Behind Dubai's Flash, an Oasis of Tradition


Over the past three decades, this city has been transformed from a sleepy fishing village in the middle of the desert to a cosmopolitan city located in the center of the world — two-thirds of the world population is just an eight-hour flight away from here.

The results of this rapid development are evident throughout the whole city with its heady skyscrapers and high-tech office buildings, as well as a modern airport that is home to Emirates, the largest airline in the Middle East.

According to Mohammed Essa Al Sheikh, head of Asia and Australia region at the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, the government is now focusing on bringing more tourists to the city.

“The problem of being so well-connected with the rest of the world is that many travelers are in Dubai only for transit — the airport — and don’t actually take the time to spend a day or two in Dubai,” he said.

Although the number of hotel guests who come to the city for both leisure and business has steadily increased over the past years — nearly 11 million in 2013, compared to 4.7 million in 2002, with visitors from Saudi Arabia on top of the list, followed by India, Britain and the United States — Al Sheik said there were still more possibilities to attract more visitors.

“We are tapping into all available activities and niche markets, including adventure and families,” he said.

Dubai is indeed well-known for always trying to achieve the best; the city has a number of world records on its list of attractions, including the world’s largest indoor ski resort and the world’s longest driverless metro line.

A perfect point to start exploring Dubai is a visit to the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building at 828 meters and 163 floors and the central masterpiece of Dubai Downtown. Developed by Emaar Properties, Burj Khalifa represents more than just a stunning physical building.

“In Burj Khalifa, we see the triumph of Dubai’s vision of attaining the seemingly impossible and setting new benchmarks,” said Mohamed Alabbar, chairman of Emaar Properties. “It is a source of inspiration for every one of us in Emaar. The project is a declaration of the emirate’s capabilities and of the resolve of its leaders and people to work hand-in-hand on truly awe-inspiring projects.”

Burj Khalifa officially opened in January 2010 and was also prominently featured in the movie “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” starring Tom Cruise. While most of the building is occupied by residences, offices and the Armani Hotel, tourists can visit the observation deck on the 124th floor by riding the — of course — fastest elevator that goes from ground to observation deck in only 60 seconds. From the deck, one has a spectacular view over the city and beyond; it is up here that the scope of this ambitious city becomes very clear and palpable.


From Burj Khalifa, a visit to Dubai Mall (again, the world’s largest), located just next to the skyscraper, seems mandatory, although the sheer amount of shops — more than 1,200 stores over 502,000 square meters — can be quite overwhelming. Everything that a shopaholic’s heart desires can be found here; those who want a hassle-free shopping experience can send their kids to the mall’s Aquarium and Discovery Center, the ice rink, indoor theme park SEGA Republic, or KidZania, an entertainment center where they can get a taste of adulthood by working various jobs and earning money.

Just outside the mall, the Dubai Fountain is an impressive sight to behold, especially at night. Illuminated by 6,600 lights and 25 colored projectors, daily fountain shows can be enjoyed every 30 minutes starting from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Another Dubai landmark that has become synonymous with the city’s progress is Palm Islands, two artificial islands, Palm Jumeirah and the Palm Jebel Ali, built in the shape of palm trees and home to resorts, hotels and private residencies.

“The idea for this project goes back to the childhood of His Majesty Sheikh Mohammed,” said tour guide Moez Manai of Arabian Adventures, referring to the constitutional monarch of Dubai. “When he was a boy, he used to draw palm trees in the sand, but the waves of the sea would always wash them away. He then said, one day I will build a whole island in the shape of a palm tree, that will stand steady in the middle of the sea.”

The New York Times reported in 2009 that the Palm Jumeirah was actually sinking — a claim refuted by Nakheel, the developer that built the island.


A relatively new addition to the city’s list of attractions is the Dubai Miracle Garden, which has only been open since last year and features more than 55 million flowers that have been beautifully arranged in the shape of hearts, peacocks, carriages and pyramids. Two flower arch pathways, shaded by hanging flower baskets, give the garden a romantic touch. The garden only operates between October and March, because it is simply too hot in summer to maintain the flowers, with temperatures up to 55 degrees.

A visit to Dubai would not be complete without exploring the old city. With so much that’s new, it is just as refreshing to step back in time and get a taste of traditional Dubai life. The Al Fahidi historic district is one of the oldest traditional Emirati neighborhoods located in the Bur Dubai district, along the shores of Al Khor (The Creek), a saltwater inlet that is crowded by traditional wooden dhows.

Hopping onto an abra (water taxi) will take visitors straight to the spice souk, which is adjacent to the gold souk, both located in the vibrant area of Deira. Although the souks have shrunk in size over the years, these historic markets still provide an interesting glimpse into the daily life of Dubai residents who come to shop here just as the tourists do.

The souks consist of narrow lanes, lined with shops offering their goods. The spice souk is a feast for the eyes and the nose with its bags of colorful, strong-scented spices; the vendors try to lure in customers by striking up a conversation and then bartering for good prices.


The gold souk is one of the most visited markets in Dubai. More than 300 retailers have set up shop here and trade almost exclusively in jewelry. From here, one can also easily reach the fish and textile souk, the latter featuring countless textiles in every imaginable color, texture and embroidery that have found their way to Dubai from all over the world.

It is this baffling contrast between old and new that makes Dubai such a fascinating city to visit: it simply offers something for everyone.

This article was first published on April 6, 2014 in the Jakarta Globe.