I have always dreamt of going to Dubai, largely because of how much I had read about those Emiratis’ success story.
The prospect of seeing this architectural marvel of the world put visiting Dubai at the top of my bucket list. When Emirates Airline recently offered to show me the Dubai sights and sounds for a week, I was too excited.
That I was flying business class on the airline famed for its inflight amenities (its inflight entertainment, ICE, has been voted the best for 12 years in a row) did not help my excitement one bit.
And that is how I found myself last week in this one of seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, where Abu Dhabi is the capital city and Dubai the most populous – and possibly popular – city.
Visiting in January came with bonuses of great weather – the emirates are in their winter season; so, temperatures average at 21 degrees – and the Dubai shopping festival.
Well, save for the sometimes strong breeze, the weather felt like Kampala on a normal day. But then I remembered that September day last year when I transited through the Dubai airport at 10pm and the temperature outside was 37 degrees Celsius!
Yes, this was indeed winter. Anwar, a city guide, confirmed that on an ordinary day, the temperatures in the city can be anywhere between 46 and 56 degrees Celsius, and up to 38 degrees at night.
I notoriously develop insomnia during travel, be it to my hometown Masaka, or to the moon. But on this business class Emirates flight, I owed it to myself and clan to recline my seat all the way into that famed bed, and even flip onto my stomach like I sleep at home, just for… just.
After five and a half hours, we landed in Dubai and proceeded to Le Meridien hotel just across from the airport; so close that my view out the window was of a plane taking off every five minutes.
The hotel room; ah! Anyway, after heavy breakfast from one of the hotel’s 18 restaurants, we leave for Emirates Flight Catering. The Kenyan operations manager Glory Kinyua and her colleague Jane Zdrojewski meet us and for the next couple of hours walk us through the company that provides food for flights through Dubai and is considered the largest volume caterer in the world.
With 277 high loaders and 16 more on the way, this unit handles 150,000 meals a day on average, and has loaded more than 321 million meals on flights since 2007 alone, employing at least 10,000 people.
With my feet aching from walking up and down for hours, one would expect me to go back to my five-star hotel. Wrong. We ask the driver to drop us off in the Deira section of Dubai, where we raid shops for budget shopping and speak Luganda with the random Ugandans we bump into here. We are back in time for a late lunch at the hotel and I will remember the taste of those spicy king prawns for a while. In the evening we set out for a boat cruise on the Dubai creek, a natural waterway being considered by Unesco as a world heritage site.
It is a great way to see the city as guests tuck into a three-course meal consisting of prawns for starters, duck for the main meal and a chocolatey dessert. I step off the Bateaux Dubai feeling contented and… fat.
We set out for a city tour with Anwar at 10am. This Moroccan who has lived in Dubai for 17 years is part of a staggering 80 per cent expatriates that keep the Dubai economy afloat.
In fact, the only time I see the native Emiratis is in the fancy restaurants in the evenings when they come out in their sparkling white dishdashas (tunics) for men and black abayas for women. That, and their expensive guzzlers.
So much so that Anwar tells us the ‘normal’ cars are on the streets during the day when most Emiratis are enjoying siestas at home, and in the evening the distinctive sound and sight of Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Bentleys, among others, take over.
Otherwise, the shops, hotels, and offices are teeming with foreigners: Indians, Chinese and Africans, as well as Americans and Europeans. I ask Anwar what the local Emiratis do.
“In this country there is zero per cent unemployment. The locals are rich enough they don’t work. They own what you see; only five per cent of them [hold regular jobs],” he says.
As we drive towards Palm Jumeira, the man-made luxury island in the shape of a palm tree, Anwar says Dubai has a population of 1.8 million, comprising 180 nationalities mostly speaking English.
He points out that the Emir of Dubai, also vice president/prime minister of the UAE, Sheikh Mohamad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, is much revered because the monarchy has built the locals free houses, given them free education – even abroad – as well as free hospitals, not to mention a tax-free economy.
He says since the country started exporting oil and gas in 1966, it has experienced rapid growth and it is the emirs’ policy to share proceeds with all Emiratis. Oh, glorious day when that happens in Africa!
According to Anwar, Abu Dhabi is the richest of the seven emirates, thanks to its estimated 200-years’ worth of oil reserves. Dubai, on the other hand, has just a few reserves remaining and its oil is expected to run out in a few years.
But the emirate’s GDP depends only 7.1 per cent on oil; the main sources of income for Dubai are now tourism, trade and industry. Soon, after us oohing and aahing at the architecture that makes Dubai unique, we drive on to the trunk of Palm Jumeira; the trunk is a lengthy multiple-lane highway lined with luxury apartments. Its 16 fronds branch off to several villas owned by the rich and famous of the world.
On a crescent ahead, the famous Atlantis hotel looms, with its water games and aquariums. It is only accessible by the driverless metro or through an underwater tunnel; so, we settle for Anwar’s tales, before driving back towards Deira.
Dubai, now preparing to host the Expo in 2020, is also constructing other ambitious projects that challenge nature in the form of Palm Deira, The World (both of which, like Palm Jumeira, involve pumping desert sand into the sea to create dry land) as well as the Hydropolis hotel, an underwater paradise where, like Anwar cheekily notes, one is advised not to open their windows.
The Al Sufouh street we drive along is lined with magnificent palace after magnificent palace belonging to Al Maktoum family members. It is unbelievable that we all stay in the same world!
The world’s most photographed hotel and most recognizable city landmark, the seven-star Burj Al Arab, looms ahead as we head for the 14km Dubai Creek, past the coral-built, 200-year-old Dubai museum.
Using a water taxi, we cross to the spice market and gold souk, where the world’s largest gold ring (certified by the Guiness Book of World Records) stands on display at Kanz Jewellers.
The Najmat Taiba estimated to cost $3m is a 21-carat ring weighing 64kg with at least five kilos of precious stones. I am overwhelmed by the volume of gold in this market; door-to-door, gold, which is important to the Arabic culture, is on display it threatens to blind you. In the evening, we join Emirates Airline corporate communications manager, Andre Martin at the Palace hotel.
This is where the Thiptara restaurant is housed in downtown Dubai, and the prime location of our table ensures we not only have great food but also front-row seats for the fountains show on the Burj lake that leaves me speechless.
Every 30 minutes, the fountains go off as if in dance to synchronised music that echoes from the surrounding buildings. In the background, the world’s tallest building, the colourful Burj Khalifa, and the world’s biggest mall, the Dubai mall, provide the perfect backdrop.
‘Dancing’ first to Enrique lglesias’ Hero and winding up spectacularly with Michael Jackson’s Thriller as hundreds of tourists at the lakeside cheer, this is a highlight of my trip.
As we leave the hotel, a traffic jam has formed outside, with arriving guests. From the impressive latest-model Bentleys, Ferraris, Porsches, Lamborghinis, Range Rovers and Mercedes Benzes on display, it is clear, the locals have come out to play. Sigh!