is from Pakistan, William the skipper during our boat cruise is from Kenya and the port hand at the marina, Idi Mugarura, is Ugandan.
Eighty per cent of the people in Dubai are foreigners there to earn a living and give shape to the Emiratis’ big design dreams while at it. Until recently a tax-free economy (last year a five per cent tax was introduced) anyone who wants to earn a living and does not mind the desert sun, can make it in Dubai, because the construction boom is evidently still on.
Mugarura, who went to Dubai last June, said he does not miss Uganda yet, because of how lucrative things are currently for him. Most of the foreigners, according to Rom, sleep in the Deira part of Dubai, formerly the business district of the city before it exploded into today’s marvel.
Ugandan traders in Dubai also prefer Deira and it is not hair-raising to hear Luganda being spoken there. But most of the expatriate population (about 85 per cent according to January statistics) is from Asia – Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi and Filipino.
“We share flats mostly, where you can put a sheet over your bunk bed for privacy and share the bathroom and toilet to save more,” Rom shared.
The Emiratis, usually identified from their black abayas for the women and white tunics with matching headgear for the men, largely keep away from the public eye, save for a few working in areas such as immigrations, police and the army.
You can also tell the natives from their super cars when they come out for coffee, shopping and to cruise their machines, usually in the evenings. Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Porsches, Bentleys, Bugattis and the latest Mercedes Benzes are a common sight on the roads.
In fact so many are these fancy cars that the police force also has its own fleet of super cars to chase possible offenders in super cars!
How to get there
Now gearing up for the World Expo 2020 that is going to Dubai, Emirates Airline flies daily from Entebbe to Dubai on the bigger Boeing 777-300ER. I could not wait to get a taste of the much-touted and award-winning inflight entertainment that is now the same for all classes from first class to economy.
I first explored some anime, then jammed to Bob Marley, flipping through the hundreds of music albums like a child in a candy store. I think those on the long haul flights enjoy the personalised entertainment more.
I eventually settled on watching the BlacKkKlansman and a new documentary about Serena Williams; in no time the five hours were gone and we were landing in Dubai after 10pm where a chauffeur-driven sedan whisked us off to the Hampton by Hilton Dubai Airport hotel.