The U.A.E. is a relatively new country. In 1971 Great Britain withdrew from the Arabian Gulf, and the country was established under the leadership of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi. He was clearly a visionary and ruled until his death in 2004. This man's picture is everywhere. As best I can describe it, he is the U.A.E.'s George Washington. He used the vast fortune brought in by the offshore oil to build the country, specifically the cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai which were formerly small fishing and trading settlements. These cities with their sparkling and wildly imaginative buildings are the face the World sees in magazines and on tv shows, and it's very real.
The Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, is in the center of Dubai. Last weekend Doug and I went to the Dubai Mall, the world's largest mall, which sits at the base of the building, and just outside of both is a large plaze with the world's largest fountain. Do you see a theme here?
The Burj al-Arab in Dubai is designed to mimic the sail of a ship, the traditional wooden dhows of the region. It is built on a man-made island and has an underwater restaurant, gold fittings, dancing fountains, and rooms with your own private butler. It is ultra expensive.
The U.A.E. is constantly building malls, and each one is larger and more over-the-top than the next. I have learned that malls are not just places to go to shop. They are much more in this country. They are destinations. In a country where you simply cannot be outside in the heat of the Summer months, I suppose it makes sense to create these large, air conditioned complexes where you can shop, dine in places that range from regular food-court establishments to high-end restaurants, go skiing or skating or bowling, see movies or even live performances, and entertain your children at an indoor amusement park.
If you don't want to actually experience the cold of Ski Dubai, you can just observe from the adjacent Mall of the Emirates which is part of the complex. I am told they have recently added penguins to the complex.
The Emirates are also building resorts everywhere. I have never seen such a concentration of luxury hotels and resorts, and I am told they are all booked. High-end housing complexes are also under construction all along the coast, and on the many islands. Where there aren't convenient islands, they construct them.
The Palm Islands, Dubai. These islands are man-made and feature luxury homes with their own docks and beaches. Ka-ching!$!$!$!$
I must admit I find all these projects impressive. Not necessarily the style of some (a bit "much" for my tastes), but the scope of the projects, and the engineering required to build in this part of the world. If you have the time, an interesting YouTube video to watch is DUBAI: The Greatest City in the World . Not exactly a modest title!
But what of the history of this region? Yesterday Doug and I decided to visit Heritage Village, which is listed in all my guide books, and indeed I had passed by it on my way to The Marina Mall. I figured this might be a good place to start.
This stone hut has a thatched roof, and one has to step down about two steps to enter. I think this helps keep the place a little cooler. "Little" being a very relative term in this dessert country. I like the juxtaposition of this old-style hut with the modern city-scape in the background.
While I was peering in the doorway, a young arab couple came up to me with their iPhone and asked me to take their picture. This happens to me ALL the time in Hoboken because people love having their photo taken with Manhattan behind them. I guess asking a stranger to take your photo with a smart phone is universal now. Once I took a photo to their liking, I thought "why not?" and asked them to take one of me and Doug.
My take on this place? It was nice as far as it went, but it didn't go far enough. There was a little area that was supposed to be a traditional open-air souk, but less than half of the stalls were occupied, and they were selling only touristy stuff like cheap magnets and stuffed toy camels. I would have loved to have seen some real local crafts for sale.
There were some artisans on hand in another area, but it appeared that they were just doing demonstrations of weaving and metal work (making coffee pots). There were huts marked "glass" and "leather" and "women's crafts", but they were empty, which I found disappointing.
There was a small museum which had simple displays of weapons like 19th-century guns, knives, and bows & arrows; currency; pages from a Koran; jewelry and clothing. The items were labeled but no descriptions or explanations were offered, so I didn't get as much out of this museum as I could have, which was disappointing.
I did not go to Heritage Village expecting to have a Sturbridge Village or Williamsburg experience. I had very modest expectations, but even those were not met. I think this small place has potential that is not being realized. As a visitor I have a hunger to learn about this country, its history and culture, and I would love to see more resources directed toward this small site and others like it.
But..... I have not given up. I have just begun. If there are some real historical sites out there, not just recreations, I am going to find them. I am on a quest.