“Acquire knowledge. It enables its possessor to know right from wrong; it lights the way to heaven; it is our friend in the desert, our society in solitude, our companion when friendless; it guides us to happiness; it sustains us in misery; it is an ornament among friends, and an armor against enemies.” -Inscription found on an old Arabian Peninsula door
Dubai, once little more than a forsaken fishing and pearling village, is now a sophisticated urban giant, thanks to oil.
Here I am “holding” Dubai’s iconic hotel Burj Al Arab (which means Arabian Tower) in the palm of my hand. The design resembles a billowing sail, reminiscent of a dhow, a traditional sailing vessel that typically weighs 300 to 500 tons and comes with a thin, long hull. It’s commonly found in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean regions. Today this tower stands on an artificial island and is seen by many as Dubai’s symbolic statement.
Modern Dubai with its main artery, Sheikh Zayed Road, lined with space-age architecture.
Nearby is Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, photographed from my hotel window.
If you’ve read my second book, 7½ Places of Wonder, you know that I first arrived in this one-time Silk Road stop in the mid 1970s. You know, too, that since 1971, Dubai (the name both of the emirate and its main city) has been the second largest of the seven loosely federated states (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras al-Khaimah, Fujairah, Umm al-Qaiwain, and Ajman) that comprise the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
When I first landed on Dubai’s shores, it consisted mainly of one-and two story-structures. Occasionally, newly built mosques punctuated the landscape, as did wide boulevards, roundabouts, and modern lighting. But apart from these early signs of new wealth, remnants of another age–makeshift shantytowns, mud brick huts, and shacks made from palm fronds–were tucked along the side roads.
In those early days, it was common to encounter goats, sheep, and camels on the roads as cars, and all too easy to find oneself about to crash into an animal. Camels were particularly lethal: Many a driver was killed instantly colliding with an ambling “ship of the desert.” Then Dubai and the UAE in general was a land in dramatic transition.
Regional oil exploration started in the 1950s. In the late 1960s when oil revenues began to spill into their coffers, Dubai’s then-ruler, His Highness Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, invested first in much-needed infrastructure.
From the beginning Sheikh Rashid understood that Dubai’s oil was limited and that he and his successors would have to build an economy that could sustain itself beyond the oil bonanza.
With that in mind, Sheikh Rashid, and the sons who succeeded him, invested in commerce (real estate and financial services, for example), aviation, and tourism– today the economic underpinnings of the emirate of Dubai’s futuristic metropolis.
To illustrate this city’s dramatic ascent, in 2007 the city was dubbed the eighth most visited city in the world. By 2015, it is slated to accommodate over 15 million tourists. Not bad for a place that as recently as 1960 had a population of about 40,000!
To help entertain the throngs of tourists who today flock there, Dubai boasts 70 shopping malls, among them, the Dubai Mall with about 1,200 shops. It is said to be the world’s biggest mall. My Dubai friend Yasmin (I told you about her in my book 7 ½ Places of Wonder) refers to it as a “monument to consumerism.” In 2009 this mall is reported to have hosted a whopping 37 million visitors.
On a visit to this mall last May, I enjoyed watching a miniature train caravanning enthralled children and doting mothers through its vast air-conditioned and marble-floored corridors.
But the Dubai Mall is not just about shopping and toy trains; it’s also about innovations such as the Dubai Aquarium and Under Water Zoo. While luxury shopping is interesting to explore, I gravitate more to the traditional markets or bazaars–the souqs, especially the Gold, Textile, and Spice Souqs.
They remind me of bygone days–days very much in evidence in the 1970s when I lived in the United Arab Emirates for several years.
Dubai’s Gold Souq consists of about 300 retailers who trade almost exclusively in jewelry: necklaces, earrings, bracelets and more. My Dubai friend Yasmin reports that this particular souq has about 10 tons of gold on its premises at any given time!
Dubai’s Textile Souq abounds with silks, brocades, and other fabrics from exotic lands. If you don’t sew yourself, local tailors are available to custom-make designer-type garments in about two days. On my most recent visit there, I bought two silks: one in cobalt blue and the other in deep red to have made into Chinese coolie jackets. Because my time there was short, I brought them home to have a friend sew them for me.
The Spice Souq offers wonderful varieties of spices. From my most recent trip to Dubai, as gifts I brought home beautifully packaged conglomerations of “Arabian Spices,” consisting of such aromatic plant substances as chili, sun flower, coriander, anise, coconut, cinnamon, turmeric, lemon, pepper, and ginger. The friends who received these fragrant and useful culinary enhancements loved them.
When I first lived in the Dubai area, I learned that shopping in a souq required a familiarity with the cultural norms.
Commercial agreements then were largely oral, sealed with a handshake. There were no written contracts, no receipts, only one’s sacred word and the threat of besmirching one’s treasured reputation. Unfortunately, as time progressed, foreigners so often deceived Dubai’s early, trusting businessmen that an unsecured commercial enterprise eventually became out of the question. In my own case, during those early UAE years, I once found a handsome Omani silver belt in the local souq. I lingered over the piece, debating in my mind if I should invest in something that costly. Sensing my hesitation, the merchant said, “Take it home. Show it to your husband and bring it back in a few days.”
The merchant required no collateral, no documentation. His guarantee lay in his faith in the goodness of humankind. Sadly, foreigners soon taught such trusting businessmen otherwise. Today undocumented commercial transactions are out of the question.
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