Wherever I looked, gleaming skyscrapers and construction cranes filled the sky. Then we drove into another Dubai — Bastakiya, the oldest part of the city. The view changed dramatically to reveal 19th-century courtyard houses, souks and meandering lanes. Wind towers dotted the landscape, providing old-fashioned power.
To be sure, there have been many Dubais. The first was a sleepy fishing and pearling village and a trading outpost. Later, it became an oil-rich emirate, then a mega commercial center. Today, it is also a world-class tourist destination. Few places in the world have experienced anything like Dubai’s dizzying ascendancy. One of the seven city-states of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai’s modern development has been propelled by its prime location equidistant between Europe and Asia.
On this visit, I discovered yet another facet of this fascinating metropolis: Arabian women. It was early morning when I entered an old Arabic house, where I met Nada. She had driven from the outskirts of Dubai, accompanied by her mother-in-law and a friend. Nada was wearing a traditional black silk abaya, but I glimpsed her stylish Western clothing underneath. Her mother-in-law’s attire was more traditional, including dark shades that covered most of her eyes, characteristic among older women. She did not reveal what else she might be wearing. Regardless of their preference in clothing, and much to my surprise and delight, I found them all to be as modern as the soaring architecture rising everywhere around us.
Even though we were strangers, our small group of Asian and European women was encouraged to ask questions. Over a welcoming gahwa (Arabic coffee) and lush local dates, we talked about how certain traditions remain, despite modernization. Nada, who is in her 20s, spoke about her husband and their arranged marriage. She had never laid eyes on him before the wedding, a grand affair at the elegant Emirates Towers Hotel. Now, with a young child, she continues to work. Nada often travels, a prerequisite of her job as an intermediary who brings medical conferences to Dubai.
As the opportunity presented itself, I tried on traditional clothes and learned how the locals perfume themselves daily with bakhour, an Asian incense. I also learned about Arabic calligraphy from Mohamed, an expert who studied this art for many years. Before leaving the old section, we walked through the gleaming gold and fragrant spice souks, crowded with locals doing their everyday shopping. The scene recalled the days when Dubai was an important stop on the ancient spice route. I could not resist purchasing some saffron, the caviar of spices, on our way back to modern times.
Our destination was the Jumeirah Emirates Towers, a huge office complex, where we were warmly welcomed by the staff of the Dubai Women Establishment, a government agency working to improve women’s rights. Sana Suhail, a board member and assistant secretary general of the Government of Dubai Executive Council, explained some of their work — at the time helping local women find employment and helping employed women obtain longer maternity leaves.
Our group left the Towers to have lunch at the top of another soaring landmark, the Burj Al Arab hotel, whose iconic, sail-shaped building serves as the media image of Dubai around the world. We began our meal sharing traditional Arabic meze, somewhere in between an appetizer and an hors d’oeuvre. (Wine is served at all Dubai hotel restaurants, but not to our group of Arabic women.) The more we talked and laughed about our lives, the more I felt Nada and I could easily be friends. We discussed the local real estate boom of the time, driven by condominiums that were selling like water in the desert. As in other countries, condos were being bought and turned over before construction was complete, but Nada cautioned that a prospective buyer had to know the local market well and understand the inner wor kings of the investment before taking the plunge.
The following night I ran into Nada at a reception. She embraced me as if I were an old friend and then proudly yet humbly showed me what she was wearing under her abaya — slim jeans and an elegant silk blouse. We exchanged cards and hoped to meet again when she visited New York.
With its upscale beachfront hotels and mega malls (one with an indoor ski slope), Dubai was clearly growing by leaps and bounds. I wanted to experience more of the “new” before my trip came to an end, especially the ambitious architecture.
The best way to see the manmade Palm Jumeirah Island, I was advised, was by boat. Reclaimed land has been transformed to resemble a palm tree; untold truckloads of sand were sprayed on top of huge blocks placed on the shallow sea bed. Now there are villas, hotels and retail shops being built. Another reclamation project, The World, will ultimately add 300 private islands, along with 100 additional miles of coastline.
Realizing that oil would not last forever (it is expected to run dry by 2020), Dubai has cleverly utilized this income to build infrastructure and diversify the economy. Taking advantage of its strategic location, it built a world-class container port. An added incentive for investors is its pro-business outlook that offers tax-free industrial zones and a lack of bureaucracy.
Since my visit, Dubai — like most of the global economy — has experienced a falling stock exchange and a real estate meltdown, albeit later than in the United States and Europe. Many construction and tourist projects are on hold. Dubai still has the world’s tallest building, the Burj Dubai. And perhaps pricey Dubai will even become more affordable.
Meanwhile, Nada reports that Dubai has changed and she is looking forward to my return. The melding of old Arabic customs in today’s ultra-modern surroundings is why Dubai continues to fascinate. In the past, it has skillfully managed to reinvent itself. Once again, it will be interesting to see how this thriving metropolis, one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, meets the latest global challenge.
Celebrate World Vegan Day Nov. 1, with these vegan dishes from around the world.
GBTA’s Convention 2021 will bring the business travel industry together for the first time in a long time. Once again, you’ll learn and connect with experts and each other, along with discussions with leading thinkers, entrepreneurs and change makers addressing the issues that matter most.
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