This week the four day Abu Dhabi Tour gets underway with some of the best road cyclists in the world participating. The Tour comes at the end of a long season for the riders. They will like what they see and experience in Abu Dhabi. Unlike the Tour de France experience of some teams, all the hotels will be first class, the fans will be supportive but polite, the national press will not be full of negative stories, and the roads will be perfect. With temperatures hovering around 100 F (37 C) the weather will be a little warm for cycling but the skies will be clear and blue. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are practiced at producing world class sporting events and all that experience will be on display in the Tour. Watching these events on television and seeing venues such as the Yas Marina Circuit, few viewers will ask whether or not these are just desert mirages destined to fade and disappear.
I lived in Abu Dhabi for one year and it was an incredible experience. You can literally see the city growing around you. Most people know Dubai but Abu Dhabi is the capital of the UAE and the source of most of the country’s oil revenue. While Dubai gets the press, Abu Dhabi holds the money and the power. Note that the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, is in Dubai but is owned by and named after the ruler of Abu Dhabi. Looking at the incredible buildings, hotels, malls, museums, and tourist attractions, it is difficult to believe that these two cities were little more fishing villages in the 1960s. Wilfred Thesiger, the great British explorer and personal friend of the late Sheikh Zayed, noted that the fathers and grandfathers of today’s UAE rulers were still holding slaves and stealing camels from each other in the 1950s.
Living in Abu Dhabi causes you to give some credence to the concept of multiple simultaneous realities. My universe was that of a Western, well-educated, highly paid, white, male academic. I was privileged and very much aware of that privilege. When we ordered at Starbucks, the cashier would quickly move to place my order without asking for Alla’s. I was the man and Alla was a woman who could wait. As you might guess, this greatly annoyed her. I learned to verbally hold the cashier while I placed both orders. This was nothing compared to the bank’s refusal to add her to the account and give her a debit card. They did offer to establish an allowance for her in my name. She did not cry when we left the UAE.
Parallel to my reality was the reality of workers from developing countries who were poorly paid and rented bed spaces. A bed space is a bed you may sleep in during the hours you have rented the bed. If your shift runs late, you do get to sleep longer. Someone probably has the shift after yours. If you get sick there is no staying in bed to rest other than during your scheduled bed space time. I cannot say what was worse renting a bed space or living in a labor camp. Abu Dhabi and Dubai was built on the backs of these less privileged people. Privileged people such as myself, consciously or unconsciously, stood on their backs.
If you are going to the UAE on holiday then you probably do not want to think about these things. You probably want to see the sites and there are some impressive sites. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi is simply stunning. You will be welcomed and you will be impressed.
Dubai has more square feet of shopping mall space per capita than any city in the world. You can ski, surf and scuba dive at the mall. My favorite was the Dubai Mall with its incredible evening fountain show. Go early to find a good seat if you want to watch the show over dinner and drinks.
Neither city has a shortage of fine dining, fast food, coffee shops, and sweet shops for ice cream, chocolate and donuts. The French restaurant in the Shangri-La Hotel Qaryat Al Beri in Abu Dhabi was one of my favorites. The Lebanese Flower in Abu Dhabi offers great authentic Lebanese food at a very good price.
As we had an apartment, we seldom stayed in a hotel but you will find excellent hotels at a range of prices. We normally stayed at the Hilton in Dubai and Al Ain. The Dubai Creek Hilton is fabulous. While most hotels will be fine, do check reviews as Dubai is becoming a popular destination for sex tourism.
Finally, do go in the winter. January is probably the coldest month. Temperatures will average 75 F during the day and 56 F during the night. Take a sweater as it can be cool in the evening especially if you go into the desert. Enjoy the magnificent mirage as it will not last forever.