On the Way to and from Nepal I

The United Arab Emirates: Dubai and Sharjah


Nepal is effectively 10 time zones from Toronto.  To get there one has the choice of flying west (through Hong Kong, Singapore or Bangkok) or east through Europe or the Middle East.  The deciding factor for us was cost—a discounted fare on Air France through Paris to Dubai and then by Air Arabia to Kathmandu.


In the early 19th century, the British saw the region as critical in defending sea lanes to India from other European colonizers.  As elsewhere, they protected their interests in the area by naval power and treaty (including the buoyantly-named 1853 “Treaty of Peace in Perpetuity”).  Strangely, just after the first oil was found, the British announced they were departing and the various sheikdoms which formed the British protectorate, the Trucial States (absent Qatar and Bahrain) formed a federation.  The UAE consist of seven emirates:

  • Abu Dhabi: the capital and largest of the mini-states and, notable, with the largest oil reserves
  • Dubai: the commercial centre
  • Sharjah
  • Ajman
  • Umm Al-Quawain
  • Ras al-Khaimah
  • Fujairah



(I can’t decide on a subtitle: “Do Buy!” or “Dubai Dubai Do!)


We didn’t intend to spend much time in the UAE—just a quick look at the souks (markets) and iconic new buildings in Dubai.  With building underway for the world’s largest airport hub, we may just find our way back there.  Besides, it’s just a short flight to Oman—an inexpensive flight on Air Arabia and decidedly more exotic destination to spend a few days.


The highlights of our short stay: the wonderful museum in the Al-Fahidi Fort, the picturesque Dubai Creek, the dhows loading every sort of merchandise bound mostly (it seemed) for Iran, and the incongruous Ski Dubai at the Mall of the Emirates


IMG_1406 abras and waterfront houses on Dubai Creek Dubai 2008            IMG_1413 Ski Dubai at Mall of the Emirates Dubai 2008

Arbas on Dubai Creek                                                              Ski Dubai at the Mall of the Emirates



We actually saw less than we intended.  The respiratory infection that had bugged Nancy for the previous three weeks returned with a vengeance (or it may have been a close relative) and she was bed-ridden for a few days—enough so that we delayed our flight to Oman.  Her infection wasn’t clearing and she was ailing, so we decided that she did have to see a doctor, ending up at acute care at the hospital.  One mention of chest pains and she was whisked in for the complete work-up and the highest level of care in a modern hospital.  I’ve heard that many travellers who find themselves very sick in SE Asia do whatever they can to get to Singapore for care—I’ve decided that in similar circumstances in the Middle East, Dubai’s the spot.  Even better, after at the ECG, blood work, x-rays, etc, when I asked where to pay, we found that the free health care extended to tourists as well.


The oil revenue-fuelled building boom in Dubai continues as they plan for a post-petroleum economy.  I heard somewhere that 20 percent of the world’s construction cranes are to be found in the UAE—and it’s not hard to believe.  The most notable new building is the Burj Dubai, already the world’s highest.


IMG_1419 Burj Dubai 2008

Burj Dubai


The easiest description of the entire city state is just to get out the thesaurus and move every adjective related to:

  • Commercialization
  • Consumerism
  • Hedonism
  • Disneyification

to the superlative.


What we had wanted to see and missed (there are reasons to return):

  • the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding
  • the iconic Burj al-Arab (the world’s “only seven-star hotel”); our travel companions in Nepal, my son Llew and his girlfriend Sarah, did splurge for a meal there when they were in Dubai, three weeks after us.
  • the eccentricity of the coastal developments, some in place, others planned: the Palm-Jumeirah, the Palm-Diera Island, the Palm Jebal Ali, the Dubal WaterFront, and surely the most bizarre, The World



Burj al-Arab (from my son’s blog)—one doesn’t get the sense that this is, indeed, the world’s tallest hotel



Dubai’s Coast (from Google Earth)—the old city’s around Dubai Creek


And perhaps we’ll have to return for the rotating skyscraper.


Only about 20 percent of the 4.5 million UAE residents are Emirati nationals.  The rest consist of “ex-pats”—professionals such as the Romanian doctor we met at the hospital, engineers and architects, computer specialists, middle managers, and others—and the majority “visa workers.”  The social situation of the Emirates resembles a caste system with the Emiratis forming the elite ruling class, the middle class of ex-pats, and the menial serf/peasant workers who are brought in from points east and south.  Most of the visa workers we met were from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.  Mike Davis gives a vivid account to the visa workers’ situation under Dubai’s “feudal absolutism” (Davis, M. 2007 “Sand, fear, and money in Dubai” in M. Davis and D.B. Monk eds Evil Paradises: Dreams of Neoliberalism (New York: New Press) 48-68): indentured workers are legally bound to a single employer, trade unions and strikes are illegal, and workers are immediately deportable.


Air Arabia, a discount airline, flies out of Sharjah—the airport located in Sharjah, a legacy of the time when British planes needed a strategic stopover on the U.K-India route.  Air Arabia’s main role appears to be carrying visa workers from South Asia back and forth to the UAE.  On our four flights on Air Arabia (and they were all close to capacity), we were generally among the few tourists (indeed, we were apparently the only ones on the flight to Kathmandu).  Air Arabia flies new planes from a great, efficient airport.  By all reports it is profitable and, by taking over Air Yeti which has a hub in Kathmandu, is seeking to expands its routes farther east into China and SE Asia.


The airports in Dubai and Sharjah are only 17 km apart as the crow flies, but the high traffic levels between the two cities (many visa workers live in the cheaper Sharjah and work in booming Dubai) makes travel times uncertain, and often slow.  The current project to build Dubai Metro promises to improve traffic and make a large part of Dubai more accessible.


IMG_1405 I see faces tower Dubai 2008

I see faces (Dubai)




On the way back from Nepal we had a chance to spend an afternoon and evening in Sharjah—with an early afternoon arrival at Sharjah airport (then the inevitable traffic jams) and after-midnight departure from Dubai.  We dropped our bags off at the hotel we’d stayed at between Oman and Nepal flights a month earlier, the Al Sharq Hotel which we can recommend not only due to the friendly and helpful reception, but also the most comfortable mattresses. The Al Sharq Hotel is located across from Rolla Square in central Sharjah and there no better place I suspect to get the flavour of the numerical dominance of the visa workers.  Essentially, in the whole area one sees no one other than males, all clearly from South Asia.  There is an abundance of choice for inexpensive restaurants, but no assurance that women were welcome in all.


We headed out into the 43oC heat and wilted—more looking for shade and patches of grass than sightseeing and thanking the air conditioning in the modern Central Souq—no desire for tradition here.



Central Souq, Sharjah


EMAIL ME: bardecki@ryerson.ca