2 Days in Dubai


Start at the Sheikh Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU), where you can have a traditional breakfast and learn about the culture of Dubai and the UAE in general. Tradition remains a strong current throughout UAE society, while it adapts to tolerate, if not embrace, some of the modern social mores of the 80-90% ex-pat population.

The SMCCU is located in an old wind-tower house in the Al Fahidi district (also known as Bastakiya) of Bur Dubai on the western side of Khor Dubai (Dubai Creek). The district is named for Al Fahidi Fort, the oldest standing building in Dubai. The residential area that grew up around the fort was planned to make life in the extreme climate as comfortable as possible. Houses were built around narrow, winding lanes to maximize shade and draw cooling breezes through. Towers on the houses drew air down past water, which cooled the rooms as it evaporated on the wind.

Take an abras (water taxi) across the creek to Deira, where you’ll find the souks. If you’ve been to souks in Fez, Istanbul, Jerusalem and Cairo, Dubai’s souks probably won’t blow your socks off, but they do have local charm and are well worth some poking around. The Gold Souk is really something to behold and many visitors to Dubai come just for the gold.

Then travel in a matter of minutes from old Dubai to the number-one icon of new Dubai, Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. I like buildings and have raved about this one more than once in this blog: here and here. Take the At The Top tour for access to the observation deck on the 124th floor. Burj Khalifa is part of the Downtown Dubai development, which includes the Dubai Mall (for a completely different shopping experience from the souks) and the musical Dubai Fountain.

Burj Khalifa, Dubai, UAE, photo by Sallie Volotzky

Burj Khalifa, Dubai, UAE, photo by Sallie Volotzky


Start the day with breakfast at the Farriers Restaurant with views of horses during morning track work on the Meydan Racecourse. After breakfast, take a tour of the Meydan Stables.

Drive to the giant Jebel Ali port, about 20 miles south of Dubai city, for a seaplane tour. The aerial perspective really helps to take in the extraordinary evolution of Dubai. You’ll fly over the whole city, but birds-eye views of the man-made Palm Jumeirah and World Islands, the Burj Khalifa and the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab Hotel are especially astonishing.


Come down to earth with a tour through the art spaces on Alserkal Avenue in the industrial Al Quoz district. Since 2007, Alserkal Avenue has developed “organically,” as they like to say, into a hopping arts scene, with the city’s largest concentration of galleries and arts venues. It’s a good place to ground and balance out the hyper-commercialism that built Dubai and keeps it ticking.

Alserkal Avenue gallery, Dubai, UAE, photo from timeoutdubai.com

Alserkal Avenue gallery, Dubai, UAE, photo from timeoutdubai.com

Click to see Dubai tours on our website.

The Wonder Tree of Arabia


Deep in the desert of Arabia, a little girl named Zuleika lived with her mother and father, the tribal chief. They were way out there, so far off regular travel routes that they very rarely saw strangers. Zuleika loved her home, where she was perfectly safe and thoroughly treasured, but her active mind and open heart made her crave stories of people and places that were different from what she knew. Visitors brought their foreign ways, along with tales of pearly cities, lush gardens and endless oceans; and she always felt a little bit bigger after they left.

One day, while Zuleika was out playing in the sand, she caught the slightest glimpse of movement far in the distance, beyond a sea of golden peaks and valleys, just at the edge of her world. You can imagine Zuleika’s excitement as the speck on the horizon grew steadily larger. Someone was indeed coming their way. She fetched her father the chief and, together with other men of the tribe, they watched the nearing stranger ride the desert swells, disappearing, then reappearing in better focus, until he was right in front of them.


As if his arrival wasn’t thrilling enough for Zuleika, the stranger explained that he was merely an emissary come to announce the visit of the highly revered Sheikh Ben Nedi the following day. This was really a big deal and the whole tribe set to work preparing for the honored guest.

In the Arabic world, hospitality was, and is, a serious business. Guests are treated with the greatest respect. They are made comfortable, given the best food and drink available, entertained, and even given gifts. As her parents and other tribal members readied their gifts for the sheikh, Zuleika began to feel very inadequate. She was moved to near bursting with pride and gratitude that such a great person would travel all the way to her remote settlement, but she had no gift to express herself in the traditional way.

Zuleika’s mother told her not to worry, children were not expected to give gifts. But, expected or not, the sheik’s visit meant so much to her, she wanted desperately to give him something in return. She was so frustrated, she collapsed in tears at the foot of the village well. Her little body heaved in great sobs and heavy, splashy tears dampened a spot in the sand near the well. Just then, a fairy rose up out of the well and asked what all the fuss was about. Once Zuleika composed herself enough to explain, the fairy told her that a gift was already in the making and that she should come back to the well in the morning to find it there.

Bright and early the next morning, before the sheikh arrived, Zuleika ran out to the well to find a tall, elegant tree laden with big clusters of brown fruit hanging high above the ground under a sparkling green crown. It was the perfect expression of her pure and generous spirit and deep down she knew it was no ordinary gift. When Sheikh Ben Nedi arrived he was touched and honored to receive the extraordinary tree, especially from such a small girl. Like Zuleika, he sensed the special importance of this gift and suspected it would come to mean a great deal to his people.

From that day on, the date palm tree spread throughout the desert and is still today one of the greatest gifts known to Arabia. Food, shelter, medicine and fuel are just a few of the many uses of the date palm.


To see the wonder tree in its natural habitat, visit the Arabian Peninsula with Ya’lla Tours USA. Click here.


In 1761, a hunting party of Bedouins followed a gazelle out of the desert to a pool of fresh water near the coast, a miraculous find in that place. They built a well and a watch tower out of coral, sea stone and crushed sea shells to protect and control the water, at that time the greatest form of wealth they knew. The ruling sheikh moved into the fort and Qasr al-Hosn (which means “palace fort”) remained the residence of the local rulers for 200 years there after. Today, Qasr al-Hosn stands in the shadow of watch towers of another kind, built by liquid wealth of another kind.




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In the industrial Al Quoz quarter of our mystery country’s largest city, the thriving Alserkal Avenue arts district showcases, nurtures and supports contemporary regional, multi-discipline arts and artists. Twenty renovated warehouses and other buildings house galleries, artists’ studios, food, drink, artist residencies, workshops, theater, cinema, public spaces, and programs. A full and diverse calendar of talks and festivals bring together artists, city residents and visitors in appreciation of the vital place of the arts in society.


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The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque pictured above is named for the founder and first president of our mystery country. The country, composed of seven united principalities boarding the Arabian Gulf, is known for its oil wealth and shiny modern cities. Sheikh Zayed, who died in 2004, is locally revered and widely respected for wise stewardship of the considerable natural resources within his borders.

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Abu Dhabi: from Sandy Village to Manhattan-Skyline in 40 Years

Only forty years ago, the gleaming metropolis of Abu Dhabi that we know today was a hungry, mud-brick speck on the edge of the desert. Most people lived as their ancestors had done, scrapping a meager living from the sea and inland oases.

In 1761, a hunting party of Bedouins followed a gazelle out of the desert to a pool of fresh water near the coast, a miraculous find in that place. (Abu Dhabi means “a place with lots of gazelles.”) They built a well and a watch tower out of coral, sea stone and crushed sea shells to protect and control the water, at that time the greatest form of wealth they knew. The ruling sheikh moved into the fort and Qasr al-Hosn (which means “palace fort”)  remained the residence of the local rulers for 200 years there after. Today, Qasr al-Hosn still stands, the cornerstone of Abu Dhabi, now in the shadow of glass and steel skyscrapers, watch towers of another kind built by liquid wealth of another kind.

A settlement grew up around the fort and pearling, fishing and trading industries developed. Piracy also developed and the coast around Abu Dhabi became known as the Pirate Coast by the British, who were passing by regularly on their way to and from India. In the 19th century, the pirate problem led to a series of treaties or truces between the British and area sheikhs. Hence the next British name for the area – Trucial Coast. British influence lasted until 1971. Some contend that the British used piracy as a pretext to get a foothold in the Arabian Gulf ahead of other European powers.

The pearl harvest and trade made Abu Dhabi economically vital through the 19th century and into the 20th. The development of cultured pearls in the 1920s and the global depression of the 1930s all but ended the natural pearl industry, leaving Abu Dhabi pretty much destitute. They fished, grew dates and herded camels and got by, barely. Then came oil.

Oil was discovered in Abu Dhabi in 1958 and exports began in 1962. In 1966, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan sent his older brother Shakhbut into exile and took control. Shakhbut was stuck in the past and making no real effort to put his new wealth to good use. It was a bloodless coup. Sheikh Zayed began right away to invest the new oil wealth in Abu Dhabi and to share it with his neighbors. He built roads, an airport, schools, hospitals, all the infrastructure that a society needs to prosper and progress.

In December 1971, Abu Dhabi joined with five other emirates – Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Sharjah, Umm al-Quwain – to form the United Arab Emirates. The seventh emirate, Ras al-Khaimah, joined in February of 1972. Abu Dhabi became the capital of the UAE and Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan its first president.

Since independence, and oil, Abu Dhabi has become an economic powerhouse, with a per capita GDP in line with countries like Germany, France and the UK. Besides crude oil, natural gas contributes significantly to Abu Dhabi’s wealth and the emirate is actively working to diversify its economy, with steady growth in real estate, banking, tourism and manufacturing. The UAE as a whole is listed in the Very High category of the Human Development Index, which tracks life expectancy, literacy, education, standards of living and quality of life.

Click to see tours of Abu Dhabi on our web site.

Dubai Shopping Festival

You know Dubai does nothing halfway, and that certainly applies to the annual Dubai Shopping Festival, which rolls out its 22nd installment December 26, 2016-January 28, 2017. Last year, over 3.5 million people attended this shopping and entertainment extravaganza.

Year-round, Dubai is one of the world’s top destinations for shopping and for one month each year the Dubai Shopping Festival magnifies that appeal exponentially. Retail sectors around the city, including world-class malls and traditional souks, slash prices, offer special festival products, sponsor raffle drawings, activities, and live entertainment. Dubai-sized raffle prizes include luxury cars, gold, diamonds, homes, and cash.

The festival chooses a different theme each year, but topnotch entertainment and activities for the entire family always line-up to complement the shop-til-you-drop frenzy at the heart of the event.

Visit http://www.visitdubai.com/en/discover/festivals/dubai-shopping-festival#press-centre for shopping and entertainment details, not yet published. There’s also a Dubai Festivals App to help attendees plot a plan of action and make the most of festival experiences and deals.


The opera house and performing arts center pictured above opened on August 31, 2016, with a performance by Placido Domingo. The city in question is well known for brash, record-breaking innovation, not so much for arts appreciation. With this beautiful, state-of-the-art facility, the city reveals that it does indeed have a taste for high culture. The design was inspired by the traditional sailing vessel of the region, the dhow.
The opera house stands in the shadow of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.

photo credit: the Washington Post

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