That a desert is barren and offers vast landscapes of nothingness is ironic. Because what the Sheikhs of the Middle East have made out of the United Arab Emirates is nothing short of a marvel. And it still appears work in progress; there's still a lot more coming, global economy health permitting. Ofcourse, the jewel in their crown still remains Dubai- the most advanced, modern and inviting of all the seven Emirates that together constitute the United Arab Emirates (UAE)- but signs of development, progress and modern society can be seen beyond the borders of Dubai. Early in December 2011, I had the good fortune of paying a visit to Abu Dhabi, at my cousin Huffrish's home. Lovely destinations, they turned out to be.
We went via Dubai because getting an Abu Dhabi visa is painful. We were asked to fly only by Etihad- Abu Dhabi's national airline- to qualify for a visa, else we have to tell our hosts there to procure a Visa (after answering a dozen questions I am told) or I book something called a 'hotel visa'. I book a hotel there, get them to do my Visa, have them courier me it and then cancel my hotel booking. Now why would I want to do all of that when I don't even intend to stay at a hotel, and also especially if Etihad tickets are amongst the most expensive for a Mumbai - Abu Dhabi round trip? I found this practice to be quite silly. I had even booked my Jet Airways Abu Dhabi tickets only to find out about this stupid Visa rule later; I had to cancel them and rebook the Dubai tickets. Dubai visas are easier to get; you fly by an airline of your choice and you can also go to Abu Dhabi on the same Visa, but only by road. Abu Dhabi visa- I am told- does not allow us entry into Dubai; you need a separate Dubai visa for the entry into Dubai.
On the other hand, Dubai immigration process is also painfully slow. Be prepared for long and slow winding queues at the eye scanner and passport control sections at the Dubai airport; an otherwise magnificent structure. My host who was stuck in a massive traffic jam just outside the Dubai city limits (when I was at the end of a queue) managed to come to the airport that's quite a distance away and I had only waded through half the queue I was in, by then! Otherwise, Dubai airport is vast, buzzing with a fantastic shopping experience. Singapore and Hong Kong airports are still my favourites, though. But the Dubai airport is very well connected; there's a metro station, buses and taxis are available aplenty.
The city looks very modern and advanced. The usual glimpses of several intertwining flyovers, that you get to see just as your plane is about to land, continues as you get out of the airport, especially if you are sticking to the highway that goes to Abu Dhabi. But the numerous tall buildings of luxury apartments hide a very sordid past of the 2010 Dubai crisis; the occupancy rates of most of these residential apartments is very low, many expatriates left when they lost their jobs, they left their cars at the airport because they couldn't pay the mortgage. Many flats are still lying vacant and real estate prices have dropped. Jobs have moved to Abu Dhabi where real estate prices have gone up in the last year. The real money now lies with Abu Dhabi; when the Dubai crisis unraveled, Abu Dhabi pumped money into Dubai and bought over its Metro and Burj Dubai; the world's largest building that was eventually renamed as Burj Khaleefa; in honour of UAE President Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
Still, the roads everywhere in UAE are excellent; even better than those in the US. I have never seen a 12-lane massive expressway before, even though it's for a relative short distance that starts from the Dubai city leading to its outskirts. But UAE's roads, especially the highways, are wide, very well-maintained. Traffic discipline is a must and conveniently enforced upon. Licenses are stuck on car's windshields and they carry a magnetic chip so that they can be read by machines and cameras installed at strategic places. All licenses must be topped up with money and must be renewed once a year. Automatic and man-less toll plazas capture your license and car number as you pass through them and your balance gets deducted automatically. No waiting in painfully long queues to hand over money at toll nakas, like in India; in UAE you drive through them 100 miles per hour! If you overspeed, numerous cameras placed at strategic locations catch you. They flash at you, so you know it's you who has oversped. Your money gets deducted from your license card as fines, no questions asked. And since the camera has proof, you can't argue. This isn't new if you live in a developed economy; for us Indians who see traffic violations by the minute here in India, it's refreshing.
The Arabs take great pride in their national dress, the Khandura. Loads of them walking around you can see, in malls, in restaurants, on the roads, young and old alike, everywhere. And their ladies in burqas, as well. They're conservative, yet modern. Most don't cover their heads and underneath their burqas, they wear make-up, gloss and shine like fashonitas and wear high heels. Money talks in the UAE and the Arabs in their Khanduras drive Mercedes, BMWs, Toyotas and their Hondas. The language is Arabic; all shops have their names displayed in English as well as Arabic. Most taxi drivers in Abu Dhabi are pathans and Pakistani Muslims who are most cordial with you, whether you are from India, Pakistan or anywhere else in the world. People from all cultures, races, religions and backgrounds can be seen living in perfect harmony. Tradition mixed with modernity; that's UAE for you.