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United Arab Emirates
United Arab Emirates
For most people, the United Arab Emirates means just one place: Dubai, the sci-fi-esque city of iconic skyscrapers, palm-shaped islands, city-sized malls, indoor ski slopes and palatial beach resorts. But beyond the glitter awaits a diverse mosaic of six more emirates, each with its own character and allure.
An hour’s drive south, oil-rich Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital, is positioning itself as a hub of culture, sport and leisure. Beyond looms the vast Al Gharbia region, which is dominated by the northern reaches of the Rub’ Al Khali desert. Its magical silence is interrupted only by the whisper of shifting dunes rolling towards Saudi Arabia.
North of Dubai, Sharjah does art and heritage best, while tiny Ajman and Umm Al Quwain provide glimpses of life in the pre-oil days, and Ras Al Khaimah snuggles against the mighty Hajar Mountains. For the best swimming and diving, though, head across the range to Fujairah to frolic in the clear waters of the Gulf of Oman.
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Dubai is a stirring alchemy of profound traditions and ambitious futuristic vision wrapped into starkly evocative desert splendour.
This is a superlative-craving society that has birthed audaciously high buildings and palm-shaped islands. Sci-fi concepts such as flying taxis, a lightning-fast hyperloop train and an army of robocops are all reflections of a mindset that fearlessly embraces the future. And with many more grand projects in the pipeline for World Expo 2020, it’s clear that Dubai is a city firmly in charge of writing its own narrative.
Dubai is a top retail haunt that hosts not one but two huge annual shopping festivals. Shopping is a leisure activity here and malls are much more than just mere collections of stores. Some look like an Italian palazzo or a Persian palace and lure visitors with surreal attractions such as an indoor ski slope or a giant aquarium. Traditional souqs, too, are beehives of activity humming with timeless bargaining banter.
After dark, Dubai’s shape-shifting party spectrum caters for just about every taste, budget and age group. From flashy dance temples, sleek rooftop terraces and sizzling beach clubs to fancy cocktail caverns and concerts under the stars, Dubai delivers hot-stepping odysseys. Most of the nightlife centres on the fancy hotels, but there’s no shortage of more wholesome diversions either, including shisha lounges, community theatre, live-music venues and the sparkling new Dubai Opera.
With Emiratis making up only a fraction of the population, Dubai is a bustling microcosm peacefully shared by cultures from all corners of the world. This diversity expresses itself in the culinary landscape, fashion, music and performance. Although rooted in Islamic tradition, this is an open society where it’s easy for newcomers and visitors to connect with myriad experiences. As such, Dubai is a fertile environment conducive to breaking down cultural barriers and preconceptions.
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For those looking to engage with Gulf culture, Abu Dhabi offers opportunities to understand the UAE’s history through museums, exhibitions, tours and food. But thankfully Emirati heritage isn’t boxed and mothballed; it’s also experienced through strolls around the dhow harbour, haggling in markets, absorbing the atmosphere at shisha cafes and strolling its lengthy and cinematic Corniche.