Friday, 26 June 2015

The Emirates , A Royal Dream

I had a break from blogging and London life and explored United Arab Emirates (UAE) for a week. It is worth boring you with my reflection on the tour. I would also like to give you some travel tips if you decide to visit UAE. You will notice, I am not saying Dubai which is almost synonymous to UAE We often forget other six sovereign Emirates that makes the UAE, namely Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaima (RAK), Ajman, Fujairah and Umm al-Quwain.

The UAE has the seventh largest oil reserve in the world. We are talking about around 1.4 million Emiratis, 16.6% of the UAE’s total population enjoying the benefit of seventh largest oil reserves in the world. That explains the stupendous amount of capitalist luxury the Sheikh’s has created for them and their partners in the West who has provided them with the skills and strategy as the ‘development gurus’. Let us not forget the blood and sweat of South Asians, Philipinos and other millions of human beings working in inhumane conditions to create this so-called heaven on the earth.

I was puzzled and am still to understand the Emiratis. Are they visionaries with great business minds or are they just lazy landlords that happen to be co-incidentally blessed with natural resources which later transformed their economy to attract mass tourism though the economy is still heavily reliant on natural resources.  

In the late 1960s, the British Government realised it would no longer be sustainable to keep British troops guarding the ‘trucial sheikhdoms’ (peaceful existence with some sort of truce between the quarrelling Sheikhs).  The then British Prime Minister Herald Wilson and consequently Edward Heath paved the way for the Sheikhs to initiate their own unions and refused the Sheikhs’ pleas to remain there at their expense. Qatar and Bahrain became independent without joining the seven Emirates that agreed to form a union guided by a constitution. I saw ‘Long live the Union’ photos in many places in my trip and it seem the Union is stronger than ever.

So without spilling a drop of blood the UAE became an ‘independent’ state in December 1971.  In the last 45 years they have remained loyal to their Western allies and have offered air base to US and the France, supporting both the Iraq invasion of 2003 and the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein. The Arab Spring could not weather out the Emirati Royal sands and the Princes remain in their palaces and cruising in their Hummers, Mercedes and mistresses.

The Royals
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the Ruler of Dubai and the Prime Minister of UAE has 23 officially acknowledged children through his senior and junior wives, nine sons and fourteen daughters, of whom many are married into other Middle East royal families. He is also a recognised poet and one morning my only wife showed me an article in The Khaleej Times with news of his book launch. The book of his tweets - called ‘Glimpses of Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Tweets’ - is touted as revealing an “authentic style of thinking”, and marking out a vision for the future.

Photo Credit: Apsana Haque

Hire a Car
Hiring a car from Dubai airport is a wise decision as it allows you immense freedom to roam around and parking is thousand times better than the UK, as someone said it is ‘kullu -free’, meaning all free. The biggest mall of the world Dubai Mall has free parking. I noticed that conversationally the words ‘too much’ are of saying ‘many’. So when I enquired for a petrol station I was told I need to go through the roundabout and then I will find ‘too much’ petrol stations. Driving on the left with traffic on the right took me roughly half an hour to get used to.

Hiring a car also means UAE being a small country as a whole, is pretty much within 3 hours driving distances with petrol cheaper than water. The satellite navigation that I hired was very useful though it did not recognise every single destination but only the key points of attraction. One thing to note in hiring a car though – do it online in advance to get a good deal and be aware of the hidden costs which are called  ‘extras’ once you reach there, i.e. Salim (road tax) tolls, etc. 

Stay outside Dubai to see Dubai

I stayed in Ras al-Khaimah, a 60 minute drive from Dubai through Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Road. You will find good hotels there and I believe it is much better than being in Dubai. The car gives you the freedom to not eat in the in-house expensive hotel restaurants and explore local restaurants with a wide range of cuisines to choose from. If you are obsessed with your regular type of food and not wishing to explore outside of this, just go to any shopping mall food court where all options are there, from Burger King to Indian curries.

I became fond of Chinese and Filipino food whilst there but particularly liked going to the top end of Ras al-Khaimah where there were arrays of restaurants literally picking fish from the sea and frying it for you. I found most of the restaurants in the street very clean and hygienic as the authorities are very strict.

Do Some Wise Shopping
My philosophy is only shop if you find good quality products with a cheaper price brand or not. I found Pierre Cardin throughout UAE giving 75% to 90% discount. It is worth buying.
Be wary of gold souks and other souks where your hustling skill is pre-requisite to a good deal.

I did not waste money on getting on top of Burj al-Khalifa and many other skyscrapers, instead spent money on driving through the desert and experiencing some fantastic water sports such as jet skiing, parasailing, etc.  

Money Transfer
Using your credit or debit cards abroad means a two-fold change: a non-sterling usage fee and a cash withdrawal fee etc. I’d recommend you take cash in pound sterling with you and exchange it anywhere outside Dubai International Airport. Exchange rates in London or even in Heathrow Airport are a rip off. Interestingly, if you shop around do some bargaining at some exchange shops you will get good rate and even a waiver of the fees they talk about. The only difficulty is if you find a Chinese cashier whose poker face is sometimes hard to read.