United Arab Emirates
Dubai's is one of the last bastions of anything-goes capitalism - a city whose wealth is based on trade, not oil - and there's no place quite like it in the Gulf. There isn't a lot to see in Dubai but it's the most easygoing city in the region, has the best nightlife and boasts copious opportunities for duty-free shopping. It's well worth spending a few days wandering through the souks (markets) and along the waterfront to take in the city's atmosphere, but don't expect to find anything 'old' in Dubai. Fortunately it's the one place in the Gulf where that hardly seems to matter.
Of the UAE's seven emirates, Dubai has fought the hardest to preserve its independence and minimise the power of the country's federal institutions. It boasts the highest international profile of all the Gulf cities, hosting world-class golf and tennis tournaments, horse racing and desert rallies. It even brought the Miss World pageant to the Gulf in 1995. Dubai's wealth comes from the re-export trade: its merchants import goods and then re-export them rather than peddling them at home. In the past, 're-export' was basically a euphemism for smuggling, particularly of gold to India. Dubai's trade is now largely legal, and the gold has been replaced by consumer goods, which are trans-shipped to the Indian Subcontinent and the rest of the Arabian Peninsula; it also has its own oil reserves.
Dubai is really two towns: Deira to the north-east, and Dubai to the south-west. They are separated by the Creek (al-khor), an inlet of the Gulf. The city centre is actually in Deira, and most of the budget hotels are located in Deira's souk. The best way to start exploring Dubai is to hire an abra, (a motorised water taxi) for a boat ride along the Creek. It's also interesting to walk along the docks on the Deira side of the Creek, where dhows bound for ports ranging from Aden to Mumbai (Bombay) load and unload their cargo.
The Dubai Museum occupies the Al-Fahaidi Fort, built in the early 19th century on the Dubai side of the Creek. The fort is thought to be the oldest building in Dubai and for many years it was both the residence of Dubai's rulers and the seat of government. The museum contains displays on the history of Dubai, Bedouin life, seafaring, flora and fauna, weaponry, Emirati dances, musical instruments and local archaeology. The slick multimedia presentation on the city is well worth catching and includes a re-creation of the Dubai souk as it looked in the 1950s. If you want to see what the city looks like today, head 4km (2.5mi) south to the viewing gallery on the 37th floor of the World Trade Centre.
Beyond the multimedia displays, not much remains of the city's old covered souks, though there are remnants just east of Dubai's and just north of Deira's abra docks; both have wind towers (the Gulf's unique architectural form of non-electrical air-conditioning) nearby. The highlight of the city's markets is Deira's gold souk, just north-west of the abra dock. It's a fitting testament to the city's smuggling past, and even seasoned veterans of Middle Eastern gold markets are blown away by the scale of the souk, the largest such market in Arabia.
If you're in Dubai to indulge in some serious shopping, you're in mall heaven. One of these beasts opens every year and it's always bigger and flashier than the last. Cheap electronics can be found in the Beniyas Square area of Deira, not far from the covered souk. Nightlife is centred around the expensive restaurants, bars and discos in the upmarket hotels. It ain't cheap, but if you've been travelling elsewhere in the Gulf you'll just be happy that it exists at all - at least until you hear the awful lounge singers who are standard fare in most venues.
Dubai is on the UAE's northern coast, approximately 125km (80mi) east of Abu Dhabi, accessible from the capital by shared taxi and minibus.
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Modern, sleek and shiny, it's hard to believe that the sprawling city of Abu Dhabi was just a bleak fishing and pearling village 40 years ago. Abu Dhabi may not be the most exciting city in the Gulf but it's not as soulless as its detractors claim. Founded in 1761, Abu Dhabi became the home of the ruling Al-Nahyan family when they moved from Liwa in 1793. It became a moderately successful pearling centre in the 19th century, but the collapse of the pearling industry decimated the town and it sunk into squalor. Oil concessions were granted in the 1930s in a desperate bid to salvage the emirate. When oil revenue started pouring in thirty years later, the reed and mud-brick huts were rapidly replaced by banks and boutiques, and the settlement has now spread to occupy virtually all of the T-shaped Abu Dhabi island in the centre of the UAE's northern coast. Abu Dhabi is by far the richest and most politically important of the UAE's seven emirates.
You know you're not here for the antiquities when you realise that the Al-Hosn Palace, commonly known as the Old Fort or the White Fort, is one of the few buildings in the city over 30 years old. The original fort was built by the first ruler of the Al-Nahyan dynasty, but this was replaced by the present structure in the late 19th century. Now modernised and restored and used as a document centre, its whitewashed walls are still eye-catching amid the slick skyscrapers. The courtyard and the tilework over the main (northern) gate are particularly noteworthy.
Next to the fort is the large, faceless Cultural Foundation, which is much more interesting inside than its exterior suggests. It's mainly used as a library and research and documentation centre but often has exhibits on local history, Islamic art and old manuscripts. There's also a government-run Women's Craft Centre about 5km (3mi) south of Abu Dhabi where traditional weavings and other crafts are displayed and sold.
For a touch of local colour head to the north-east of the city and check out the dhow wharf and fish market. It's hardly comparable to Dubai's waterfront but there's a decent amount of bustle, an excellent fish restaurant and a good view of the city. The old souk on the city's northern waterfront has a small gold market and lots of houseware vendors, though it's slated to be replaced by a modern market.
Note that there are no cheap hotels in Abu Dhabi; prices start at around US$75 a night and go skyward from there. Abu Dhabi's nightlife is pretty lethargic: it may have plenty of oil, but the city's not exactly a gas.
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Al-Ain is the main town in the Buraimi Oasis, which straddles the border between Abu Dhabi and Oman. Its sister town, Buraimi, is on the Omani side of the border, but visitors can move freely between the two, making this a fine way to get a taste of Oman without the hassle of obtaining a visa.
The oasis is probably the longest inhabited part of what is now the UAE, with settlement dating back to the 4th millenium BC. In more recent times, Al-Ain was the birthplace of Shaikh Zayed, the current ruler of Abu Dhabi, and he has lavished funds on it. Buraimi has not received the same largesse and remains a comfortable provincial town. The resulting contrast between the two communities makes this an interesting spot to visit. The other drawcard in summer is the dry heat of the oasis, a welcome relief from the humidity on the coast.
The Al-Ain Museum and Eastern Fort share the same compound in south-east Al-Ain. The museum contains exhibits on life in pre-oil days, Bedouin jewellery, weaponry, musical instruments and the interior of a Bedouin tent. An eclectic display of the decorations received by Shaikh Zayed includes the Order of Isabel the Catholic and a bullet from a Palestinian commando leader who hijacked three aircraft to Jordan in 1970. There's not a lot to see in the fort apart from an old cannon in the courtyard.
If you're in the market for a sheep or goat, stroll over to the nearby livestock souk, which attracts Bedouin and townspeople from all over southern UAE and northern Oman. It's an interesting place to wander around, especially early in the morning when trading is heaviest. There's also a small camel market in the morning close to the centre of town. When you tire of the stench of animal dung, head north across the border to the atmospheric Buraimi Souk, which is full of fruit and vegetable stalls and is backed by the Al-Hilla Fort. Nearby is the impressively restored, 400 year old Al-Khandaq Fort; it's well worth prowling around the fort's courtyard and climbing the battlements.
Camel racing takes place about 20km (12mi) from Al-Ain, on the road to Abu Dhabi, on Friday mornings during the winter months. You can also arrange camel safaris, ranging from one hour jaunts to overnight treks that include a night in a Bedouin tent. Al-Ain is a two hour drive east from Abu Dhabi; the two settlements are connected by a tree-lined freeway plied by buses and service taxis. It's roughly the same distance south of Dubai, accessible by service taxi.
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The third largest of the seven emirates, Sharjah is a place that too many visitors to the UAE either miss or pass through quickly. It has some of the most interesting architecture in the country, the largest mosque in the UAE, an interesting archaeological museum, a pocket-sized Disneyland, plenty of watchtowers, a natural history museum that's the slickest in the entire Gulf, souks to rival Dubai, and an old souk that offers a window on an older way of life that has now all but disappeared. It's also a great place to purchase Persian carpets. Though Sharjah has long been seen as Dubai's poorer cousin, in the 1980s it took the lead in the development of the country's tourist development and became the main point of entry for people arriving in the UAE on package tours. Sharjah is on the northern coast, adjacent to Dubai.