Having come half way around the world to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on a short business trip, it seemed fitting to see a bit more in the region. Dubai is only a short flight from Riyadh. It draws tourists with a mix of shopping, beaches, over-the-top attractions, and desert experiences outside the city.
Having just arrived from Riyadh, I knew it was going to be hot in Dubai. I could feel the heat and humidity while traveling between terminals at the airport to meet Irina, and then stepping outside again to get into a Tesla Model S cab. The middle of the night heat was a sign of the days ahead -- the daily lows during our stay hovered just above 90F (32C), and the highs were between 110-113 F (43-45C). Combined with the high humidity, it was probably as hot and uncomfortable as it gets anywhere.
After a late, lavish buffet breakfast at the JW Marriott hotel the next morning, visiting the nearby Dubai Mall seemed like a good way to beat the midday heat, and take in some sights of the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa. The mall is said to be the second largest in the world, and features what seems like every luxury retailer on the planet and other attractions like an aquarium. Even though It is hard for me to get impressed by a mall, but I could certainly appreciate some of its glitzy architecture, and take note of a mix of its visitors - sometimes scarcely clad Russians and other Europeans next to more conservative Emiratees, and the Saudis on the other end of the spectrum.
After a late, somewhat uninspiring sushi lunch inside the mall, we headed outside and walked along the shores of a lake surrounding the Dubai Fountain. The Burj Khalifa towered above the lake and the views were -- neck-bending. With the sun slowly sinking below the horizon, or rather one of the countless skyscrapers near the lake, it was reasonably pleasant in spite of the heat and humidity as long as one did not mind being drenched in sweat. We watched the fountain go off several times and hung around as the lights came on. The views kept changing as the dusk met the night. An Italian restaurant inside the air-conditioned coolness of our hotel was named and themed after Positano, a tourist town on the Amalfi Coast we visited just two years earlier. The tasty food was a pleasant surprise. After the prohibition in Saudi Arabia, having a glass of wine with the food was a great way to end the day.
With a tour to the desert planned for the afternoon, a pool was a refreshing way to spend the late morning after another long breakfast. The pool was located some 10 floors up with a good view of Burj Khalifa in the distance, and both of the hotel towers looming above. With 72 floors, JW Marriott prides itself on being the tallest 5-star hotel in the world. I am not sure how accurate the claim might be but the view was impressive even from our lowly 55th floor. More condo and office towers were rising all around. When we first arrived around 2am, building activity on top of one right next to the hotel surprised me. I attributed it to the hot daytime temperatures. I was soon to discover that the construction continued day and night. At some point in time, Dubai was home to 25% of world's 120,000 construction cranes. Even though this type of a boom was over, the amount of construction around the city was still mind-boggling. With many of the towers bearing the name of a state-owned developer, I wondered if the boom was speculative and the demand was just a desert mirage.
We booked a desert safari tour for the rest of the day. Considering we did not have enough time for any of the multi-day tours (and the heat of this time of the year would have made them unappealing anyway), we settled for an experience aimed at an average tourist. We were the first to be picked up, which gave us a chance to talk to our guide about Dubai. Like most people working (in the tourist industry) in Dubai, he was from abroad - Pakistan. Even though he was in a foreign country with limited rights and chances of becoming a citizen, he was looking forward to his future there, and enjoying a wave of oil prosperity Dubai was riding.
Our first stop of the tour was at an ATV riding outfit. In the heat and harsh mid afternoon sun, this was not a very attractive proposition. After that, it was out into the desert inside the air-conditioned 4WD. Once we arrived at the location, the driver let some pressure out of the Nissan Armada tires and we were off to the races. The passenger seat gave me a great view of the at-times unsettling driving up and down the dunes, making me wonder if we are going to flip and roll down the dunes or get stuck, neither of which came even close to happening. Unlike a few days earlier in Saudi Arabia, it was still before the sunset and with the sun low in the sky, a great time to experience the sand dunes.
The next part of the program included camel riding but having arrived at the desert camp too late, it was already almost dark and either way could not be anything like the amazing experience in Tunisia. A dinner that followed was tasty and included traditional specialties that resembled the fare I was treated during lunches in Saudi Arabia, and Lebanese cuisine in general. The accompanying show was quite entertaining and featured traditional local entertainment including belly dancing.
For our third day in United Arab Emirates, we booked a tour of its second most populous city, Abu Dhabi. It is about 140 km from Dubai, a distance that the minibus covered in about an hour and a half. The first stop of our tour was Abu Dhabi's Grand Mosque, or Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. It shines bright in its white marble as if it were finished yesterday and not back in 2007. It features an impressive floral mosaic covered interior courtyard, rising minarets, reflection pools, floral style chandeliers, and many other distinctive examples of traditional Arabian decorations with a lavish execution that oil money can afford.
Qasr Al Watan is a part of the Abu Dhabi's Presidential Palace. Having opened to the public in 2019, it is used for official governmental functions as well as a showcase of Arabian architecture and influence on the world, as reflected in some of its exhibits in the House of Knowledge. Its highlight is undoubtedly the Great Hall, a grandiose marble and mosaic covered hall whose size and ornate, geometric design would fit a story in One Thousand and One Nights.
After the visit to Qasr Al Watan, it was time for a buffet lunch at the Al Hawamir Marina restaurant. Other than the tasty food, its draw must be its roof-top terrace view of the Abu Dhabi skyline across the bay.
The last stop of the tour was a visit to the Observation Deck at 300, a 74th floor 360 degree lookout in one of the Etihad Towers. At 300 meters above the ground, it is the highest vantage point in Abu Dhabi and in spite of the humid hazy conditions outside, it was an impressive view. The Etihad towers were featured in the movie Furious 7, which included a skyscraper car jump between the skyscrapers. As implausible as it seems, it is likely one of the speedy supercars seen on the streets of Abu Dhabi and Dubai could make it.
There is more to Dubai than just high-rises. On our last morning in Dubai, we headed to Old Dubai to see some of its markets - Dubai Gold Souk and Dubai Spice Souk. Situated close to Dubai Creek within a part of the city called Deira, it is a maze of narrow streets lined by stores that sell ornate gold jewelry, spices, traditional clothes and fabrics, and other handcrafted goods that may catch tourist's attention.
Burj Khalifa dwarfs every other skyscraper in Dubai and all the buildings on Earth, for that matter. At over 828 meters (2,716.5 feet) and more than 160 stories, it reigns supreme as the tallest building or any structure in the world. It also features the highest outdoor observation deck on level 148. We spent quite a while enjoying the views on level 148 before taking an elevator down to levels 124 and 125. Other than the crowds, the difference from the views on levels 148 and 125 was hardly perceptible. High or still a little higher, way above everything else, and still way above everything else. We watched the sun set into the haze above the Arabian Gulf. The city lights came on shortly afterward, making for a colorful atmosphere.
With our flight leaving in the middle of the night, we still had time before heading to the airport, and topped off our high-rise experience by dining on the 68th floor of our hotel. Steak with a view of downtown Dubai and Burj Khalifa made for a fitting ending to our Dubai visit.