Luxury. Wealth. Opulence. Oil Money. Here are a snapshot of some of the words associated with the United Arab Emirates. Transforming from miles of deserts plains to an urban metropolis filled with superlatives, from the worlds tallest building, the largest man made islands and the world’s largest gold ring. Clearly, the mantra in the UAE is the bigger the better. However, what is the story behind the black gold of the UAE?
Before Dubai and Abu Dhabi became metonymic for mega wealth and the nouveau riche, the UAE was swathes of desert land inhabited by pearl fishermen on the coasts and nomadic Bedouin tribes in the desert. The discovery of oil in 1966 completely revolutionised the trajectory for this small nation. Following the withdrawal of British colonial forces in the Gulf Region; Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ajman, Umn Al Quwain and Fujairah, all separate emirates decided to unite and form the United Arab Emirates in 1971. Under the visionary leadership of former president and founder of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, this new nation transformed into a global leader and innovator in tourism, and construction largely taking a more liberal Islamic approach in order to attract Western tourists and immigrants.
It’s this approach that left me feeling really discombobulated (if that’s a feeling?) during my trip to the UAE. It seems to be a culture in limbo, extremely conflicted between adhering to their traditional Islamic values such as conservative dress, no consumption of alcohol and no PDA’s to the more Western way of life . Word of advice, let’s leave at home the British pastime of getting off your face, ass out pissing on the side of the road – Go to Magaluf for that. Visiting the UAE is often sensationalised in the British newspapers where we hear of Brits being detained for what seems like to us non-criminal behaviour such as brushing against another man’s hip in a bar in Dubai . Yes, I shit you not that really did happen. Have you ever watched the show Cheaters? It’s where people suspect their significant other of cheating and deploy a sexy undercover model, and a camera crew to test their partner’s fidelity. Of course, 9/10 the partner is a douche and fall for the trap. My experience in UAE was exactly like that. I was slyly waiting for a camera crew to popout of nowhere once I picked up a glass of pinot grigio, except replace the camera crew for the authorities and stay in one of UAE’s infamous jails in the desert. Yet, rather hypocritically there an abundance of bars in Dubai & Abu Dhabi, however you can’t buy a bottle of said Pinot Grigio at Carrefour. No pre drinks for us then 😦 and technically it is illegal to drink alcohol or be drunk in public, yet Barasti– a beach bar, is Dubai’s answer to Ibiza and is one of the cities biggest attractions. Do go here if you want to drink cheaply in Dubai- the drinks deals/overall vibe is great! However UAE are increasingly diverging from their Islamic values in order to chase those tourism coins to appease Westerners. Oil reserves in Dubai are expected to be depleted in the next twenty years, nevertheless UAE is still economically viable as 20% of it’s gross income comes from tourism, largely from Western countries. So expect bigger, better and most importantly cheaper deals and initiatives to encourage tourism to the UAE.
Here are some of my top tips for potential travellers/explorers to the UAE about where to stay, when to go, daily expenditures and most importantly the people!
As mentioned above, you need to apply for a personal licence to buy alcohol in the UAE, and some states are “dry ” states such as Sharjah which means you can not consume alcohol at home, and there will be no bars or restaurants serving alcohol. It’s also very very very expensive and I’m from London where I barely wince at paying £10 for a double rum & coke. UAE is not a drinking holiday, I repeat UAE is not a drinking holiday, unless you’re in all inclusive resort then order cosmos till your heart is content dear. For the cheapest option do stock up on alcohol in duty free from your airport of departure or in Dubai International airport. Save your coins for a helicopter ride over the palm islands or something.
When I went to go visit my friend in Abu Dhabi he said to me “make sure you look extra halal today Maya” – implying that I should cover up to have a stress free visit. So off I went in my trusty palazzo pants, vest top and denim jacket. As I got off the coach I instantaneously noticed the stark difference between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, gone were the ultra perma tanned Australian girls with havianas and batty riders (short shorts) replaced by a sea of jeans, cardigans and abayas . It was only in Abu Dhabi that my outfit was checked whilst entering the absolutely stunning Emirates Palace (24 carat gold cappuccino anyone?)
Luckily I passed the test (yay?) In Dubai I got the impression that you could have legs or boobs but not both. Either way, I saw a wide range of outfits from palazzo pants and vests to maxi dress to short shift dresses. I personally felt self conscious and for instance whilst wearing a short skirt in a taxi I draped a scarf over my legs,something that I have never done before.
It is not a walkable city. I repeat. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are not walkable cities. Do not attempt it, otherwise you will end up extremely hangry, your newly purchased Fenty Beauty dripping down your face andthroat parched in the middle of Dubai’s mega highways and your destination nowhere in sight. Uber’s are cheaper than London,- maybe because everywhere is cheaper than London *sighs* Metered taxis are readily available and slightly cheaper than an Uber. If a driver asks “do you want the express option or metered”, say metered. They can charge you any price for this “express” option, rather than the correct price. This happened to me whilst taking a taxi from Global Village to Souk Madinat Jumeirah. In fact when the meter is not running, your ride is automatically free. It says that clearly in every taxi you take, so know your rights fam!
If you are staying in Dubai or Abu Dhabi and want to visit the other city (which I highly recommend), coach prices are extremely affordable around 50 dhs return. You can get a bus pass at any station. Buses leave every 20 minutes and the journey takes just under two hours.
I personally did not find the metro that useful and I only used it once whilst in Dubai. There are only two lines and I found the metro stops to be quite far from the actual destination. But it is a cheaper alternative, if you wanna save your coins for eating out in Dubai.
Emirates, Qantas and Etihad are the main airline carriers, and trust me you will literally be treated like a princess/prince- is there a gender neutral term for members of the royal family? In economy on Qantas and Emirates I received unlimited alcohol, two hot meals and afternoon tea with cake and biscuits as well as access to a self serve snack bar. Girl bye, with EasyJet charging £3 for a bottle of water. Flights from major European cities are usually £400 return , however you can also find direct flights for as low as £225. Skyscanner alerts are your best friends peeps.
I would not recommend Dubai or Abu Dhabi as a backpacker’s/solo travellers city at all. I think the cost of everything is the maddest deterrent. Eating out here is expensive, alcohol is expensive and shopping here has a 20% markup. My Sephora haul dreams were sadly crushed when I saw a one use sheet face mask retailing for £15.
Also, people here are welcoming, but not friendly. In Dubai only 15% of the population are Emirati so you will not get to mix with the locals at all. Locals tend to keep themselves to themselves and you probably won’t come across them, unless eating at one of the more luxurious restaurants. Emiratis receive an allowance from the government and a house once they turn 18, so there is no real need for them to work. So you definitely won’t see an Emirati waiter or taxi driver. When getting in a taxi, dining at a restaurant you will get to live your best Princess Jasmine life, but it is a very weird and uncomfortable dynamic between workers and tourists. The people working service jobs such as in construction, waiters, cleaners, excursion guides, public transport operators, taxi drivers, aka the heartbeat of the UAE come largely from India, Pakistan and the Philippines. There have been controversies over their working conditions and even allegations of slavery. It is illegal to protest or unionise, added to the fact that some foreign labourers have their passport confiscated so they can’t return home. These workers are shuttled in beat up old trucks that have no air conditioning into the big cities and then driven back to their camps near the desert. It’s a very disturbing and unnerving dynamic.
UAE is a country that takes sexual harassment very seriously, handingout sentences of up to 3 years for catcalling. Imagine every creepy dude who has invaded your privacy or personal space you could have them locked up like Vybz Kartel, in the blink of an eyelid. As a result it is a very safe country for a femme solo traveller, I felt more safe here than I do in London. I literally did not hear a police siren blare once during my trip. However, the downside is, pretty much no one bothers you, including other women. There are no impromptu conversations at bars, restaurants or beaches which can leave you feeling really isolated. So if you want a social trip UAE is not for you. The most social interactions I had aside from my friends who lived here, were from the workers in hotels, restaurants and taxis. UAE is a great family vacay, or a more exotic destination for a girls city break. Young solo travellers, nah keep it moving.
I stayed at the At The Top Hostel in Dubai Marina. It’s the tallest youth hostel in the world with the dorms being on the 66th floor. You get panoramic views of the Marina, the beach, Atlantis the Palm Hotel and the Palm Islands. Location wise it’s great with a 24 hour Carrefour next door for all your night time munchies, Barasti across the road to bruk off your back and the beach a 15 minutes walk away. This is all for £30 a night- the cheapest accommodation you will ever get in Dubai. I’ve had mostly great experiences in hostels and have met amazing people. However, here’s word of warning. When I stayed at this hostel I was put in a room with five other much older men, all were clearly foreign labourers who were living here long term. Due to cultural, age and lifestyle differences they weren’t friendly at all and I felt quite isolated for my first couple of nights in Dubai, except for the amazing French Canadian guy who I went Barasti with (you are the real MVP). A lot of the other people in the hostel came in a group so it was quite a tough barrier to try and socialise with them. I asked staff repeatedly if I could move rooms, however I was told no. The last straw was when the guy in the bunk above me was masturbating aggressively in the middle of the night shaking our whole bunk bed. Following my mum’s horror at this story. I booked into a hotel- Ibis Styles Jumeira which is a lovely hotel with a spa and a swimming pool and 24hr room service. All for the price of £50 a night. My room was hugeeee with floor to ceiling windows. The only negative was that I found the location quite far from everything except Downtown Dubai (where Burj Khalifa, and Dubai Mall is). So if you want to go to the beach you will have to drive a distance to get to Jumeirah Beach, or Kite Beach. I was very surprised at the high quality of the hotel despite its 3* rating- think it needs an upgrade, yo! There are lots of Ibis hotels in other locations in Dubai and I would thoroughly recommend you to stay there.
When to go
November to March is the peak season in Dubai, and arguably the best time to go. Fancy having a Christmas where you’re not sweating out your freshly gelled edges in the kitchen, whilst simultaneously and listening to an auntie, who’s not really your aunty throw shade?! Peak season is the one for you, this period is UAE’s winter which means temperatures are on average 25- 30 degrees, which is the ideal temperature imo. Do book your flightsss wayy in advance for this season. I decided on a last minute flex to go to Dubai, and it cost £750 return from London Heathrow.
June to September is the no-go season, there summers often exceed 40 degrees heat which makes it impossible to navigate the city, and can leave you feeling rather wilted. Heatstroke is not uncommon, so save your coins and take advantage of Easyjet & RyanAir budget flights to hot European destinations such as Portugal, Croatia and Greece.
Ultimately, UAE needs to choose a side, it can either say hey we are a traditional Islamic country here are the rules, or it can say hey we enjoy making money from tourists so yes please do what you want. In fact, the whole point of travelling is to experience cultures that are the antithesis to yours. Even though I am an avid lover of the batty rider and an ice cold cocktail I would have been more than happy to dress more conservatively, drink a mocktail and experience *actual* Emirati culture. I mean the whole point of travelling/exploring is to leave your creature comforts behind. I think too often as travellers we like to transpose our home culture onto our travel destinations, mostly out of comfort, and sometimes from a place of ignorance which further leads to homogenisation of the world. But I think that is a whole another blog post.