Dubai’s River, It’s Other Waterfront

Dubai is situated on a creek that feeds into the Persian Gulf.  Historically the city’s lifeblood it is still a great way to experience Dubai, especially if you want to see something a bit less contrived. I went to an abra (water taxi) station in the Bastakiya Quarter (in the Bur Dubai area) for a ride across to the Deria side.  For 0.50-1.50 Dihrams (US $0.15-0.50) you can take one of the hundreds of boats that criss-cross the river.

Dubai looks different (and feels cooler) from the water.  I liked watching the colorful dhows make up the creek to the Arabian Gulf so much that I decided to go to the Dhow Wharfage to see more.  I didn’t have to walk very far.  Hundreds of superb old Arabian dhows were moored along the creek, sometime 2 or 3 deep.

Dhows are long, flat, wooden boats, the area’s traditional vessels.  Used in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, they’ve been in Dubai since the 1830’s when they established a free-trade port.

They trade with Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Oman, India, Yemen, Somalia and Sudan.  With laundry drying on deck and loaded with merchandise, they were an incongruous but mesmerizing sight.  Made from from wood (except for a few of the new ones), they precariously loaded with everything from air-conditioners to cars to car tires.  While much of Dubai appears to be locked away in elevators above the city or behind walls, they are loaded with signs of everyday life, color character and personality.  Perhaps they are so appealing because they stand in stark contrast to the sterilized cleanliness of Dubai’s hotels, malls and skyscrapers.

Their crew members work very hard for astoundingly little and deal with the intense heat, the waters and even pirates (did you notice that they were going to Somalia and Yemen).  When I rode up the river during the mid-day, I spied them trying to rest and keep cool.

Fascinating Dubai

Before going to Dubai, I’d heard things like:

  • Dubai is like no other city on earth.
  • It is, or at least prior to 2008, it was the world’s fastest-growing city.
  • Dubai is Las Vegas on steroids.
  • Nobody ever went to Dubai in search of understatement.
  • It is glitzy, glamorous, spectacular and over-the-top, with more flash than class.

While the amount of consumerism there is astounding.  It is much more than that.  It is a city of contrasts with remarkable diversity.  It is futuristic and I found it fascinating.

Some of the things that fascinated me about Dubai are:

  • It is a city full of contrasts, from rich to poor, the religion and the hedonism, the large and small-scale of business, the man-made islands and the ancient trading on dhow boats both on its waters, the Orlando style buildings contrast with the imaginative skyscrapers…

  • Dubai has an incredibly rich cultural make-up.  I don’t know if I’ve been a city where I heard more languages spoken on the streets.  From its visitors to residents to influences, it has incredible ethic diversity.
  • Dubai’s shopping is a metaphor for its incredible cultural and economic diversity.  It has both designer boutiques and old-style souks.
  • A sea of skyscrapers and five-star hotels, are visible from the edge of the old town with it labyrinth-like streets and wind towers.

  • The traditional Emiratis  make up about 12% of the population and guard citizenship closely. They are typically extremely wealthy, but the town was built on the backs of a huge working-class population predominantly from the Indian subcontinent and from less prosperous areas of the Gulf.

Before the discovery of oil in the 1950’s, there was very little development in Dubai it was a fishing and trading outpost.  They didn’t even have an organized educational system.   By the 1960’s, it became a small, traditional, gulf trading center.  Thanks to petroleum money, it modernized.  It’s leader’s vision and ambition caused Dubai to remake itself and modernize differently than other states in the region.

In some ways, Dubai didn’t have a choice.  They were running out of oil.  Realizing this, Sheikh Mohammed, set about planning for the future without oil  He diversified the Dubai economy to create new employment and income streams as soon as possible .

Essentially, Dubai worked to establish itself as the regional economic hub, then a transportation hub, finance hub, tourist hub, property hub, and architectural hub.  To do this they have tackled infrastructure, water, transportation, education, culture and even religion in an incredibly strategic manner.  They spent massive amounts of money, but have accomplished the majority of their goals.  Whether you agree or not with their approach and its consequences for the workers and/or the environment, etc., what they have accomplished is impressive.