More striking even than Dubai’s modernity is the contrast it offers with a Bedouin heritage as enduring as the desert sands, writes Chris McCall
Many of us will have preconceptions of what Dubai is like, whether or not we have ever visited the bustling centre of the United Arab Emirates. It’s a city that people from around the world feel they know.
Before my first visit, I presumed everything would be brand new, as if the place had been built from scratch in the past 20 years. In some ways, that’s not far from the truth.
Much of downtown Dubai and its business district has a pristine feel. Skyscrapers line the horizon. The other dominant feature of the landscape is the number of giant cranes, a sign of just how much construction is still under way. Offices, shops, apartments – development never seems to stop here.
But Dubai is much more than that. Many visitors don’t realise the city boasts a charming Old Town, complete with the kind of thriving souks you find in places more renowned for their heritage, such as Marrakesh.
These are not just markets for Western tourists. Dubai has been a hub for the gold and jewellery trade for generations. There are strong links with the Indian subcontinent, with many families making the journey across the Arabian Sea to buy and sell precious items.
Perhaps the single biggest misconception about Dubai is that it is a city for the rich. Of course, there is a lot of wealth here. Those skyscrapers don’t build themselves. But the same could be said of London, New York, or any other major urban hub in the world.
In reality, Dubai makes for a surprisingly affordable city break. And when you realise just how much there is to see and do, you wonder why more people don’t make the effort to explore this jewel on the Arabian Peninsula.
We flew direct from Edinburgh Airport to Dubai on the new regular Emirates service which departs the Scottish capital at 7.05pm. With the flight taking around seven hours, there’s ample time to enjoy the consistently high standard of service offered. Pretty much everything – from your seat to your evening meal – is a cut above the usual European flag carriers.
A short taxi ride from the gleaming Dubai airport took us to our hotel, the Rove Trade Centre, which is just 10 minutes from the centre of town. This laid-back modern hotel is adjacent to the Dubai Trade Centre, but is popular with young travellers and families as well as those visiting on business.
With a bright and spacious ground floor restaurant and a rooftop sun deck and pool, it makes the ideal base for exploring the city.
After freshening up, we were keen to get an overview of the ever-growing city. There’s no better place to do just that than the Dubai Frame – an architectural landmark in the nearby Zabeel public park.
Standing 150m tall, the Frame opened to the public in 2018 and can be seen from miles around. Encrusted with swirling golden motifs that glimmer in the desert sun, the landmark is part museum and part viewing platform. A brisk elevator ride takes you to the enclosed top deck, which has spectacular views of the city and its coast.
From here you begin to get an idea of how Dubai developed from a modest port and fishing community into a 21st century global gateway.
In 1822, fewer than 1,000 members of the Bani Yas tribe lived in a village along the Dubai Creek, the river which flows through the modern city. The first development boom came in 1901 when the settlement was declared a free port and incentives given to merchants to move there.
Oil was discovered off the coast in 1966, and five years later seven emirates, of which Dubai is one, signed the treaty of union which created the modern UAE state.
The story of Dubai and its people is fascinating. We were privileged to find out more about local customs at a lunch held at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, a non-profit organisation in the Old Town which promotes Emirati traditions.
Don’t let the grand title put you off – this was an informal and fun sit-down meal which attracts tourists from around the world. Everyone sits cross-legged in the internal courtyard to enjoy lunch in the traditional Bedouin way.
While acknowledging its past, Dubai’s embrace of the present is what attracts most of its visitors. The retail offering really does take some beating. The Dubai Mall is to shopping centres what Orson Welles was to cinema – it’s simply bigger and better than anything else.
It may not strictly be the world’s largest mall – it ranks second by one estimate – but who is counting when there are more than 1,200 shops to explore?
There’s a Bloomingdale’s, a Galeries Lafayette, an Olympic-sized ice rink, as well as an incredible aquarium. If you’ve never seen sharks swimming above you while you window shop you’ve never been to Dubai.
The complex also offers a range of children’s entertainment, meaning kids can have fun while you get down to some serious retail therapy.
The dining experience is also top class, catering for all tastes. We enjoyed lunch at a Lebanese restaurant al fresco. Late winter and spring is an ideal time to visit Dubai, with temperatures in the high 20s.
On the second day of our stay we took the chance to get outside the city. The Sundowner Dune Dinner Safari offers a remarkable opportunity to drive through the shifting sands of the Arabian desert. With a guide at the wheel, we were whisked off-road in a sturdy 4x4 to a traditional Bedouin-style camp where a delicious dinner awaited.
Talking of preconceptions, we can all imagine what a desert looks like. But until you’ve stood on a dune and gazed over an Arabian sunset, it’s difficult to describe just how magical such surroundings can be.
Dubai is a city of contrasts – old and new, desert and skyscrapers. It’s a place that challenges your assumptions and invites you to return again and again.
Emirates flights from Edinburgh to Dubai begin at £359 travelling in Economy and £2,509 in Business. Visit Emirates.com for more information.
Rooms at the Rove Trade Centre start at £59 per night for bed and breakfast, based on two people sharing. For more information or to book, visit rovehotels.com/hotel/rove-trade-centre