Abu Dhabi, UAE
oman & united arab emirates
a double middle east adventure full of contrasts
Where: Muscat and Abu Dhabi. Oman and United Arab Emirates, Middle East
When: May 2015
What: Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Royal Opera House, Incense Burner, Matrah Souq, Dolphin Watching, Snorkelling, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Etihad Towers, Largest carpet in the World, Giant Arabic Coffee Pot.
How: Oman Air flights, International flights via Doha on Qatar Airways
Counter: 2 countries
Illnesses or mishaps: Facial heat rash which required a trip to the chemist and the purchase of (rather useless) creme.
Many choose to travel to places where very little is different - just because it's easy and reassuringly familiar. A visit to the Arabian peninsula is about experiencing difference not sameness. It's the perfect place for a bit of an adventure, one characterised by tantalising technicolour souqs, the visceral call to prayer and the drifting scent of frankincense. If the standard tourist must-sees don't wow you, the faith and culture of the people will; the burkhas and hijabs of the women and the colourful headwear of the men. I've ventured to this part of the world several times now and have found it to be a dignified and enchanting place: Jordan, Qatar, Israel, Palestine and Kuwait. With quite a few countries in this notoriously unsettled region off-limits, this trip was about exploring two of the few remaining stable countries on the peninsula I have left to see: Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
Both Oman and the UAE have visa-on-arrival arrangements for citizens of many countries, including the UK; no messing around with postal visas to embassies in London. Both countries lie at what I describe as the 'toes' of the boot-shaped Arabian Peninsula - and the furthest south I have travelled in this region. This probably accounts for the oppressive weather, which reached 47 degrees (or 117F) during our stay. May is strictly off-season in this part of the world with temperatures clearly high enough to scare off many a wanderer. As it was, this mini Arabian adventure would be one characterised by stark contrasts: the traditional and modest Muscat and the glitzy tower-crazy Abu Dhabi. Despite being only a forty minute flight apart (you are in the air ten minutes before the plane begins its descent again), both of these capital cities could not have felt more different. In experiencing both I added an additional two countries to my travel count.
Oman counts the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Yemen as its neighbours and lies at the very south eastern tip of the Arabian boot. A hop across the Straits of Hormuz brings you tantalisingly close to Iran, too. Oman is an expensive country to visit - expect to pay at least a third more for things here compared to back in the UK. The country has been ruled since 1970 by the self-appointed Sultan Qaboos. Among the first things that will hit you when you arrive in Oman, apart from the heat, are the portraits of the Sultan adorning buildings, hoardings and in the foyers of shops and businesses. The Omani Sultan is the longest-serving ruler of any country in the Middle East. Oman is also one of the peninsula's most peaceful countries and turned out to be even more wonderful than I could have ever have imagined. I was quite sad when it came to leaving this, my sixty third country.
the omani capital
Muscat, the Omani capital, is a port city. Seen from above in the aeroplane its formulaic white buildings look like little sugar cubes dropped into the valleys below, squeezed between the city's many rugged and dramatic mountains. Many buildings seem to take their inspiration from the city's hilltop forts, with castellations embellishing rooflines and balconies. Muscat's location is awesome - sheer mountains soar all around you whilst the waters of the Gulf of Oman offers some much-needed blue to the land's sea of beige. Compared to other Gulf states, Oman's capital is subtle and modest. It came as a relief to me that Muscat avoids the worst excesses of its Gulf neighbours with their petrodollar-fuelled glass skyscrapers and gaudy, bling architecture. It's a city on a very human, and low-level, scale: understated, uniform and pretty. This feels like a local city for local people. We opted to stay in the Matrah district of the capital, close to the Matrah souq, corniche, and fish market. We also opted to stay in a local family-run hotel, too, in search of added Arabian authenticity. The view from our hotel window was just beautiful: little white homes with little white satellite dishes - all set against a backdrop of jagged brown. Occasionally the call to prayer would sound, reverberating around the hillsides. The odd sparrow or myna bird would sit on the window ledge enjoying the view with us.
As well as modest, Muscat's capital is also noticeably quiet. Gone is the noise of other capitals: there's no impatient car honking here. Even in Muscat's busiest of areas people are quiet and respectful: there's no shouting here, either. It is quite possible that Muscat is the quietest capital on earth. Things audibly increase by a gear or two when you enter the wonderful Matrah Souq - shouts of "cashmere", "hi friend" and "Frankincense good" abound and all the while pungent fumes of spicy frankincense and a technicolour array of goods vie for your attention. It's an exhilarating place to spend an hour or two. I loved Matrah Souq - a real highlight of Muscat. I was particularly happy with my purchase of a Kuma, a traditional hat worn by Omani men, for one Riyal. It seemed to suit me. However, the Grand Mosque is the indisputable highlight of a visit to the city, its giant arches, mosaics and Persian patterns are a modern take on traditional Islamic architecture - and a gift from the Sultan of Oman to his people. It must have one of the most spectacular chandeliers I have ever seen. Unfortunately, woeful planning on my part meant that I set off for the mosque in a pair of shorts. Fortuitously, our taxi driver misheard our request for 'Grand Mosque' and instead took us to the 'Grand Mall' from where I was able to purchase a pair of linen trousers - but not before we had to wait for over an hour for the stores to open, whiling away our time at a branch of Costa Coffee (a great British company which seems to have gained a foothold in the Middle East). Our belated trip to the Grand Mosque ended in a rather special way when we were invited into the mosque's Islamic information centre where a woman in a hijab served us dried and fresh dates, cold water and Omani spiced coffee - served from a large, golden Arabian coffeepot. It was simple, unconditional hospitality offered by strangers to two very hot and tired travellers from England. After about half an hour we were suitably cooled and on our way to the architecturally cubist-like Grand Opera - a modern and satisfying take on Islamic design. It was around 47 degrees at this point so we did what everyone else does here - dive into the nearest modern mall to cool down again.
Whilst the malls in Gulf states are depressingly soulless, capitalist, affairs selling the world's top luxury brands they do offer an escape from the intense heat for free. As well as malls, we spent much of our money on expensive taxis which ferried us around Muscat's sights. To try and walk anywhere in such high temperatures was asking for trouble. Even with these precautions we ended up drenched in sweat from head to toe several times and even abandoned a leisurely evening meander through the Matrah Souq half-way because I was pouring with sweat and clearly overheating. Making it to the hotel I was soon in bed with a cold, wet flannel on my forehead trying to stave off the worst of a heat rash which had developed across my face. Despite what you may hear about the Middle East, the biggest danger travelling in this part of the world is probably heat stroke and nothing else.
The Gulf of Oman isn't just home to a playfully large incense burner which sits on top of a large hillside overlooking the Gulf, but also pods of dolphins. For a bargain price we went on a dolphin watching cruise with Sidab Tours along with a bunch of other tourists. It was intensely hot and I was a bit concerned about being out on the ocean in the morning sun waiting for hours just for a glimpse of the odd fin or tail - especially with the overheating episode still fresh in my mind. However, my fears were unfounded; within seconds of arriving in the dolphin-inhabited waters, pods of the majestic creatures put on a wonderful display for us, zooming alongside the boat and jumping out of the water. I wasn't sure the day could get any better. It did. Having captured a few great photographs of the dolphins above the water, a couple of hours snorkelling gave me a chance to see what was below the surface. It was the first time I'd been snorkelling and loved swimming through schools of fish, seeing the coral reef and the vicious spikes of sea urchins. Okay, so it wasn't the Great Barrier Reef exactly, but it was still great. This underscores a key point about travel in this region: there are infinite possibilities for doing something rather special outside of the city. Dolphin watching and snorkelling in the Arabian Gulf accounts for the best forty quid I've ever spent!
The wonderful view from the roof of the Mutrah Hotel in the Matrah district of Muscat.
The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque a gift from the ruling Sultan to the Omani people.
A minaret of the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque seen through foregrounded summer flowers.
Mosque arches and sunlight abstract.
The wonderfully cuboid-like Grand Opera building.
Two men wearing thawbs make their way along the Cornice with traditional Dhow boats and the incense burner in the background.
Snorkelling in the Arabian gulf: coral reef, brightly coloured fish and sea urchins!
Majestic dolphins put on a display in the Gulf of Oman.
united arab emirates
The United Arab Emirates, to give it its full, cumbersome name, is just under an hour's flight from Muscat on the Omani national airline Oman Air. Our time in the UAE was short - a mere 48 hours. The limited time we spent here was squeezed even further with an annoying schedule change which shaved another four hours off of our already tight schedule. Thanks Oman Air! The UAE comes with a bit of a warning - stories back home of British tourists ending up in jail for ignoring, or not knowing about, certain 'do nots' are enough to put some off from visiting altogether. Indeed, shortly before we departed, two plane spotters from Manchester had just been released from their month-long stint in prison for innocently photographing aeroplanes. What's more, only by chance did I happen upon a whole list of banned medicines which travellers are not allowed to bring in to the country. Ignorance of the laws will buy you no mercy here - it's jail if you are found taking in any Diazepam, for example, the common tablet taken by many travellers scared of flying - me included. I left mine at home and just let my flight nerves do their thing. The UAE is one of those countries where a little research is required or you could end up in a very tricky situation. Oh, and don't swear either as this can also end you up in trouble with the authorities. I left my tongue at home along with the tablets. Welcome to the United Arab Emirates - my 64th country.
the glitzy emirati capital
Many people experience the UAE with a trip to Dubai - Abu Dhabi's flash and brash northern neighbour. However, Abu Dhabi is the capital of the Emirates and therefore worthy of a visit in itself. According to other travel writers Abu Dhabi has been quietly playing catch up with its younger sibling, giving it a fair run for its money in tourist terms. Not particularly interested in an Arabian version of Las Vegas, and aware that Dubai would require more than 48 hours, we opted for Abu Dhabi instead. Like many Gulf state capitals there is a race on in the UAE to build itself a capital city worthy of international status - many are locked into a battle to build the best, most impressive, Manhattan-like skyline on the peninsula. Abu Dhabi is no exception; its skyscraper ambitions a complete contrast with the modest, low-rise Muscat. In Abu Dhabi glass towers are ubiquitous even though each one has its own design to try and distinguish itself from the ones built before it. Despite each tower's quirks, they all began to look alike. It's very easy to get tower fatigue in Abu Dhabi. Some were truly ugly, too. After getting over being initially impressed, Abu Dhabi had me longing for a bit of history, a bit of culture. The city felt a little like eating sweets: an initial taste sensation but just empty, meaningless calories which have no goodness contained. Style over substance. Even though Abu Dhabi was ten degrees cooler than Muscat at a bone-chilling 37 degrees, I also can't help but think that all this glass just served to multiply the heat of the sun, reflecting it back out times ten - like being trapped in an fiery hall of mirrors.
Wandering in Downtown Abu Dhabi leaves you wondering which city you're actually in. The problem with Gulf states' policy of emulating Manhattan and other Western cities is that you end up looking too much like them. The only clues that I was in a capital city in Arabia were the Arabic script on shops (alongside English) and the odd, petite mosque tucked in-between buildings. Unexpectedly, the everyday mosque downtown is frequently small, local, understated - and often appears to be squeezed between modern buildings - relegated, even. It reminded me of the sight in Bucharest where I happened upon several churches which had been sidelined and built around (even moved on wheels) to make way for Ceaucescu's communist tower blocks. I found this to be a little at odds with the devout Islamic nature of the UAE - holy worship of Islam replaced with the worship of the Dollar (or Dirham to be precise). Some of the newer mosques in downtown Abu Dhabi have progressive, modern designs from Cubist concrete to industrial metal.
Not every mosque in Abu Dhabi is understated, however. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is one of the world's largest with eighty two domes and golden chandeliers. A visit inside also means you get to walk on the world's largest hand-woven carpet. It is a breathtaking sight which ranks highly on my list of travel wow moments. Its white minarets and bulbous, egg-shaped domes are almost otherworldly in appearance. To enter a mosque removal of shoes and socks is required. Don't, however, remove them and then walk on the marble floor which has been in the sunshine all morning and burn the soles of your feet like I did.
A visit to the observation deck of the Emirates Tower affords you a view across Abu Dhabi - where the city's ambitions to build extra space by creating exclusive islands from sand, made most famous by Dubai, are laid bare. There is no limit to ambition in this region. Everything is possible if you have money. Some of the sights you see border on the obscene like the Emirates Palace Hotel - reputedly the most expensively built hotel in the world. I popped in to use their toilets. I wasn't impressed by what I saw, more disgusted by the extravagance of it all. I would choose small, family-run hotels over these gross, wasteful monstrosities any day. Even Abu Dhabi's souq, a place meant to be where you really brush shoulders with real people and real culture, was designed by the architect Sir Norman Foster. It didn't feel the same - it wasn't like any souq I've ever been in - and it appears others agree as it was virtually empty. Souqs are never empty. Souqs are not designed by architects, either. Souqs are crazy places which grow organically from the street because people want them to. My general point is that in the race to develop, expand and compete Abu Dhabi, like too many places on the peninsula, seems to be losing something of the past. A Grand Mosque on the outskirts of the city does not a whole culture make.
Along Abu Dhabi's corniche with its ever-growing skyline behind.
The mighty Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque: one of the world's largest with eighty two domes.
travel tips, links & resources
- If you're heading to mosques and the heat is too much, pack a pair of shorts in your day bag to put on afterwards. I'd wished I did.
- It pays to have a quick read-up on the Dos and Dont's in this region. If you're going to the UAE, check the list of banned medicines before you pack your case - some common medicines used by travellers to conquer fear of flying are included on the banned list.
- As some have found to their cost, pointing your camera at the wrong things can end you up in a lot of trouble. Any photography of women, children or security-related things is asking for trouble. Ask people first.
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