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Dubai Creek - photos by Lucy Corne
Dubai Creek - photos by Lucy Corne

Dubai: In With The New…

The first thing that struck me when I arrived in Dubai was how utterly friendly the people were.

Rather than the unsmiling and slightly intimidating officer who usually presides over passport control, we were greeted with a grin and a welcoming chat while being stamped into the UAE’s tourist hub.

I was further amazed that evening when, hailing a taxi to take us to dinner, the driver announced that the traffic was too heavy, a cab would be too pricey and recommended that we head to a restaurant within walking distance.

We were astounded at his honesty but a little disappointed since in the absence of any Emirati food we’d hoped to eat in the only Arabian restaurant listed in our guidebook. Read Dubai hotel reviews

This was the second thing I noticed about Dubai – the strange lack of anything Emirati. Every restaurant offers either Indian or Lebanese cuisine, the streets are lined with British or American stores, and when you look around you start to notice that even the people don’t hail from this part of the world.

In Search of the 'Real' Dubai

In our first 24 hours in the UAE’s playground we hailed cabs manned by drivers from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India yet they all showed a common and staunchly proud knowledge of the city.

For the most part Dubai can feel a bit bland, with its space-age skyscrapers and uniform ex-pat mansions lining the beachfront.

The Bastakiya district
the Bastakiya district

Convinced that there must be a grittier side, we set off to hunt for the ‘real’ Dubai, heading first to Bastakiya, the city’s old quarter with its creek side souqs (markets) and traditional buildings.

Bastakiya was the original settlement from which modern day Dubai blossomed and still holds minor relics, like the remnants of a 19th century city wall.

These days though, it’s got that Disney feel of an overly restored district designed to please tourists. That said, it is a delightful place to wander, its narrow traffic-free alleyways leading to one of the city’s larger mosques.

The Dubai Museum

Spurred on at having unearthed a hint of Dubai’s history, we headed to the nearby Dubai Museum based in the Al Fahidi Fort, a handsome structure reminiscent of a giant sandcastle.

“Guess how old this building is?” Shawn asked, grinning. I pleaded ignorance but was somewhat surprised to find that it dated back just a few decades. On closer inspection we discovered that one turret at least was built in the late 18th century, making this the city’s oldest edifice.

A diorama at the Dubai Museum
A diorama at the Dubai Museum

The museum’s basement outlined every aspect of the Bedouin people who first settled here, but after 20 minutes squinting at the poorly lit information panels, we were happy to emerge into the bright sun and continue our search for proof that Dubai still has an identity.

We had hoped to find life in the textiles souq, a covered market featuring materials, tacky t-shirts and traditional shoes.

The city still boasts a number of souqs clustered on either side of the creek, specializing in gold, electronics, textiles and spices.

But these too felt a little too pristine, lacking the vibrancy you’d expect in a Middle Eastern market, probably because citizens prefer the comfort of the air-conditioned mega malls in the outskirts.

The Heart of Dubai

Yet however much the surrounding area may have lost character, the creek itself remains the heart of Dubai, where tourists take pleasure cruises or join the locals crammed on to one of the fleet of abras (water taxis) plying the murky waters.

This natural inlet enticed the Bedouin wanderers to set up a more permanent camp in the early 1800s and since then Dubai dwellers haven’t looked back.

The skyline from an abra
The skyline from an abra

Those early settlers might struggle to recognize the creek these days, though. The water reaches its natural conclusion at the Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary, a bird-watcher’s haven 14 kilometers (9 miles) inland form the Persian Gulf.

But even natural features are not safe from Dubai’s construction fever. Within a couple of years the creek will extend a further 12 kilometers (7 miles) to wind through downtown Dubai, hopefully giving some character to the soulless Business Bay area.

After a frustrating day failing to seek out much Emirati culture, a short boat ride down the creek renewed my original zest for the city.

Here the futuristic skyline is interrupted; the modern glass hotels is punctuated with ornate mosques and a smattering of enormous sandcastles. And it’s all watched over by the distant Burj Dubai just visible through the haze.

Still under construction, the tower is currently the world’s tallest building and its jagged outline, which wouldn’t be out of place in a Tim Burton feature, can be seen from virtually anywhere in the city.

The Local's Perspective

On our second day in Dubai we aimed to get a little closer both to the all-pervading tower and to the real Dubai with the help of Kashif, an old friend born in the city.

When asked what we’d like to see and do, we told him, “Show us Dubai from a local’s perspective. Oh and do you know where we can get some traditional Emirati food?”

The former request was easily fulfilled, but finding a true local lunch turned out to be quite a challenge.

Kashif instantly began calling every contact in his phone who supplied him with various well meaning dead ends. Our search took us out of Dubai in to Sharjah, the neighbouring Emirate.

While the two are so close you barely realize that you’re leaving one region, the contrast between them is clear. Leaving behind Dubai’s wide sidewalks and affluent suburbs we explored some of Sharjah’s potholed backstreets, all lined with family-run businesses rather than mighty American chains.

Emirati Food

Still, for all its rawness, we failed to find a spot for lunch since the only Emirati restaurant was inexplicably closed.

The Burj al Arab
The Burj al Arab

A dozen phone calls and two hours later we ended up finding the only place offering what we sought back in Dubai, just a short drive from our hotel.

While nearby Lebanese and Indian joints filled up with diners, we ate alone in the Spartan café.

Lunch was a tasty if unspectacular affair of biryani (rice, chicken and dried fruit) with a traditional Bedouin side dish of harees, a stodgy blend of wheat, meat, water and condiments. It tasted a little like warm fudge, but had a weird texture than I can only describe as hairy porridge!

The Bedouin people who settled here were nomadic desert herders and their traditional food reflects their lack of ingredients or refrigeration.

At least we had solved the mystery of why restaurants fail to offer time-honored cooking.

Skyscrapers and cranes - a common Dubai sight
Skyscrapers and cranes - a common Dubai sight
Local Pride

Content that we’d at least tracked some down, we settled into Kashif’s car and spent the afternoon as most Emiratis do – stuck in traffic.

The locals are rightly proud of their modern city, and any Dubai dweller will probably take tourists to the same spots.

In a few hours of bumper to bumper traffic we managed to take in a couple of the ultra modern malls, get close to the Burj Dubai, drive the ‘trunk’ of the Palm Jumeirah, a soon-to-be-opened man-made island group, and of course to admire the iconic Burj al Arab up close (AKA the ‘sail hotel’).

Cranes atop every other building served as an omnipresent reminder that everything in Dubai is ‘coming soon.’ The much-needed subway system is due to open in 2010, the Burj Dubai late this year while construction on the numerous island groups will perhaps last another decade.

Kashif returned us to our hotel, marking the end of our short stopover in Dubai, and we were soon back in traffic en route to the airport. Dubai flights

Our Afghani driver proudly pointed out the now-familiar landmarks and like each of the likeable locals we’d encountered could easily reel off the completion dates of every construction project in the city.

It's Everywhere

I suddenly realized that while there might not be much of the original settlement left, the ‘real’ Dubai is everywhere.

The mishmash of Asian nationals might not hold UAE passports, but certainly consider themselves locals and if you’re searching for typical architecture, you have to look no further than the Jetsons-esque skyline that singles Dubai out from other world cities.

As for shopping, while outdoor markets appeal to tourists, locals prefer to escape the year round sun and shop in air-conditioned comfort. For them the souq is dead: long live the mall!

Lucy Corne

After graduating with a degree in journalism in 2000, Lucy Corne has been nursing a stubborn case of itchy feet. Using freelance writing and EFL teaching as a means to get around, she has suffered with diarrhea and fallen off horses in countless countries. She has written three guidebooks on Spain and South Africa and currently lives in rural South Korea, where she teaches English to teenage boys and lives a life of semi-celebrity as one of four non-Koreans in town. Visit her website.

Visit our Lucy Corne Page with links to all her stories.

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Location: Asia, Middle East, United Arab Emirates
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