Archive for the ‘Dubai 2022’ Category

Dubai – Practicalities

This post will be about some practical issues that we dealt with during our recent holiday in Dubai.

Timing: First, we went at the right time of year – winter. Summer in the UAE is brutal; temperatures well into the 40°s and high humidity. Even at the end of February we had a couple of days when it reached 30°, although on other days it was lower than that. However at that time of year the humidity is very low, around 40%, and that makes the heat much easier to take. Indeed I remember walking around the Expo in the high temperatures and thoroughly enjoying it. I was once there at the very end of September when the temperature was well into the 30°s and the humidity was high, and just waiting for the hotel shuttle bus outside the airport was a trial. So it’s important to choose the right time of year. In December and early January you can even get some rain….

Getting there: As on all my previous trips, we flew with Emirates from Manchester. Unfortunately this time the outbound flight was delayed by a couple of hours, but that’s unusual – I’ve never experienced that sort of delay with Emirates before, and I’ve now done 18 flights with them. Emirates provide a good full service on their flights, even in Economy – we had two meals on each flight, the first a substantial cooked meal and the second a snack, plus regular drinks service (water/tea/coffee/juices/alcohol), all included in the price. The seats are comfortable and the seat-back entertainment system is excellent. The prices are generally good. Certainly they are the best option for the Middle East and onwards into Asia from UK regional airports, e.g Manchester. I prefer flying on their A380 aircraft, but in Economy there’s no real difference between the A380 and the Boeing 777 (their other aircraft type). Thoroughly recommended.

Money: The local currency is the Dirham, abbreviated either as AED (the formal, ISO abbreviation) or Dhs (used locally on signs, posters, etc). I have a currency card from Caxton. We loaded this with GBP before we left home and then used it while we were in Dubai to withdraw cash from ATMs and also as a debit card in shops. Using this made the money side of things easy. While we were there, the formal exchange rate hovered around £1=4.95 AED, or just under 5 Dhs to the pound.

Communications: I bought a sim for my phone from the local cell-phone service provider, du. This actually lasted for 28 days, but of course I removed the sim when we got back home. I have an iPhone which includes e-sim functionality, and I have my UK service on the e-sim so the physical sim slot is available to be used for sims while on a trip. I bought the sim with 6Gb of data and that cost me 100 AED, or about £20 or just over. So a bit expensive for a week, but worth it, just for Google Maps. Certainly cheaper than the roaming charges would have been on my UK service.

Getting around: we started off using taxis, and these are cheap, certainly cheaper than taxis in Sheffield. That seems to be what most visitors do, and to be fair for a couple or a family, it often makes sense. But I always enjoy using the local public transport, so later in the week we started to use the metro. You have to have a smart card to do this, but they are available from machines at any Metro station. We bought a ‘Silver’ Nol (that’s N-O-L) smart card each, for 25 AED (about £5 or just over), and of that 19 AED is credit. It’s easy to top up the card, again at the Metro stations, and that can be done in multiples of 5 AED (about £1). Fare costs are very cheap – 3 AED for a journey within one zone and 5 AED for a journey across two adjacent zones. (Here’s a link to diagram showing the Zones.) We also found that the Nol card is accepted as a more general payment method – there was a 5 AED charge to go into Zabeel park, and we paid for that with the Nol card.

Using the Metro is easy – except at evening rush hour when it can get very, very crowded – but there are a couple of things to watch out for. First, you have to make sure you’re in the right carriage. There is a 1st class (‘Gold’ class) carriage for which you need a 1st class ticket, of course. There’s also a ‘Women & Children only’ carriage, and you need to be careful with that. It is in fact an offence for a man to enter that carriage, even if he then walks out of it down the train. Fortunately the position of the Gold and Women’s carriages are indicated on the platforms. Then there are the station names. These change from time to time! – because they’re sponsored, and the sponsorship can change. Fortunately each station is also numbered, and the numbers don’t change. The station names, the announcements, the ticket machines, in fact everything on the system, appears in both English and Arabic.


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Thoughts on Dubai

Downtown Dubai skyline from Port Rashid (2019)

I’ve visited Dubai four times. One was on my first visit to SE Asia; then as day visits during the cruise element of my third visit; a third very brief visit to break up the long flight home from Singapore in 2019; and now this one, the longest visit yet, and the first with Val. So I feel that I’m now able to make some comment on Dubai.

It is a very strange place. The first thing to recognise is that more than 80% of the population are expatriates, mainly from the Indian sub-continent. The only actual Emiratis you can be sure of meeting are the staff on the immigration desks at Dubai International airport. The next thing, which is actually pretty obvious when you walk around, is that it is an entirely artificial place – I have photos showing Dubai in the 1950s and it’s a very traditional, low-rise town sandwiched between the Arabian Gulf and the desert; it owed its existence to the creek which functioned as a simple regional port.

Everything changed In the late 50s and 60s. Oil was discovered, first in Abu Dhabi and subsequently (in smaller quantities) in Dubai. The UK announced that it would no longer be able to provide external security and to continuing managing the various emirates’ foreign affairs (which it had been doing since the late 19th century). The UK’s withdrawal from the region ultimately lead to the creation of the UAE (United Arab Emirates) nation in 1971, of which Dubai and Abu Dhabi are the dominant Emirates (out of seven in total). Sheikh Rashid, the ruler of Dubai from the late 1950s to 1990, decided that Dubai should build on its history as a regional trading location and develop business services, and that the oil revenues would be directed towards providing the necessary infrastructure to support that. The key moment came in 1979 when the Dubai World Trade Centre was inaugurated, by Sheikh Rashid and HM The Queen(!). It was located out in the desert some miles from the creek, the traditional centre of Dubai, and many people wondered how successful it would be; today it’s on the edge of the modern Downtown Dubai area, which has been developed further out still. It sent the message “Dubai is open for business” to the world, and the world duly came to Dubai to do business; and all the subsequent development flowed from that.

Media coverage of Dubai always talks about the glitz, the ostentatious wealth and the conspicuous consumption, and that certainly exists. But what I’ve seen from my visits is that the great majority of people there are not wealthy and not conspicuously consuming. They’re actually working very hard – they’re employed as hotel staff, shop assistants, taxi drivers, and so on. Many of them have been in Dubai for some years – we spoke to people in the hotel who had been living in Dubai for two, three and even seven years. What I’ve read suggests that Dubai attracts several different types of people. First, and most numerous, would be people from low-income countries who can earn more in Dubai than they possibly could in their country of birth, and who are probably sending money home. The second group consists of those who are enterprising in a business sense and who see Dubai as a place where they could fulfil those ambitions; Dubai is still very much “open for business”, and the barriers to doing business there are very low. (There may be some cross-over between these two groups: on my third visit I found that the hotel kitchen and waiting staff from the breakfast service were working on their own account to provide a buffet evening meal – the hotel didn’t provide one itself, but had done a deal with the kitchen and restaurant staff from the breakfast service.) And finally there are professional people working at senior levels in various enterprises, e.g. finance managers or pilots, just to mention two possibilities.

I’m not closing my eyes to the issues that can occur in Dubai. It is a Muslim society and that has consequences: the letter of the law regarding same-sex relationships is harsh, for example. I also recognise that there’s not a lot of protection for employees and their conditions of employment. I believe that labour or trade unions are not lawful, and there have been continual stories over the years about dreadful working conditions for construction workers and domestic staff (who are all expatriates, of course). But the Dubai government is making progress in improving the regulation of these industries (and enforcing the regulations!) and I believe that things are improving. And there are further considerations that I think are worth bearing in mind. If we only visited places that had governments and policies that we approved of, we might not do much travelling. I feel it’s better to engage with societies with different policies than boycott them. It’s also worth saying that in some areas, e.g. education and women’s rights, Dubai’s (indeed, the UAE’s) policies are progressive, much more so than in some other Muslim and Arab countries.

It’s a strange, fascinating place. I’ve enjoyed my visits, although I recognise that I am a rich westerner only seeing the place for short periods during the times of year when the climate is bearable (in fact, very pleasant…). I can see myself returning.

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We stayed at the Grand Hyatt hotel for our holiday. There are lots of hotels in Dubai, and choosing one is a bit of a task. Popular locations are in the Downtown Dubai area along Sheikh Zayed Road; by Dubai Marina; and near the Creek. The Grand Hyatt is close to the Creek (and also therefore close to the airport).

It also stands in its own grounds. There’s a garden with an outdoor pool, and this are unusual; the hotels in Downtown Dubai and by the Marina are generally enclosed within a big tower. They may have a pool, but it will most likely be inside, and they won’t have grounds. I think that that the Grand Hyatt is different because it’s a bit older than most other hotels – it dates from 2003 (and would have been designed before that) whereas the tower hotels, in any location, were built later. At the time of its opening the Grand Hyatt was in fact the largest hotel in Dubai – 682 rooms, a huge lobby with its own rainforest (see pictures below) and a big convention centre. It’s certainly built on a lavish scale.

I have a feeling, however, that the intervening 20 years (almost) have changed its position in the market. I think that when it was opened it was at the top of the market, but not so now. It’s far from being a budget hotel, but it seems that to some extent at least it has dropped into the package market. We saw very few guests who looked as if they were there on business but many leisure-seekers, including significant numbers of families with young children. There’s a cocktail bar, for example, which we patronised but there were never more than half-a-dozen other people in there, despite the hotel’s 682 rooms. (Of course, it’s possible that the bar only got busy after we were tucked up in bed.) Physically the hotel is still exceptional – indeed, the lobby and atrium areas had a feeling of spaciousness that’s very impressive – but I got the feeling that they have changed their operating policies to match their changing market.

We chose this hotel for a number of reasons. First, we wanted somewhere with grounds so that we could walk around outside and still be in the hotel. Secondly, it was close to a public park, the Creek Park, and to a Metro station. And finally we chose it because it was close to the airport. I’ve mentioned before that Dubai is very spread out, and given that we weren’t due to land until after midnight we didn’t want to be faced then with a half-hour taxi ride. Given that we were in fact two hours late landing, that was a good decision – the drive from the airport to the hotel was less than 10 minutes. But the other reasons turned out to be less important. We walked around the grounds just once, to look at them, but apart from that we didn’t use them. We didn’t get to the park because it was on the other side of a very busy road and it was a long detour to a pedestrian crossing. We did find the Metro, however, and used it several times in the second half of the holiday. In contrast to the difficult walking route to the park, we were able to stroll to the Metro station (‘Dubai Healthcare City’) in just under 10 minutes. However, we were almost always alone in doing so. Our experience on the Metro (which works very well, btw) suggested to us that very few tourists use it, it seems to be predominantly for locals. Visitors generally use taxis, it seems, as did we at the beginning of the week. So overall we might have done better to have stayed in one of the tower hotels in the Downtown area – not much further from the airport, close to the centre of things, and even handier for the Metro which runs along that road.

I ought to say that we weren’t disappointed in the hotel, but on reflection we could perhaps have done better. We’ll know for next time. Anyway, here are some images.

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On our last full day we went to Dubai Marina. This is a new district about 30 kilometres from our hotel and ‘old Dubai’, and maybe 25 kilometres from Downtown Dubai. It’s a fairly new development – the marina, which must be several kilometres long, was constructed parallel to the coastline, with channels cut through to the sea at each end – it’s set back maybe half a kilometre from the sea. An upmarket mall was built on the landward side, and then the site was thrown open to developers. It’s now a forest of huge towers, both residential and hotel. All along the marina are restaurants, cafes and other eateries – but of course no bars, there’s a prohibition throughout Dubai against places where alcohol is consumed opening directly from the street or public thoroughfare. (Hotel bars, of course, are buried within the hotels and are therefore acceptable.)

There are three ways of getting there. You can go by taxi, but that’s quite expensive, even in one of Dubai’s cheap taxis. Or you can use the metro, but thanks to the distance that takes a long time; or you can travel on the Dubai ferry, from Al Ghubaiba in Dubai Creek all the way into the heart of the marina, and this was what we chose to do.

I had read somewhere that the ferry ride would take ‘an hour or so’, but in the event it was almost two hours. Given that it didn’t leave the Creek until 1pm, it was almost 3 o’clock before we reached the Marina, by which time we were very hungry and we therefore decided that food was the first priority. Readers, I have to tell you that despite the attractions of food from all five continents, on this occasion we decided that we wanted fast food, and a McDonalds Quarter Pounder with Cheese hit the spot….

Suitably fed and watered we wandered around for a while. We had hoped to explore the Marina quite thoroughly, including finding our way to something called The Walk, an area between the Marina and the beach that’s apparently packed with restaurants and cafes, but given the time we decided to give it a miss. So we just walked along the Marina for a while before heading for the Metro to get back to the hotel. I knew from previous experience that the Metro Red Line gets incredibly, unbelievably busy by about 5pm, and I wanted to avoid that. I once did a Metro trip from Dubai Mall into central Dubai and I’m sure my feet weren’t touching the ground for most of the journey, nor was a hanging onto a support. Not a fun experience, and not one I wanted to repeat or to have Val experience. Even starting at 4:30 the train was full, standing room only, but two polite gentlemen of Indian appearance very kindly gave these two seniors their seats. Thank you, gentlemen.

We had in fact spent an hour or so in the morning wandering the Shindagha area of Dubai Creek so we’d been away from the hotel since shortly after 10 o’clock, so we didn’t feel that we’d wasted the day. And the Marina is extraordinarily impressive, with endless skyscrapers, on either side, throngs of people, very pleasant temperatures, and that impossibly clear blue sky. A good day, and actually not too strenuous.


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Visits to Expo2020

The central plaza at Expo2020

So we visited Expo 2020, on a couple of days. After all, this was the principal ostensible reason for going. Just getting away for a week, to somewhere warm, after two years of not being able to do so had nothing to do with it. At all.

The Expo is on a new site about 25 miles or so from our hotel (Dubai really is that spread out). It’s broadly organised in three themes – Sustainability; Mobility; and Opportunity – and each theme has a has large area of the Expo dedicated to it within which is a grand thematic pavilion. Then in each area are the country pavilions, and the exhibition or display in each country pavilion is supposed to reflect, to some degree, the theme of the area it was situated in. There were over 200 country pavilions, ranging from vast (Thailand, for example) to small (Nigeria was just one room on one level). Then there were food outlets, again ranging in size from small carts to full scale restaurants. Some of the latter were associated with a country pavilion – we had a very good lunch in the restaurant attached to the Thai pavilion, for example – but there were a number of non-country specific outlets, e.g. there Costa Coffee outlets all over the site. There were also several parks, and a number of performance stages dotted around.

On our first day there (Saturday) we got there on the free shuttle bus provided by the hotel; this departed at 09:10 and arrived by about 9:45. There was also a later departure, at 11:10, and two return journeys with pickups from Expo at 6:45 and 8:45 in the evening. Our shuttle bus (just 17 seats) was pretty full on the way there, but when we came back at 6:45 there were just four of us on the bus. This suggested that the later bus might have been over-full. Fortunately there were alternatives; the local public transport authority was running free buses from various points in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and even points further afield every 30 minutes or so, and once you’ve got by bus to a convenient point in central Dubai then you can always get a taxi or use the metro to get to your hotel. Indeed, this was what we had to do today (Monday): the early bus to the Expo was full and we couldn’t get on it, so we took a taxi to Dubai Mall (25Dhs or a bit more) and then the free bus from there. Easy enough, but it meant we didn’t get there until an hour later than planned. Then we reversed the operation mid-afternoon.

Readers, we did not do well on Saturday. We visited a couple of the thematic pavilions (Sustainability and Opportunity) but keep looking at the country pavilions. In fact, we now think that it was the more thematic elements that were the best thing about the Expo. Some of the country pavilions hewed closer to their theme than others, and these were better – Singapore, situated in the Sustainability area, majored on their ‘city in a garden’ policy, for example. Others seemed to pay little attention to the theme.

Queues (and sunshade umbrellas) outside the Swiss pavilion

We were also taken aback by the fact that there were queues to get into many of the pavilions, and at first this put us off visiting them. For example, there were long queues around both of the entrances to the UAE’s pavilion, the biggest at the Expo, and so we didn’t bother. Later in the day we became more relaxed about this, but in the course of that first day, a fair proportion  of our time was taken up by foraging for food and searching for sanitation….

We decided to return today (Monday) specifically to target three pavilions that we had not visited: the UAE, Mobility, and Thailand. We were immediately disappointed when we discovered that the UAE pavilion was closed for most of the day, But we regrouped and did Thailand (where, as I mentioned above, we had an excellent lunch) and the Mobility pavilion. This was actually the best thing we saw, and we decided to leave after that – finish on a high note.

On purely practical points, we managed to bag ourselves a free multi-day pass courtesy of Emirates Airline who were supplying them to passengers. In theory visitors had to buy tickets, but I get the impression that as the Expo has continued (it’s been open since 1 October 2021 and will finish at the end of March), free tickets have become more common. Additionally, they were checking Covid vaccination status. Well in fact we snuck in on Saturday without that being checked which was as well because we weren’t ready to display our statuses, but by today we’d got that sorted out (downloaded the Covid pass to Apple Wallet) and indeed they were checked.

I’m still trying to summarise my thoughts about the Expo. Parts of it were spectacular (it certainly looked a million dollars), but it was also hot and tiring. And you have to ask about an exposition dedicated in part to Sustainability that’s being staged in a small desert country where everything has to be air-conditioned, and to which many visitors fly. But I have to say that I’m glad we went.

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On our first morning we went to Dubai Mall. My planning had seen us using the Metro to get around to places like this, but it’s a walk of about a kilometre to the nearest metro station and it was already hot by the time we were ready to go (having breakfasted late), so we did what everyone else does in Dubai – got a taxi.

Dubai Mall is vast – when first opened it was reputedly the largest in the world – and your first struggle is to navigate your way around it. I’d been there on a previous visit so had some knowledge of it, but I quickly got confused. But after wandering aimlessly around for a while we found an ATM and got Dirhams, the local currency, and then found a branch of ‘du’, the local mobile provider, and bought a sim for 100 Dhs (about £20). This will give me some local calls free, some international calls for free (they say – not going to test it), and 6 Gb of data. It’s actually for 28 days of which we will only use 7, but there you go. These days I feel lost whenever I’m in a strange place and don’t have Google Maps available. (Actually, I often am lost whenever etc, etc.)

While we were having lunch we realised that we were right by the entrance to Dubai Aquarium which I had on my list of possible things to do. It has little or nothing to do with Dubai or the wider UAE – it’s An Attraction – but given that we were there we decided to do it. it cost us about £60 each, but we enjoyed the visit. I won’t go into all the details, but we were close-up with a lot of fish. As walk-in aquariums go, this must be one of the best, and we didn’t feel short-changed. We saw a lot of fish; we fed some of them; we did a glass-bottomed boat tour so we could see more fish (or possibly the same fish from a different angle); we saw divers feeding the sharks (yes there were sharks; they’re well-fed as this stops them eating the other fish); we saw penguins (OK, birds rather than fish, but actually quite fish-like in their own way); and we saw the crocodiles being fed (once again, not fish but water-dwelling and seriously impressive so I’ll allow it).

Back at the hotel we went down for a buffet dinner and drinks at about 7 o’clock, and later went for a cocktail. Exhaustion (not the alcohol) finally overcame us at around 10 o’clock and we retired to our room for an early-ish night. Not only did we need this because of our limited sleep the night before but we were planning on being on the hotel’s free shuttle bus to the Expo at 9:10 the following morning, so the alarm was set. So we would have to get up, shower & dress, breakfast, do all the after-breakfast stuff and be in the lobby in about two hours. Who says holidays are for relaxing?


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Back to Dubai

Evening view from our room

Ever since I’d heard about it, I’d wanted to visit Expo 2020 in Dubai. I wasn’t sure what the Expo would actually be, or be about, but it sounded interesting & fun; and of course it would be in Dubai, which I knew. (Well, I’d been there a few times.) So from late 2018 I started asking Trailfinders if they knew about it, and they said (a bit uncertainly at that time) that they were sure they did, but that they had no details yet. Then of course Covid arrived in early 2020, and international travel stopped; and that was that, I assumed. However, the Dubai government obtained agreement to postpone the event for 12 months, to run from Autumn 2021 to early spring 2022. So here we are, in February/March 2022, attending Expo 2020! – they retained the original name.

I say ‘we’, because one advantage of the enforced delay is that Val is no longer working – she retired in July 2021 – and has therefore been able to come with me without any problems. Cue a search for hotels of a quality to suit…

We booked through Trailfinders in Sheffield, for a seven night stay at the Grand Hyatt, not too far from the airport. I think it dates from the late 90s and must have been planned before then, so just before the explosion in construction. Certainly it stands in its own grounds, including gardens and a pool. In contrast the newer hotels along Sheikh Zayed road are each in their own spectacular tower, but the tower is all there is.

We flew with Emirates from Manchester. It’s about 7 hours or so in the air, which generally means 8 hours or so on the plane. Our flight was scheduled to leave Manchester at 13:10, arriving at Dubai International airport at around midnight local time (about 8pm UK time). In the event it was delayed for a couple of hours – the inbound flight was late arriving, and then because it was snowing(!) at Manchester airport the aircraft needed de-icing, and there’s a lot of A380 to de-ice. So in the event we didn’t land at Dubai until 2am local time.

Entry to Dubai went very quickly and smoothly, as did getting our bags. We had arranged a transfer to the hotel which got us there quickly and very comfortably. Even so it was 3:15am when we checked in and about 4 o’clock before we collapsed into bed. (Fortunately, Emirates’ schedules mean that travellers are arriving into Dubai throughout the night, so the reception desks at the hotels are staffed 24/7 – no night porters here.) We had thought that we would not sleep easily – that sudden switch between busy busy travelling and lying in bed can be disconcerting – but in fact we both slept well, if not perhaps overly long. We woke up at around half-past nine the following morning; fortunately, breakfast is served from 6am to 11am. Having breakfasted we took a taxi to Dubai Mall, to get some currency and a local sim for my phone. Details of this adventure, together with an impromptu visit to the aquarium at Dubai Mall, will be in the next post!

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