Last time, I talked about the business and financial development of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah through the lens of the companies that I visited with my classmates. Certainly, we had our days full of company visits. But you know what they say about all work and no play!
Dubai is especially fascinating as a tourist center. Located in the desert and deplete of close potable water supply, Dubai does not strike one as a place that would easily support a large enough population to become a city. Reality is a far cry from these expectations, however. Dubai is not only a world-renowned city but one that boasts the tallest skyscraper in the world (the Burj Khalifa, aka Burj Dubai), soon to be outranked by another tower (surprise, in Dubai).
It is also incredibly international. Contrast this with the sand dunes just miles outside of city center, and one could understand how operationally complex this development must have been. But one could also appreciate how much the city has changed and become more like the Western cities that many of the expats in the city came from. Fortunately, we found time between meetings to visit historical and cultural sites of the UAE to see this transition over time.
Souk (Spice, Gold and Perfume Markets)
In the evening, after slipping out of our business formal, a few classmates and I took the metro to the traditional souks, which are bazaar shops that sell everything from spices and clothing to gold and perfume. Even though the souks today, being so close to the metro station on the Dubai green line, probably receive a large volume of foreign visitors, they still retain much of their history. The majority of products for sale are located within the store, but the store fronts are also covered with rows of colorful garments and dyes. There is also always at least one representative from each store standing right at the door fronts, ushering in potential customers.
In addition, bargaining is still a big part of the transaction. Ute, our tour guide, advised us to ask their reservation price first, then offer at most 1/3. Then we would go back and forth until we hit about ~1/2 of the initial quoted price. Some of us were better than others. My friend, Tricia, for example, who had lived in China (where bargaining was also prevalent), was a natural at it, and went home with some lovely saffron and tea at a fraction of the ask price!
Before heading back to the US, a group of us went on a desert safari, which included dune-bashing (essentially driving erratically through hilly sands in a rugged vehicle), and then going through a “beduoin experience,” where we dined together and enjoyed activities that the settlers of olden times did.
For example, there was an opportunity to ride camels. They were much higher than I expected and definitely more difficult to mount than your average county fair pony. I also learned that one sits on their actual hump, which was very bony (for some reason, I thought it would be filled with fat/water and therefore soft).
We also enjoyed traditional hospitality. The safari organizers sat us in groups on cushions next to low tables. The tables were organized around a center stage, which was for performances. Around the periphery of the encampment were several tents with different vendors and activities. Some of my classmates enjoyed a good shisha session. Others of us (especially the ladies of the group) flocked around the henna tent. I loved how mine turned out!
When we ate, we chatted, much in the way that the earlier settlers of the area must have, around the dinner table. Our conversation topics must have differed substantially from those of the Bedouins, though: we talked about the relative ranks of different mobile-based dating apps and the logistics of long-distance relationships with our better halves during the MBA.
Before and after our meal of traditional eastern dishes (meats and veggies in lots of sauce and grains), we enjoyed musical performances. First, we had a man who I can only describe as a light-up skirt-spinner (it’s one of those you-had-to-be-there things). [Ed. note: the traditional name for this person is a Whirling Dervish.] It was great fun! He spun and acted out scenes like a one-man play. Then, he asked for audience participation, and our classmate Harold was the first chosen. Harold was pretty good at it!
We also had a belly-dancing performance. The dancer was so beautiful, graceful and talented!
Finally, this post wouldn’t be complete without mention of the Grand Mosque, though it is not in Dubai per se. A few days ago, we were able to squeeze in a visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, located ~30 minutes outside the capital city. Completed in 2007, it serves as the place of worship for not only the residents of Abu Dhabi and Muslim visitors from around the world, but also as a place of interest for scholars of Islam and curious travelers.
The first thing that strikes you about the Sheikh Zayed Mosque is its sheer size. The largest mosque in the country, it boasts 180,000 sq. ft. of gleaming white mosaic marble. When we arrived, the mosque was full of visitors. As a female traveler, I came prepared, with an outfit which encompassed everything up to wrist and ankle (thanks, Hermes Society, for the great hoodie, which not only covered me to the wrist but also serves as great defender against airport AC). I also covered my hair with a scarf. While most of us on the trip were not Muslim, it was still important to be respectful of religious observations
It was indeed, a very grand mosque. The walls were adorned with beautiful floral hand paintings, and white pillars supported a tall ceiling topped with qubbas (the white domes with points). Despite the multitude of visitors, the floors are kept absolutely spotless. Walking through the open halls was truly awe-inspiring! It just goes to show that no matter your differences from others around you, beauty and spirituality are universal and can serve as powerful connectors.
Well, gotta go pack for my long trip back to the Big Apple!
-Shelley Han ‘18