As Dubai changes, traditions remain

Email|Print| Text size + By Terese Loeb Kreuzer
Travel Arts Syndicate / July 21, 2004

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Fantastically shaped buildings rise from a dusty, sunburned landscape, edged by the green-blue Arabian Gulf. Boats haul sand from the sea floor to create two huge islands, shaped like palms. Another complex of 300 man-made islands simulates a map of the world.

What will be the world's tallest building is rising on Sheikh Zayed Road. "They build here 24 hours a day," says Dale Griffith, an American-born airline executive who has lived in Dubai for 13 years. "If you go away on holiday and come back, you have to make sure that you know where you're going, because things change that fast."

At the same time, many of the old forms and ways remain: scented gardens, fountains, rooms glinting with gold, white-robed men, and black-cloaked women whose modest outer garments sometimes reveal glimpses of brilliantly colored gowns and jewels.

Not all that long ago, this place was a small village on the banks of Dubai Creek, an inlet of the Arabian Gulf. Pearl diving, fishing, camel herding, and trading with Africa, India, Pakistan, and other parts of Asia were the chief sources of income.

Some of this can still be seen in the Bastakiya, a century-old section on the Bur Dubai side of the creek, where more than 50 buildings are undergoing restoration.

Nearby, a museum in the Al Fahidi Fort, circa 1797, re-creates the old days (50 years ago, perhaps) with life-size statues depicting fishing boats, laden donkeys, people carrying sacks, shops selling spices, jewelry, and pottery.

A carpenter plies his trade accompanied by the sounds of sawing and hammering. A man in a "khandura" (a white, full-length shirt-dress worn in Dubai) gives a tray of tea to three other men. Boys sit cross-legged on the floor and recite the Koran.

Outside, on the creek, part of the past survives in the form of "abras," water taxis that for the equivalent of a few pennies ferry people between Bur Dubai on the southern edge of the creek and Deira on the north.

Handmade wooden dhows, docked on the Deira side, are still used to transport merchandise to and from India, Pakistan, and Africa and to other emirates. Business is transacted on the basis of a phone call or a handshake.

Piles of tires, cars, and refrigerators are left on the docks, sometimes overnight, to be loaded on the dhows. "Most of the population here is working. They don't need to steal," says Ghaith al-Ghaith, an executive vice president for the Emirates Group, owner of Emirates Airline. "Also they know that if they stole, we would send them home."

That's a dire threat. Of Dubai's population of slightly more than 1 million, 80 percent come from other countries, including Britain, the United States, India, and Pakistan. With Dubai booming, work opportunities abound.

Dubai is one of seven emirates in the United Arab Emirates, whose capital is oil-rich Abu Dhabi. But Dubai is also in a true sense a cosmopolitan, global hub. Diners can choose, for instance, among restaurants serving American, Arabic, Chinese, Cuban, Filipino, and Vietnamese food -- and this is just a partial list.

Equally telling is the status of women. Unlike more conservative Arab countries, women in Dubai can wear what they choose, from Western-style clothes to veils that cover them from head to foot. They can get a university-level education, hold jobs, go out unchaperoned, and drive cars. Or they can live a more traditional life and remain in their homes.

Never as oil-rich as some of its neighbors, and with dwindling reserves, Dubai is building its economy on tourism, technology, and trade. "We've always been very good traders," al-Ghaith says.

The bounty of some of this trading stocks Dubai's souks and shopping malls. Shopping is recreation in Dubai, and an art form. The souks are particularly interesting, with their shaded alleys lined with stalls and shops.

Bargaining is expected. The first price named by a merchant is probably at least 20 percent more than he expects to receive.

For the indecisive tourist, Dubai International Airport provides a last chance to indulge before heading home. "Our duty-free shops are the lowest, price-wise, in the world," says Anita Mehra Homayoun, marketing director for the Government of Dubai's Department of Civil Aviation.

Dubai's dazzling economic success is attributed to its leadership. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, crown prince of Dubai and minister of defense of the Emirates, is described in almost reverential tones.

"Sheikh Mohammed is a visionary," Griffith says. "He knows what he wants to see done for this country. He has laid that out very clearly for the people, and I think the people in this country take the challenge."

Terese Loeb Kreuzer is the editor of the Travel Arts Syndicate.

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