Monday, February 6, 2017


An old popular song by the late Debbie Reynolds was called Aba Daba Honeymoon.  It sounds like it could have been recorded in Abu Dhabi, but it wasn't.  The lyrics go something like "Aba daba daba daba daba daba...etc."  The song was written in 1914, long before Abu Dhabi became a city.

In fact, Abu Dhabi didn't even exist until 1970. Until then, it was a collection of tents used by the fishermen and pearl divers who populated the area.   The British ran the place.  The pearl business went South with the invention of cultured pearls which could be created inexpensively.  Those simple people are long gone, but if they can prove they or their parents lived here then, they get a free ride from the government.  Only about 20% of the people in Abu Dhabi are citizens, meaning that their parents or grandparents were living there at the time.   The rest are Indians, Pakistanis and Filipinos who make up the labor force.   The Arab citizens are steered into management positions. 

The labor force consists of contract workers.  Companies import the workers and must provide health insurance and benefits.  Most of the workers send money back home.  Because of oil wealth, there is no poverty in the United Arab Emirates. 

The oil industry, or course, transformed everything here.  The ruling families are sitting on billions of dollars of wealth, and they spend money freely on mega projects, as well as foreign policy and politics.  Abu Dhabi today is an ultra modern city of over 2.5 million with modern high rises, superhighways and shopping malls dwarfing those in the West.    Traffic is heavy, and most of the cars are high end sedans--Lexuses (Lexi?), Mercedes and BMW's.

Its not easy to get to Abu Dhabi.  There are no direct flights, at least from Chicago.  There is a direct flight from New York to Dubai which is about 100 miles North.  The cities are connected by an expressway.  We flew first class on Royal Jordanian Airlines from Chicago to Amman, Jordan, and then from Amman to Abu Dhabi.   In ancient times, Amman was settled by Greeks who called it "Philadelphia".  

Our flight was comfortable on first class, and the food was good.  We left frigid Chicago on January 6th at 9:30 PM.  By 10:30 they serve you a full dinner and then expect you to go to sleep.  In first class, the seats fold out so you're lying prone.  It's not the same as sleeping on a real bed, but you can get some rest.   The flight to Amman takes 12 hours, and they wake you up before landing to serve you breakfast, another full meal.  The layover in Amman was about 3 hours.  The airport was crawling with security.  In that part of the world, they take no chances.  The plane landed in Abu Dhabi shortly after 1 AM.  We had a lot of luggage, but it all arrived at the proper destination in one piece.  Abu Dhabi issues you a visa upon arrival at no charge.   

By this time, everything about the trip was too good to be true.  Until the driver we hired to take us to our hotel didn't show up.  You know how those guys greet you at the exit, holding up signs with  names on them.  Well ours wasn't there.  We went to the taxi booth, and they were happy to pick up a fare.  Actually, the cost turned out to be about half of what the hotel would have charged us. 

We had to exchange dollars to Abu Dhabi money.  $100 U.S. buys us about 360 Dirhams.  I expected everything to be pricey, but actually the prices in Abu Dhabi are significantly lower than in New York or Chicago.  The taxi driver drove us down the mostly empty expressways and got us to the Ritz Carlton around 3 AM.  The Ritz is a magnificent hotel.  The whole country is like that.  We couldn't see much at 3 AM, but the staff was friendly and helpful.  I didn't want to get charged for the hotel limo, and they straightened it out for us. 

The Ritz is across the street from the famous Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, described to us as the world's largest mosque.  At least it's the largest in Abu Dhabi.  It covers 30 acres, not counting the parking lot.  In Abu Dhabi, across the street is relative.  There is an expressway to cross, and driving there is actually a couple of miles.  The hotel and mosque are on the outskirts of town several miles from downtown. 

Everything is named after Sheikh Zayed, who died in 2004.  The expressway is the Sheikh Zayed the First Expressway.  I don't think there is a Second Sheikh Zayed.       As I previously noted, this was a city of mud huts until about 1970.  Now it's an architect's dream.  It looks like Las Vegas without the gambling.  We're talking high rises, expressways, a Corniche, wide canals. 

Taxi rides are relatively inexpensive, compared to New York or Chicago.  After getting some much needed rest, we hired a taxi to take us downtown.  Our concierge gave us the names of three malls to visit.   Instead of shopping, we asked the driver to give us a grand tour of the city. 

We found all the familiar sights of home--McDonalds, Burger King, Starbucks and even Popeyes.  Chicken is popular in the Middle East where people don't eat pork.  The driver was Pakistani, spoke English,  and liked to talk.  He drove us downtown and back, past the Emir's palace, the World Trade Center, the Marina Mall. 

At the Emir's Palace, which is now an upscale hotel, security peers into every car, not to look for terrorists,  but to make sure women aren't wearing shorts.  Most of the guests in the hotel are Arabs, wearing traditional garb, the men in white robes and head coverings, and the women clad head to toe in black.

The following day, when we were settled in, we signed up for a Gray Line tour.  The driver took us to Heritage Village which relives the good ol' days before 1970.  We saw goatskin tents and mud huts from the time when Abu Dhabi was an obscure fishing village.  Merchants in small market stalls sell cheap clothing made in China.  Sheikh Zayed transformed all of that when the oil companies came.  To the locals, Sheikh Zayed is like George Washington is to the Americans.  He served as president of the UAE from 1971 until his death in 2004.

With all that wealth around, it was logical to build Ferrari World.  They built this massive project on Yas Island, an artificial island.  Turns out, Ferrari World is not a car dealer, although there is a Ferrari dealer in town.  This is an amusement park with the largest and fastest roller coaster in the world, The Flying Aces.  It is 206 feet high and travels 75 mph.  You can experience 5 g's.  You can also practice driving a Ferrari 200 mph in simulators.    We chose not to pay the couple hundred bucks to see another Disneyland in the Middle East. 

The Grand Mosque is worth seeing.  Since it is a place of worship, tourists must comply with the dress code.  Those who are not dressed appropriately, and there are many, must rent overclothes to wear.  Men and women must wear long sleeves rolled down.  Although the instructions told us not to wear sandals and we didn't, many people did wear them and were not turned away.  Security people, all Indians and Pakistanis, are prominently stationed to make sure everyone is dressed properly.  The singer Selena Gomez visited here last year and was criticized for posing for pictures at the mosque with her ankle shown. 

Did I mention that the mosque is very large?  In the center is the 180,000 square foot outdoor parade ground (my term), or courtyard, which can accommodate over 40,000 worshippers at one time.  The carpet, made by Iran's Carpet Company is over 60,000 square feet and weighs 35 tons. 

Going to the bathroom at the mosque is a new experience.  The men's and women's rest rooms are on opposite sides of the building, about a quarter mile apart.  To locate them, you follow the signs to "Ablution" which means ritual cleansing.  The escalator took me down to the men's room.  To my surprise, a security guard directed me to remove my shoes and store them.  They provide slippers at the entrance to that facility.

The mosque even has a library.  It was significantly smaller than I would have expected, a large room, perhaps 2000 square feet.   The books and publications cover a range of Islamic subjects like science, civilization and calligraphy.  Most were in Arabic, although some books were in English, French, Spanish, German and even Korean. 

The United Arab Emirates is run by several prominent ruling families.  The UAE was formed in 1971 when the British departed.  Sheikh Zayed was appointed president and was re-appointed 4 more times until his death.  There is no legislature.  When a ruler passes on, the ruling families vote to name a successor. 

The Sheikh runs the show, and in a 1997 interview with the New York Times, he declared essentially that an elected legislature would just create a lot of dissent and confrontation.  The people wouldn't want that because they have everything they need.    He told the Times that the country is based on the Islamic religion and that is what the people want.  The current president is Sheikh Zayed's son, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, age 69, who has served since 2004.   In the UAE, the President is always from Abu Dhabi, and the Vice President is always from Dubai. 

With regard to human rights, as we know them, forgetaboutit.   Adultery is punishable by 100 lashes if you're not married; death by stoning if you are.  Abortion will get you 100 lashes and up to 5 years in prison.  Apostasy is punishable by death.   If a woman gets raped, in the UAE, it's probably her fault, and she may be prosecuted for crimes like alcohol consumption.  A Muslim woman marrying outside the faith can be charged with "fornication".  If a woman wants to marry, she needs approval from a male "guardian".   Most of the prosecutions in this regard are against expatriates like Indian and European women.  They are probably not going to take in large numbers of Syrian refugees.  As tourists, we just observe and say little.

In our hotel room, we settled down to watch TV.  There are channels in Arabic, English, German and Chinese, and probably other languages I wasn't familiar with.  After flipping the channels, we decided to watch the camel races.  Camels may look awkward, but they can run as fast as horses.  The jockeys are robots.

We spent 4 nights in Abu Dhabi.  When our friends came in after the second night, we signed up for a late afternoon and evening desert safari.  We rode out to the desert in a caravan of 4 wheel drive Toyota Land Cruisers.  The desert is called the Rub al Khali, the Empty Quarter.  There is not much except sand which the wind whips up into 100 foot dunes.  At the golf course, the sand traps can be brutal. 

We got our first experience with dune bashing, or off road driving.   The drivers let the air out of the tires for better traction on the loose sand.  Then they drive recklessly through the drifting sand dunes, making hairpin turns and zooming over the crests of the dunes down 60 degree grades.  Golf carts would tip over under these conditions.  The Toyota Land Cruisers have heavy carriages and can hold their own riding at seemingly impossible angles.   It was like riding a roller coaster without tracks.
We drove up and down at high speed for almost an hour, and my stomach was starting to protest.  Eventually we got to the camp where we would enjoy a barbecue dinner and entertainment. 

The entertainment featured camel riding and ATM's, or were they ATV's, to do your own driving over the dunes.    They provided a belly dancer, an attractive Russian girl, dressed in traditional Arab dress.  The camp spread out Oriental rugs over the loose sand with pillows to sit on.  The food was good and plentiful--BBQ chicken, lamb and even pork skewers. 


Dubai is another modern city on steroids.  Dubai and Abu Dhabi are the two largest cities in the United Arab Emirates.  The population of Dubai is over 2 million, only 10% of which are citizens--Emiratis.  About half of the people are Indian or Pakistani.  Although the oil industry financed most of the early  development, Dubai has relatively little oil.  Most of the wealth in Dubai is based on trade.

The literal high point for us was the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, about 2700 feet high.  Burj means "tower" in Arabic.   On the ground level is the super sized Dubai Mall with about 1400 stores including Bloomingdales and the British stores, Debenhams and Marks & Spencer.  For an admission fee, they take you up to the observatory on the 125th floor.  For an additional 100 bucks per person, they take you up higher in another elevator to the 148th floor, the New Deck Observatory, over 1800 feet high, and give you a nice lounge with fewer people, a cold drink and a photo with a better view.  We don't figure to be coming back anytime soon, so we paid the extra money for the extra comfort.   The building has 163 floors total, but the ones above the 148th are mostly used for mechanical and communications.  It was a nice day, and the view was spectacular.  The building was originally called the Burj Dubai, but ran into financial trouble until Sheikh Khalifa stepped up with a loan.

The nearby Burj al Arab is another iconic building, shaped like a sail.  It is located on the Umm Suqein Beach, which we visited.  It overlooks the Persian Gulf.  An over zealous critic described it as the world's only 7 star hotel.  In reality, there is no such designation--it's a 5 star hotel like many others in the area.  We didn't stay there; the Ritz Carlton in Abu Dhabi worked for us.

Money will buy you almost anything.  They build a series of artificial islands, many with luxury resorts build on them.  Dubai just built a 50 story picture frame, I'm not making this up, intended as a tourist attraction.  Most of us have heard about the indoor ski resort at the giant Mall of the Emirates where you can snow ski in 120 degree weather.  For 68 bucks, you can buy a Ski Dubai Polar Pass which gets you in the park and use the chair lift.  However, if you want to ski, it costs extra. 

In the West, we heard that alcohol was banned in the Persian Gulf countries.  Not so.  A quick perusal of Time Out Magazine for Dubai revealed 18 nightspots where women can get free drinks on Wednesday nights.  On Tuesday, they have their choice of 35 establishments offering up to 4 free mixed drinks.As far as ethnic food, you can get African, Asian, British, Caribbean, French, German, Italian, Peruvian, Russian, Thai and a few others.  Notably missing are Jewish delicatessens. 



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