Further to last week’s blog post when friends and I went to the UAE in May 2016, the trip would not have been complete without an excursion to the Arabian Desert. From Dubai, it’s less than an hour’s drive to fine, golden sand dunes.
We went on an all-day “desert safari” in a four-wheel dune cruiser so that we could kick up sand at high speeds. Our manic driver let us rest our dizzy heads and sore bottoms in the sand before taking us to a Bedouin camp, a typical outpost of nomadic Arabs of the desert.
The Bedouins are the oldest inhabitants of the Arabian desert. They used to travel by camel thousands of kilometers, navigating with the sun, stars and directions of wind blown on sand dunes. They were expert trackers known for resourcefulness. Today, many Bedouins have abandoned nomadic and tribal traditions for a modern lifestyle, but they have retained cultural elements such as belly dancing, chanted poetry (now UNESCO-recognized intangible cultural heritage), dances, camel riding, desert camping and hospitality. About 800,000 Bedouins live in the UAE (millions more exist in 20 other Islamic countries).
We got a taste of their hospitality at the camp, smoking a hookah (waterpipe with tobacco), meeting a falcon (which help Bedouins hunt and are often treated like family members), riding camels, eating traditional foods and watching a whirling dervish spin like a madman in circles with a flying skirt while balancing multiple plates!
The modern twist on Bedouin culture was sand-boarding, which was far more difficult than sailing the “ship of the desert” (riding a camel). While they have an awkward gait, camels are sure-footed in the desert, unlike us tall women on sand boards. As soon as we got our balance and started to glide, we toppled … At least we had soft landings.
In Bedouin society, camels historically were a mode of transport, source of nourishment and symbol of wealth. Camel hide was used to make tents, shoes and clothing. Camel hair was woven into rugs. Camel milk was turned into various products and camel meat was served as a delicacy. To this day, UAE grocery stores sell camel milk in various flavors as well as products made with it, such as chocolate, as well as camel meat. We tried it all and even enjoyed it!
Bedouins also used camels in races and “beauty pageants” – time-honored traditions that endure today. In fact, camel races and show contests in the UAE have prizes worth millions of dollars. The country has 15 camel racetracks featuring robot jockeys controlled from the sidelines instead of small children – a cruel practice banned about a decade ago in the UAE.
Moving on from the Arabian Desert, we took a day trip to Abu Dhabi, the largest emirate and home to the UAE Federal National Council, its parliamentary body, and Qasr Al Watan, its presidential palace (which opened to the public in 2019). Abu Dhabi means “father of the gazelles” because these small, deer-like animals found water there. In the early 1990s, pearls were discovered in the UAE followed by oil in the 1960s. With an additional oil reserve discovered in Abu Dhabi in late 2020, the small UAE is now in fifth place for oil worldwide. Its oil boom launched in Dubai, rapidly changing the economy and political landscape – it contributed to the formation of the UAE in 1971 after the UK voluntarily pulled out of the Gulf – but today it’s shifting more and more to Abu Dhabi. (Tourism has become the new oil in Dubai.) The largest emirate currently produces 2 million barrels of oil a day! No wonder the UAE’s per capita gross domestic product is equal to those of leading Western European nations.
The UAE government shares its wealth with citizens, giving them one of the highest standards of living in the world. Emiratis get free health care, education and housing as well as gas for about 50 cents a liter. They are no personal taxes and limited corporate tax. No wonder every fifth citizen is a millionaire! This makes Emirati passports coveted and business opportunities plentiful. Case in point, the UAE is pioneering science and technology like artificial intelligence, plant biotechnology and bioenergy. Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City is the world’s first zero-carbon, zero-waste, car-free municipality. The UAE even intends to create the first human settlement on Mars by 2117!
Abu Dhabi is also attracting major Western institutions like Louvre Abu Dhabi and the world’s largest Guggenheim museum, which is under construction. Located on Saadiyat Island (which was under construction when we passed it), these and six more museums, including Zayed National Museum, are part of an impressive, international cultural complex. New York University even has a campus there. Often, the UAE government pays for construction of such buildings in exchange for all profits.
But Abu Dhabi is probably best known for Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the largest in the UAE and one of the most exquisite in the world. This mosque includes the planet’s largest wool carpet, three chandeliers valued at $9.3 million, 35 types of stones coming from six countries and 99 names for Allah on its walls. Completed in 2007, this international work of art took 11 years to build by an Italian company.
To go inside this mosque, which was largely built for tourism, visitors are required to dress in traditional Muslim clothes. (Abu Dhabi is much more conservative and religious than Dubai.) That meant black abayas (robes) and hijabs (head scarves) for us ladies. Our tour guide-driver had them in the back of his SUV.
“Sister Felicia, you’re looking good! But I’m not sure these pious outfits reflect our lifestyle in Dubai,” I joked.
While lightweight, the abayas were warm in the scorching heat and the hijabs were difficult to keep on our heads. There is truly an art to wearing them.
We were happy to disrobe to tour the former Emirates Palace, now the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and journey back 2 hours by car to Dubai. We concluded that the Bedouin way of life suited us better … regardless of sand-filled shoes.