The contrasts between old and new in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) are not only dramatic—they’re often deliberate. The leaders of this oil-rich nation, made up of seven emirates along the Persian Gulf, have launched a major campaign to attract tourists with new hotels and new diversions. But they have also maintained policies to conserve the country’s traditional culture. As a result, you can easily maneuver between past and present in the U.A.E.: You can venture into the desert on a camel trek and then indulge in a new sport—sand skiing. Or you can bargain for carpets in a souk and then enjoy a round of golf on greens surrounded by sand.
The U.A.E. is a fascinating mix of bedouin life and international commerce. For those looking for a complete escape into desert exoticism, the country’s major cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai may be disappointing. At first glance, both cities look more like Houston than Tangier. But traces of the old bedouin and trading cultures remain in the U.A.E., although you may have to search for them.
In Dubai, historic old houses cooled by wind towers are surrounded by squeaky-clean office buildings overlooking Khor Dubai, the broad creek that bisects the city and fades out in the desert to the east. Lining the docks of the creek are dhows (traditional sailboats), whose distinctive curved prows haven’t changed in centuries, although they’re now more often driven by motors rather than by sails.
We have found the U.A.E. to be one of the most comfortable and pleasant places to travel in the Arab world. For women, who may have a difficult time on their own in other Arab countries, it’s a particularly easy place to travel. It’s a favorite resort for vacationers from more restrictive countries in the Middle East. However, take note that homosexual practices are prohibited in the U.A.E., and even public displays of affection between men and women are frowned upon and fined in some jurisdictions.
The U.A.E.’s beaches, oases, dunes and a smattering of interesting rock formations aren’t as dramatic as the scenery elsewhere in the region, but the friendliness of the people is a big plus. There’s always a lot going on, particularly in the way of sports or shopping.
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