With rows of skyscrapers lining the Sheikh Zayed road, multiple mega malls and many multi-million pound offshore developments, Dubai may look like a temple to the petrodollar but, as anyone who spends more than a few days here will tell you, there’s far more to the city than that.
Dubai has an old quarter too, most of it clustered around Al Satwa, Deira and Port Rashid, which teems with life and is home to the city’s oldest building – a 17th century British fort. It is here that you’ll get a taste of ‘real Arabia’ in the shape of the abra boats that ply the creek and the bustling spice and gold souks that have changed little over the years. Al Satwa and nearby Al Karama are a real melting pot, home to scores of Indian and Pakistani immigrants as well as expats from Lebanon and Syria. As a result, eating well and cheaply is easy, whether you’re in the market for the full Lebanese kebab and mezze experience or a visit to Ravi’s, an unprepossessing Indian establishment decorated with formica tables, that has become a cult favourite with expats.
Immigrants dominate the city, with the majority of Westerners clustered in the upmarket Marina, the glamorous Palm or the almost entirely brand new Downtown Dubai. The latter is home to one of Dubai’s most striking landmarks, the gargantuan Burj Khalifa tower, as well as the similarly enormous Dubai Mall. Set back from the sea, the area is awash with slick new hotels. Back on Sheikh Zayed Road, not far from the airport, is the Wafi Mall, an Egyptian-themed temple to shopping that is arguably Dubai’s nicest thanks to the presence of an upmarket souk beneath. Further south are Mall of the Emirates and Ibn Battuta Mall, both vast and selling everything from designer clothes to pungent oudh (perfume).
But don’t get stuck in the shops. The city also boasts stunning beaches and (on the outskirts) spectacular desert scenery that would still be familiar to the Bedouins who once wandered this stretch of land.