|Location: Antibes, France|
|Local time: Thursday, 10:35pm|
Sitting in the back seat of a taxi, watching the city lights slide by as I'm whisked away to catch the flight. It's always a melancholic moment in my travels, that journey back to the airport after a stay at a place you've come to know and appreciate. It's not really a sense of loss; but wondering if you'll ever actually return to a place you're now familiar and comfortable with can be somewhat sombering. At least, that's what I was feeling as my taxi sped down the six-lane motorway towards Abu Dhabi airport, the city's jagged skyline twinkling in the distance...
I had a great time in the Emirates, thanks to my good friends Hayley and Ron (kiwi and british ex-pats who've recently uprooted their comfortable UK lives, in exchange for the sandier pastures of Abu Dhabi). The break from my routine life in France (and recent run of bad luck - I was attacked in the street by 5 guys on New Year's Eve) was a welcome respite.
Abu Dhabi wasn't entirely what I was expecting. It's a mixture of old, run-down apartment buildings, juxtaposed against towering glass monuments to international banking and property development. The streets are teeming with life, but by looking at the people, you get the sense that you've landed in India or the Philipines, rather than an Arab country. These two countries (along with others like Pakistan, Bangladesh etc) provide the dominant chunk of the labour force in the UAE. UAE nationals (known as 'Emiratis') make up only 20% of the population (of 5 million) and tend not to work. If they do, they hold the higher positions of power, in Government etc. (Interesting factoid: The UAE has the highest obesity rate in the world)
The Emirati nationals are essentially gods amongst men. They're generally easy to spot - the men will be wearing the traditional kandura, an ankle-length white tunic, whilst the women the abaya, a full-body black over-garment (often also covering the face). There exists one set of laws for Emiratis, and another set for the rest of us mere mortals. For instance, their cars (a gleaming collection of brand-new Porsches, Ferraris, Mercedes, BMWs, Cadillac SUVs etc) sport a different number plate than the rest, and will thus avoid any speed camera fines, or indeed provide them with near 100% indemnity in any accident, regardless of whose fault it may be. (Handy UAE travel hint: the Emirati is always right.)
The UAE is a land of one-upmanship. They have the world's tallest building, the world's most expensive airport, the world's largest shopping mall (containing the world's largest single pane of plexiglass, which encapsulates what was the world's largest aquarium, built into the middle of the mall), the world’s furthest leaning man-made tower (they had to beat the one in Pisa), the world's largest handwoven carpet, largest chandilier... it goes on and on.
These extremes also extend to the prices of various goods and services found here. Rental properties in Abu Dhabi far exceed anything found in London, but in Dubai (an incredible city, which I can only describe as 'Gotham City meets Bladerunner') the prices are five-times less, due to the city's recent economic slump. Cars are similarly-priced to the UK, but since this is a tax-free country, you can buy a can of Coke for 20 cents. Or get a fantastic Indian lunch for less than 3 euros. You can also rent a hotel room for 20-grand a night, in the 5-star-deluxe Burj Al Arab hotel of Dubai. Go figure.
The Emirates one-hander, in front of the Burj Khalifah in Dubai. At a ridiculous 828m high,
it's the world's tallest man-made structure.
Connected to the tower is Dubai Mall - the world's largest shopping mall.
The Capital Gate building in Abu Dhabi, which leans 18-degrees... four times more than the Tower of Pisa. Silly.
The beach club 'Hiltonia' that my friends belong to. Nice place to spend a sweaty afternoon.
The Abu Dhabi skyline, including the once tallest flagpole in the world (122m) (now claimed by the 160m pole in North Korea).
The city's fish market.
An Emirati man waits for his purchase to be filleted.
Another one-hander, this time in front of Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the country's largest.
The mosque contains the world's largest single carpet, and the world's largest chandelier.
Gotta take your shoes off.
Arches, arches everywhere.
All women visiting the mosque are required to wear an 'abaya' robe.
The Dubai skyline.
Onlookers watch the Dubai Fountain perform one of its regular displays. Very similar to the Bellagio fountain in Vegas.
Some locals look on.
Lunch break in Dubai.
A water taxi on Dubai Creek. (The advertising on its roof is for 'Fair and Handsome' - advanced whitening cream for men. "Now it's easy to be handsome". Ooookay.)
My coffee break, beside Ski Dubai, the indoor skiing center.
The famous Burj Al Arab hotel, which sits on an artificial island.
A Dubai beach.
Apartments. The bottom recently fell out of the Dubai economy, and now there's a huge glut of cheap, quality apartments for rent.
The colour-changing Yas Marina Hotel, on Abu Dhabi's Formula-1 circuit on Yas Island. (Oh and yes, yet another record - the first hotel to be built over an F1 circuit.)
A wooden 'superyacht' in Dubai Creek. What on earth were they thinking?!
Kheesa and Peer, my friends' two adorable children.
Emirates censorship. This is the image that greeted me when I tried to view my web site whilst in the UAE.
The UAE bans "pornography, politically sensitive material, all Israeli domains, and anything against the
perceived moral values of the UAE." I guess my site somehow goes against the morals of the Emirates? Damn.
All or most VoIP services (such as Skype) are also blocked.
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