United Arab Emirates

The highlight of Abu Dhabi was the brand new Louvre: an interesting museum in a really great building

Our first experience on the Arabian Peninsula was Doha, capital of Qatar, and I was wide-eyed and excited with all the high-rises and lights and excitement. Second was Dubai, which was like Doha on steroids. Then, after our time in the desert, it was on to Abu Dhabi, the other big city on this stretch of Arabia.


Maybe if we’d come here first I’d have been more impressed but at this point we’ve seen better architecture, shopped in better malls, and swam in better beaches. It was OK, and again we had a beautiful hotel at a good price but the sparkle of the region has certainly worn off.

There’s one big must-do here, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, though since it only opened in November one wonders what we would have done if we’d come here earlier. But yes indeed the Louvre, that museum in Paris you’ve probably heard of, partnered with the UAE to build a new museum to celebrate the cultural achievements of mankind, from pre-history to modern art. Basically, in a couple of hours across 12 galleries ranging from The First Villages and The First Great Powers through Challenging Modernity and A Global Stage, the museum tries to tell the story of human culture.

Highlights from the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Clockwise from the upper left that’s one of the oldest statues known to man, from Jordan dating to about 6,500 BC; a Roman statue of Athena (fully clothed, of course) from the second century AD; a Van Gogh self-portrait; and a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. I was surprised to stumble onto that one.

Human culture from the beginning of time is kind of a big topic and the museum doesn’t really succeed. It seemed to me that it suffered from something of a half-Noah’s-Ark problem: it had one of everything. From antiquity it had one beautiful Egyptian sarcophagus and one nearly perfect Greek vase. One statue of Athena and one bust of Augustus. Once you got up to the kind of paintings you’d expect in an art museum, again, one of everything: a Monet, a Warhol, a Van Gogh, a Da Vinci, a Picasso, a Rothko … one of everything.

On the other hand the good news was you got to see a little bit of everything. Well, not exactly everything; presumably respecting Arabian sensibilities you didn’t see any inappropriate body parts in any of the vases, statues, or paintings. You could almost see the censors standing over the collectors looking at that Greek vase saying “Yeah, we’re not showing that one here.”

One highly redeeming quality of the museum is the architecture. The building was designed by Jean Nouvel, the French architect who designed both the Institute of the Arab World in Paris and the Doha Tower, the bullet-shaped building we loved so much in Doha. (And then in reading about him I learned that he also designed the new, modern Guthrie Theater in my erstwhile home town of Minneapolis, another building I love.) The centerpiece of the complex is a huge dome-like structure that almost floats above the museum. It is made up of eight layers of metal with a total of 7,850 stars cut out in various sizes and angles. As the sun – intense in this part of the world most of the year – passes through the sky the light and shadows are filtered as though through massive palm trees. The museum is definitely worth a visit if for nothing more than to see the building.

This was fun. In the very modern gallery was this series called “Family Tree” by a Chinese artist named Zhang Huan. We saw this same piece in an exhibit in Canberra and I liked it so much then I included it in the blog. I still like it enough to include it!

It is worth noting that you really have to want to see it to get there. The museum seems to be the first entry in what Abu Dhabi intends to build as a cultural center well north of the main part of the city. The result is that even for inveterate walkers like us – we walk damn near everywhere we can – we had to take a taxi; more than just the distance, because of the bridges that connect the area to the main part of the city there is simply no pedestrian route out there. Otherwise, though, it is an impressive architectural achievement.

Once you’ve seen the Louvre, though, there’s really not much left. We spent a bit of time at the beach, though we’ve seen better. And I enjoyed walks and a morning run or two on the corniche that runs along the coast. One of the memories, oddly, was on the drive from Al Maha to Abu Dhabi, which passed Dubai in the distance. As you drove past you could see the Dubai skyline with lots of tall, impressive buildings. And soaring above all of them, far above all of them, was the Burj Khalifa, really a stunningly beautiful building. Odd that one of my favorite parts of traveling to Abu Dhabi was seeing Dubai off in the distance.

And that’s it for the Emirates. From here we have five days on the beach in Oman before we head off to India.

Abu Dhabi does have malls. On one long walk across Abu Dhabi we stopped into one and it really felt as though we were in Arabia.

Our visit to Abu Dhabi coincided with the 47th anniversary of their independence. Mark caught this shot of an air show from our hotel room.

Not only was it their Independence Day but they were also celebrating the birth of the Prophet Muhammad while we were there. That meant that even international hotels that are typically allowed to sell wine and alcohol were dry for the day. We showed them: we made cocktails in our room with our own booze and then ordered room service for dinner, perhaps the first time we’ve done that this entire adventure.

Our early morning nature walk. To my surprise we learned that there’s life in them there dunes!

From the city we went inland a bit, still in the emirate of Dubai, to Al Maha, a Starwood property out in the middle of the desert. It’s the sort of thing that would be a big splurge except when it’s free, as in “used Starwood points to get this amazing property, including three meals a day, for free.” Definitely the price point I love the most.

There’s not a lot to do out in the desert, so the resort makes sure you’re smothered in comfort. The room was beautiful, with lots of space – when you’re in the desert there’s more room than in a big city – and, crucially, you’re own private pool. I could have spent all day just sitting at the pool looking out across the desert. Except, oh yeah, except for the flies. Early in the morning they weren’t at all bad and as the temperature dropped in the late afternoon they went away again. But during the hours when you would most enjoy sitting out reading and enjoying the view? Way too many flies.

Our private pool with nothing but the desert as far as the eye can see

Otherwise, though, it was a nearly perfect experience. The resort not only provides your meals in the price of the room, but they include a number of activities too. Our first evening there we went on their camel ride up into the dunes to watch the sunset with sparkling wine. Mark had been on a camel thirty-plus years earlier on an overnight excursion and had always talked about how sore he was after hours in the saddle. This one was easier: 20 minutes or so out into the desert, 20 minutes watching the sunset, and 20 minutes back. I was still sore from the ride, but the sort of sore that is gone after 90 seconds or so. A nice experience.

Mark on his camel

Early the next morning, before the heat of the day kicked in, we went on a little nature hike into the dunes. We were both a little curious: what’s there to see out here where there’s pretty much just sand? Well, a lot it turns out. Our guide – a sweet little South African woman – started showing us the various tracks through the desert, often tiny little markings from lizards and small rodents and even an ant. Yeah, I would notice tracks from camels or the many gazelles and oryx around but those tiny tracks I would never notice. Until you start seeing them and then you see them all over.

At one point we all had our heads down looking at these little tracks when we scared out a big old owl out of a tree near us who then flew to another tree a little further away. Our guide was impressed; she’d never seen an owl out here. We saw the tree he was in and walked pretty close to get a nice view of the owl until he decided he’d had enough of our gawking and flew away.

Who knew you could pet falcons? If she hadn’t had her hood on that wouldn’t have happened.

And then there was the morning with the falcons along with a special guest appearance from an eagle. Capturing and training falcons has been a big deal in the Arabian Desert for some 2,000 years and I’d always wondered how the heck you train something like that. Well, our guides explained it all and showed us how the falcons are trained. And then another guide came out with an eagle, not nearly as useful for hunting for a variety of reasons (they’re lazier and somewhat slower than the falcons) but still very trainable and prestigious in their own way.

An eagle and his trainer. We learned that while falcons are OK with a variety of trainers eagles are very particular; this one allows just two people to be this intimate.

Otherwise the animals that draw the most attention are the gazelles and Arabian oryx. The former are cute, small, and everywhere; they’re sufficiently acclimated to humans that they hang out just everywhere. But always cute. The African oryx is bigger, more exotic, and more interesting. By the early 1970s, in fact, they were extinct in the wild, the result of aggressive hunting by humans. Enough existed in captivity, though, that they were bred and reintroduced into the wild starting in the early 1980s. The oryx here, they explained, come from herds held in Arizona and have multiplied well since their reintroduction. In fact, the Arabian oryx is the first animal in the world to have been extinct in the wild to now being officially just “vulnerable.” A pretty impressive achievement.

The Arabian oryx hanging out in the dunes. Al Maha, the name of our resort, is the Arabic name for the oryx.

Oh, one other cool thing about the oryx? They’re thought to be the origin of the mythological unicorn. Which didn’t make that much sense to me until I saw one from just the right angle, where it’s two horns seemed to be just one. Then it really did look like a unicorn. I should add, though, that because the Bible references unicorns on several occasions true believers would object to my reference to the unicorn as “mythological.” They say the unicorn really did exist since the Bible is never wrong but it went extinct and we just haven’t found the archeological evidence. I say they’re idiots.

And one other thing I learned out there. The colors in the sand dunes and the texture and contours are so interesting but how do they come about? Our South African guide showed us how the iron oxide sand particles are significantly redder, heavier, and coarser than the fine white silica particles. It’s the interaction between these two very different kinds of sand that create the colors and contours. How’s that for useful information?

The interplay of iron oxide and silica makes for this natural beauty

And finally, a word about the changing desert. Dubai and the Al Maha resort are actively engaged in an environmental movement typically known as “greening the desert.” This is an extremely long-term strategy of introducing or re-introducing trees and other plant life into desert areas which, in tiny increments, cools the area, allowing other plant life to take root which at the very edge of the margins allows a little more rain to fall and, in theory at least, creates a self-perpetuating virtuous cycle: a little more green, a little cooler, a little more rain, a little more green, a little cooler, and on and on. I wasn’t familiar with the concept at all, but apparently it’s happening all over the world in arid and semi-arid areas. You have to give people credit for having the vision, the patience, and the innate optimism to take on a long-term project like that.

And that was our big desert adventure, a big success. From here it’s off to Abu Dhabi and then down to Oman.

An oryx. One of the joys I had out there was a couple very early morning runs out along the road leading to the lodge where these animals were a little more active in the relatively cool temperatures. Even without them, going for a run in the desert is kind of cool.

Gazelles were everywhere. And they were always cute.


This is how they train both eagles and falcons

One of the falcons up close

Mark and me toasting our little camel ride

For some people the highlight of the desert was the camel ride out to watch the sunset. For me it was the sitting in the sand with a glass of sparkling wine.

Sunset over the desert

And one more view of those sand dunes early in the morning. The tracks aren’t that interesting; they’re ours.

The Burj Khalifa (Khalifa Tower), the world’s tallest tower and Dubai’s pride

For some years now we – really Mark, but we – have wanted to see Dubai. Big, gaudy, flashy; it just seemed like something we should see. Having now spent four days here I’m not feeling like I need to come back. Kind of like Las Vegas on steroids but without the casinos it’s worth seeing once.

First, just where are we? Dubai is a city of about 2.7 million people, the largest in the United Arab Emirates. But what is the United Arab Emirates? (Or should that be “What are the United Arab Emirates?”) They – it, OK, I’m going with the singular version – it is a monarchy that consists of seven constituent emirates, of which Dubai is the largest. Abu Dhabi is the second largest and together Dubai and Abu Dhabi make up about 75 percent of the total population. The federation was formed in 1971 after the British announced they were ending their role as protectors of the small sheikdoms. As Iran to the north and Saudi Arabia to the south licked their chops at the thought of snatching up these small, vulnerable plots of land Abu Dhabi and Dubai formed a partnership and offered membership to the other emirates. Qatar and Bahrain rejected the offer and thus are independent; Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Quwain said yes and today remain junior partners in the federation.

Skyscrapers in the Marina area where we were staying

So Dubai. Just about the same size as Rhode Island with one huge city and a lot of desert. Surprisingly not a lot of oil; oil wasn’t discovered here until 1966 and the reserves are quite small. In fact, oil makes up only about five percent of Dubai’s revenue. Instead it has established itself as a commercial center and more recently a transportation center and has become famous for impressive skyscrapers, particularly the Burj Khalifa.

The Burj (Arabic for “tower”) was the main thing we came to see. Construction began in 2004, when it was known as the Burj Dubai. For years they were cagey about just how tall it was going to be; they said it would be the tallest building in the world but wouldn’t put a specific number on it. Finally in 2008 it topped out at 2,722 feet compared to Chicago’s Sears Tower which was then the world’s largest building at 1,729 feet, so more than 50 percent taller than the next tallest building. Since then a number of extremely tall skyscrapers have been built but the Burj Khalifa is still 30 percent taller than today’s number two, the Shanghai Tower.

Dubai from the observation deck on the 148th floor of the Burj

Naturally, we went to the top. You sign up well in advance, have a scheduled time, and up, up, up you go to the 148th floor. Above that are six floors of corporate suites and then nine floors of mechanical and communication equipment. Until last year the observation deck, at 1,821 feet, was the highest observation deck in the world but in 2016 the Shanghai Tower’s observation deck opened at 1,841 feet. The views were impressive; on a clear day you can see all the way to Iran but it wasn’t that clear during our visit. In some ways, in fact, the tower was more impressive from the ground than the views from the top; it is a seriously beautiful building.

Oh, and about that name. As I said it was known as the Burj Dubai during construction but the timing for the opening was about as bad as could be: they were marketing it in 2009 and it opened in 2010 just as the global economy completely tanked. Really bad timing and leasing went a lot slower than expected. As a result Dubai needed a bailout from Abu Dhabi and the UAE so, at the opening, Dubai surprised everyone by renaming it the Burj Khalifa in honor of UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan for his crucial support.

Another view from the observation deck

What else is there in Dubai? A few things stand out. First, like Qatari and the rest of the UAE it is overwhelmingly made up of immigrant workers. Out of a total population of about 2.8 million people, fewer than half a million are Emirati. About half the remaining residents are Indians, with a large mix of other South Asians – Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, etc. – thrown in as well. And because most of those foreign workers are men there is a huge imbalance between men and women in Dubai. It seems as though that would cause trouble but if people cause trouble Dubai just sends them away. Oh, and it was weird just how spread out the city is. We were staying in the Marina area, a place with big skyscrapers and big hotels and big malls and all that, what one would think of as the city center. In fact the Burj Khalifa and the big malls around that area was nearly 14 miles away from our neighborhood. That’s a long way in a city.

Beyond that, Dubai consists of a lot of big malls. We’re not big mall people, though, so there wasn’t much for us except updating our Apple collection; the AppleWatches we’d bought in China two-and-a-half years ago had started failing and, well, there was this new iPhone that came out recently that one of us needed. There was a beach at a neighboring hotel we had access to and that was OK. We were staying in the Marina area and there was a great two-mile winding walkway with soaring skyscrapers that was pleasant in the mornings and evenings.

Early morning along the Marina

Except for the Burj Khalifa, though, the most notable thing about being in Dubai was the crazy mismatch between the cost of meals and quality of meals. Similar to our experience in Qatar alcohol can only be sold in the big international five-star hotels. We had a couple of really good meals at Mom’s, a Lebanese restaurant near our hotel, at perfectly reasonable prices. But if you wanted a cocktail or wine? Absolutely insanely expensive and just not that good.

That settles it, then. We’ve seen the Burj Khalifa, seen the attractive city scape, and satisfied our Apple cravings. No need to come back to Dubai unless it’s the only reasonable transportation connection as we’re traveling between continents.

There I am chopping onions for the habra nayeh at Mom’s

That’s actually a plate of food Mark set up for the perfect photo

Early evening along the Marina

Skyscrapers at night

The blue tower on the right was our hotel

And here I am relaxing on some strange chairs Dubai set up in a pedestrian shopping area. Pretty chill!