Sultans of bling

Sat, Oct 31, 2009, 00:00

Oil has made the United Arab Emirates fabulously wealthy. Outrageous, audacious Dubai, as FIONA McCANNdiscovers, has shown what you can do when you’ve got vision, money, determination and, perhaps, few scruples. Abu Dhabi, its earnest big brother, wants to be known for its cultural life – which, writes KATHY SHERIDAN, further down the page, it is buying in from the Louvre and Guggenheim

DUBAI:‘THE THING about Dubai,” trilled an expat from England as we sipped drinks at the foot of the Burj Al Arab, the sheikhdom’s 321m-high landmark hotel, “is that it’s so authentic.” I almost choked on the mint in my mojito. We were sitting beneath a hotel shaped like a sail in a state where 250km of the coastline is man-made and where the shopping malls contain ice rinks and ski slopes. Authentic was not the first word that sprang to mind.

Yet speaking to another Dubai resident about this ludicrous claim, I was told that my search for authenticity in the man-made islands shaped like the world’s countries, and the ostentatious hotels dressed up like coral reefs and ocean waves, might be missing the point. This was Dubai, built in a frenzy to be exactly how it came across: an outrageous, audacious – and, now, unsustainable – display of bling and an example of just what you can do when you’ve got vision, money, determination and, perhaps, few scruples. “Dubai never asks you where you got the money,” one young man from nearby Sharjah explained with a wry smile. As long, it appears, as you spend it there.

The vision behind modern Dubai is credited to Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, father of the current ruler and the man who oversaw the emirate’s growth from tiny trading town to skyscraping cosmopolitan hub. His concern that Dubai’s oil would some day run out – he famously warned: “My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel” – prompted him to plan an economy to outlive the oil boom, and he went about it with purpose, courting foreign investors, industry and a slew of new inhabitants that have forever altered the landscape of this tiny sheikhdom, which is smaller than Co Kerry.

It worked. By the time I got there Dubai had the highest concentration of hotels in the world. And what hotels: each outdoes the next in gimmicks and glam – the Address is the tallest, the Jumeirah Beach is shaped like a wave, the Atlantis has a huge aquarium containing a whale shark – though taste is often sacrificed to accumulating such superlatives. Yet it sure is easy to be seduced by the city when grabbing a sundowner and watching fountains spray 100,000 litres of water into the balmy night sky.

The fountains are a relatively new addition, though “new” is itself a relative term in Dubai. They’re in Downtown Burj Dubai, a city-centre district that didn’t exist three years ago. Watching one of the world’s tallest fountains in front of what promises to be the world’s tallest man-made structure, the Burj Dubai tower, there’s a sense that anything could happen here – and that much of it already has. If you build it they will come, and in Dubai’s case they came in droves: investors from all over the world, financial institutions and corporations, developers and celebrities, among them David Beckham and his wife, Victoria, who bought a mansion on an artificial palm-frond island. The plan was that the rest of the jet-setting world would follow, and why wouldn’t they?

Sunshine is pretty much guaranteed, given that Dubai gets only about 10 days of rain a year. The coastline is extensive, thanks to the construction of the palm islands – two are completed, one is still under construction – and of the World, an archipelago of 300 islands that roughly resemble Earth’s land masses, though many of them remain undeveloped or incomplete.

Service is impeccable: waiting staff are employed from all over the world but invariably speak fluent English and are solicitous and highly trained. And the food is as good as anything you’d get in London or Paris – possibly because that’s where it has been flown in from.

And don’t get me started on the shopping. Dubai is to shopping malls what Ibiza is to dance clubs: a kind of shopper’s Shangri-La. Take Mall of the Emirates. It’s a retail Mecca of some 400 shops, 223,000sq m of space and that ski slope. Then there’s Wafi, shaped like a pyramid and “Egyptian-themed” in its decor and nomenclature – it contains Cleopatra’s Spa and Pharoahs’ Club.

All of which pales in comparison to the new – there’s that word again – Dubai Mall, built to the size of 50 football pitches, at a cost of more than €20 billion, and containing an aquarium, an ice rink and space for 2,000 shops. All told, Dubai has more than 40 shopping malls, which might explain why it now also has a shopping festival from mid January to mid February every year.

Yet given that the malls are full of the kind of brand names you’d just as easily find along Grafton Street, the real adventurers tend to set off to search for deals in the city’s souks, the labyrinthine traditional markets threaded around the city with all manner of wares for sale: gold, spices, carpets, antiques. This is where the haggling happens; you’re advised to open your bid at half the asking price and to bargain ruthlessly if you want to buy gold or pearls for a fraction of their price at home.

And speaking of home, Dubai even has the Irish Village, a “traditional wooden pub” serving Irish stew and smoked salmon, albeit alongside Thai beef salad. Not to mention the restaurant chains that have opened in Dubai, among them Nobu and Blue Elephant, to guarantee that visitors can have the same dining delights they’d get on their own doorsteps.

If none of this is the kind of Arabian experience you had in mind, you’ll get a taster in Al Bastakiya, one of the few remaining pockets of old Dubai. Along its narrow lanes are what’s left of the old brick homes, with wind towers and courtyards, that once lined the city creek; nearby Al Fahidi Fort houses Dubai Museum, replete with life-size dioramas to give visitors a notion of what things looked like before the expats arrived en masse.

If you’re still looking to channel your inner Lawrence of Arabia, there’s nothing for it but to head into the desert. Not on a camel, mind. These days it’s all four-by-fours and tour groups – Desert Safari Dubai does a fun dune-bashing tour that culminates in an enjoyable evening under the stars with belly dancing, camel riding and a barbecue – but they still provide visitors with an opportunity to absorb the kilometres of coloured sands that change in hue and texture as you travel over endless dunes – evidence that the United Arab Emirates is 90 per cent sand (which might explain why the pretty flowers dotted around the city are changed every fortnight, to keep them in bloom). These vast, arid expanses are a reminder of what Dubai came from and to what it could return if the environmentalists are to be believed.

Because in fighting against the sands and the sea to create their superlative-laden city, Dubai’s authorities and developers have angered environmental groups, which claim that the construction of its artificial islands has upset the delicate balance of marine life, wreaking havoc on coral reefs and oyster beds and threatening local marine species. Others are less than impressed by the fact that the Atlantis hotel’s aquarium houses a whale shark that continues to circle its confines despite pressure from local lobby groups to have it released into the wild.

Then there are the city’s mounting energy requirements. All those lights! All those fountains! All that air conditioning!

There has also been a human cost to Dubai’s rapid development, with an underpaid underclass of workers sweltering in the desert heat to construct the lavish buildings that will become hotels, restaurants, bars and clubs they can never visit. Instead they’re housed in cramped compounds far from the glitzy downtown area they helped to create.

Add to that questions about civil liberties – the arrest of a British couple last year for allegedly having sex on a Dubai beach made clear that even foreign residents are at the mercy of the powerful sheikh – and the economic crash that has brought building on so many projects to a grinding halt and the bling begins to lose its sparkle.

Yet Dubai makes it easy to forget all the negatives when faced with the overwhelmingly easy life it offers those who can afford it. The shopping, the sunshine, the snazzy restaurants and blinging bars, the futuristic architecture and Victorian laws are all part of a Dubai that seems so unsustainable that this may be the only chance to experience it. It is unconscionable in the long run, but authentic? Absolutely.

ANYONE WITH an interest in workplace envy should look at my mojito-swigging friend Fiona. There she is, queening it in Dubai’s squillion-star Burj Al Arab, squeezing in a little belly dancing and ritzy shopping between the sundowners.

Compare and contrast with her colleague’s ascetic sojourn in the company of Dubai’s considerably more responsible big brother just down the road. That would be Abu Dhabi. In 45 degree heat. In Ramadan.

Responsible big brothers tend to be earnest at the best of times, and the heat and humidity of September render outdoor activity – or even inactivity – almost intolerable. But Ramadan is the real dampener; it means fasting from food and liquids between sunup and sundown and no Dubai-style partying even after that. So what, you might ask, are we doing here?

Abu Dhabi, sitting atop 10 per cent of the world’s oil, is by far the richest of the seven sheikhdoms of the United Arab Emirates, but it has a problem: that’s the reckless, flashy, uncouth kid brother called Dubai, the one that lived it large off borrowed money, competed furiously with its siblings, hogged all the publicity and gave the whole family a bad name. Infuriatingly, Big Brother is now forced to bail out the mouthy brat and its unravelling €55 billion debt pile, racked up in a property frenzy horribly similar to our own.

Little wonder that Abu Dhabi is keen to position its tourism brand light years from Dubai’s. Despite opting for the petrol-scented glamour of Formula 1 – it is hosting its first Grand Prix this weekend, on the spanking new Yas Marina track, with free concerts by Beyoncé and Aerosmith – it plans to aim for subtlety. “We want to be recognised as a destination of distinction, upmarket, with a strong cultural and quality feel,” says the tourist board. As opposed to, um, Dubai, maybe? “In Dubai, culture has become hidden . . . It revolves much more around volume and packages, which is not what Abu Dhabi wants to pursue,” they concede after a little nudging.

Abu Dhabi therefore speaks of solidity and a long-term vision, with a heavy emphasis on social values and methodical planning. But if the aim is to attract the serious, upmarket tourist, what does it need? Culture, of course. So the sheikhdom is engaged in the kind of head-spinningly ambitious project that could only happen in a cash- and oil-soaked state with a population of about one and a half million people. The Louvre, the Guggenheim and the British Museum, among others, have signed lucrative consultancy agreements to help establish five museums, in startling designs dreamed up by the world’s starriest architects.

One will be called the Guggenheim – not the first of the Guggenheim’s foreign ventures but the largest – another the Louvre, which naturellement, has sparked huge indignation back home. Abu Dhabi is rather sensitive to the accusation that it is importing culture; rather, it is buying in “know-how and experience”.

All will be located in what is envisioned to be the world’s largest “cultural district” , on a natural 2,700-hectare island called Saadiyat (Arabic for “happiness”), and all of it scheduled to materialise over the next nine years, in tandem with the requisite hotel resorts, each more luxurious and multistarred than the next. The bridge is already complete, so the work is forging ahead.

Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi is happy to expose a more home-grown culture to outsiders. It seems risky to invite journalists to stay during Ramadan, a dullish period of fasting, reflection and aspiration towards a higher spirituality.

In a hospitable culture where coffee and water are prerequisites of any meeting, the absence of both over an entire working day is jarring. And as sex is also banned during daylight, women are asked to be particularly sensitive; our guide advises culturally sensitive long sleeves and trousers.

As a Muslim you can have breakfast, known as suhoor, as long as you eat it before sunrise. Hotels, typically, serve it between 10pm and 3am. Iftar, the evening breaking of the fast, is taken precisely at sunset, which is around 6.30pm or 7pm. Some force themselves to wake and eat before sunrise, to minimise the fasting hours ahead. Some make a Ramadan habit of socialising and nibbling food late into the night. Others trade breakfast for uninterrupted sleep, with the upshot an extended fast of 18 hours or more. “You’ll find a lot of bloody cranky people around the place during Ramadan,” whispers a laconic Australian businessman.

Non-Muslims have the option of retreating to a blinging hotel room or curtained-off dining area to order a meal at any time, so in theory Ramadan may seem an excellent time to take a break in a beach hotel; days are quiet and rates at their lowest. As most of the stay will be spent among observant Muslims, however, even a slug of bottled water in their presence seems brutally inconsiderate.

It all turns interesting in the late afternoon, when businesses shut down early and an exhausted, starving, thirsty populace hurries home (in infernal traffic) to prepare for iftar. On the dot of sunset, the fast ends with the adhan, or call to prayer. Dishes of dates and water are recommended as a healthy way to start the dining experience, followed swiftly by some intense grazing from groaning buffet tables. For about an hour there is a virtually silent, single-minded focus on food, followed by a burst of socialising in a way westerners would associate with Christmas (without the alcohol, crucially). “Ramadan is good for family. I see mine almost every day. But it’s also good for business,” confesses a local businessman. “ Iftaris a lot like golf, which is more about business than sport in the West.”

Iftarand suhoorcombine to make it an extended bonanza time for hotels. Families and friends often dine out during Ramadan, but mainly the diners will be company employees being treated to an iftarbanquet, as well as businesspeople entertaining clients and contacts. Many hotels offer Ramadan packages – marketed as Ramadan Nights – that begin with a traditional iftarbuffet and continue with music and suhooruntil sunrise.

In the spectacular Emirates Palace hotel – managed by the Kempinski group, home to 1,002 Swarovski-made chandeliers, said to be the world’s most expensive hotel, and the BB of choice for visiting royalty, dignitaries and stars – companies pay tens of thousands of euro to be named on the “media wall” of the vast marquee or to have a conversation-stopping, ceiling-high “waterfall” form its droplets into a perfectly formed company name or logo.

On another evening we are invited to share iftarin a hotel at the room- length table of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, ruler of Abu Dhabi and president of the UAE. Guests nibble tapas-style starters while waiting for him; sometime after 9pm he finally makes his entrance in billowing white kandourarobes – national dress for Emirati men – holding the hand of the son of a neighbouring sheikh, whom he introduces in avuncular style to those who approach him. An entourage of sharp-eyed government men sits close, departing with him when he rises at 12 sharp, to return to his palace for suhoorand card games until 3am.

The following night our party of five gets the call to the palace itself for iftar. We arrive in culturally sensitive clothing and on time; then, alas, some whispered negotiations fail to prevent a polite ejection of the three females. A large Mercedes wheels up outside, and in about 30 seconds, still within the same compound, the three of us find ourselves standing outside his wife’s unostentatious front door.

The friendly Sri Lankan housekeeper seems slightly puzzled – we suspect there was no warning call – and seats us in a large reception room where a polite daughter, a couple of her cousins and a rather regal, recently married daughter-in-law – festooned in her fabulous wedding jewels of sapphires and diamonds – glide in to make cordial conversation and offer bottles of water and dates. Then we are led to the dining room, where a flurry of domestic staff haul in platter upon platter of chicken and lamb with a plethora of sauces, accompaniments and salads. The hapless young women, all in their early 20s, remain with us to oil the social wheels, which they do impeccably.

As we are leaving the softly spoken sheikhaappears for a brief exchange of civilities. We apologise for intruding. She courteously demurs – this is what they do, she says; this is what Ramadan is about. Then she presents each of us with a gift of oud perfume, a popular Arabic fragrance, extracted from a kind of wood.

By far the most meaningful and poignant of iftarsis in the grounds of the enormous, and breathtakingly lovely, white marble Sheikh Zayed Mosque. For the month of Ramadan an area is covered with air-conditioned tents, and every evening at sunset 15,000 blue-collar workers far from home – mainly Indians and Pakistanis still in their high-vis vests, who power the homes, factories and construction sites of the United Arab Emirates – gather as the sun sinks around the snowy minarets against a pale blue sky. After prayer, seated on the grass, they dine on boxed meals cooked by the prestigious Armed Forces Officers Club. The 450,000 meals eaten over the 30 days are funded by the ruler in memory of his father.

Meanwhile, in a modern room below the public areas, we seat ourselves on the floor and share iftarwith some lively student clerics who staff the mosque. Afterwards we wander around the magnificent, light and joyful prayer rooms, observing the rich and the poor offer prayers to Allah – “to make me a better person” in the words of one. Outside a crescent moon hangs over the mosque in the dreamy, balmy night. It is moving in a wholly unexpected way.

Where to go where to stay, where to eat in Dubai and Abu Dhabi

Where to stay


Atlantis the Palm. Palm Jumeirah, 00-971-4-4260000, A purpose-built fantasia on the crescent of a man-made palm island, this resort has 1,539 room and suites, with swimming pools, beachfront, a water park, spa and fitness centre and enough restaurants to ensure you never have to leave its Disneyesque domes.

Jumeirah Beach Hotel. Jumeirah Beach, 00-971-4-3480000, Shaped like a wave, right beside the landmark Burj Al Arab, the Jumeirah Beach has 598 rooms and suites, as well as 19 beachside villas, all facing the ocean. Very family-friendly, with more than 20 restaurants, five pools and a kids’ club.

OneOnly Royal Mirage. Al Sufouh Road, Almina Siyah, Dubai, 00-971-4-3999999, Think Arabian-style luxury and the kind of tranquillity only money can buy and you’ll have some sense of what this tasteful hotel has to offer. With a private beach, eight restaurants and lashings of romance, this is the spot for the stylishly inclined. Worth it for the hammam and spa alone.


Shangri-La Hotel. Qaryat Al Beri, 00-971-2-5098888, Worth the price alone for the views of the sublime Sheikh Zayed Mosque. Excellent food. About 35 minutes from the city.

Emirates Palace. West End Corniche, 00-971-2-6909000, Vast, ostentatious, iconic landmark of Abu Dhabi, wrapped around more than a kilometre of private beach. Originally planned as a state BB for visiting royalty and heads of state, now a hotel. The six Rulers’ Suites are strictly confined to guests of “ruler” status. Offers “the world’s most expensive $1 million tailor-made suite holiday”.

The Yas Hotel. Yas Marina, 00-971-2-6560700, Five-star fantasy for petrol heads, straddling a new Formula 1 track. Its distinctive colour-changing glazed shroud mimics the throw of a fishing net. Completed for the sport’s first day-and-night race, tomorrow.

Where to eat


Levantine. Atlantis the Palm, details as above. For some Arabic fare, Atlantis the Palm’s Lebanese restaurant may be pricey, but it does include a belly dancer and offer tasty traditional iftar fare – with plenty of palm trees to complete the picture. A full belly is guaranteed, although comfortable chairs make it next to impossible to avoid ending up horizontal by the end of the feast.

Villa Beach Restaurant.Jumeirah Beach Hotel, details as above. Wooden floors, exposed beams and cracking views of the beach and water make for a romantic meal away from the hordes, and although portions aren’t huge, they’re invariably tasty and well presented.

Beach Bar Grill.OneOnly Royal Mirage, details as above. You don’t get much closer to the sand than this tasteful eatery, serving excellent seafood in serious amounts. Service is impeccable.

Where to go


Don’t leave Abu Dhabi without catching the fabulous, shimmering Sheikh Zayed Mosque, one of the largest in the world. You can take a guided tour.

Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital(Sweifan Road, 00-971-2- 5755155, offers unforgettable hands-on encounters with majestic creatures. Tours available.

Al Ainis a desert city built around a date-palm oasis – the “garden city” of the Gulf.

Go there


Emirates ( flies from London Heathrow, London Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow. These airports are served from Ireland by Aer Lingus (, Ryanair (, Aer Arann ( British Midland ( and easyJet (

Abu Dhabi

Etihad Airways (etihad flies from Dublin, with Aer Arann connections from Cork, Galway, Knock and Sligo, and from Belfast via London Heathrow.

Kathy Sheridan was a guest of the National Media Council of the UAE. Fiona McCann was a guest of Emirates and Atlantis the Palm