- The Washington Times - Friday, March 25, 2005

DUBAI — The earrings were perfect. Simple. Elegant. Beautiful. Also 24 carat and about half the price of what they would cost in the United States. All we needed was final approval from the recipient.

Larry, an old college buddy, and I were in Dubai covering the biennial Dubai Air Show. I was covering it as an aviation journalist, and Larry was my photographer. Our purpose was to get some good copy and photos from the show; a secondary objective was for Larry to buy his wife gold earrings.

One of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, Dubai isn’t exactly a household name in the States, but it is becoming very well known throughout the rest of the world as a major tourist attraction. One reason is the famed gold souk, or marketplace.

On any given day, more than 25 tons of gold jewelry are on display throughout the city in about 600 shops that sell nothing but gold. About half of the shops are centralized in the New Gold Souk, a somewhat misleading term because it is about 100 years old.

After a discussion between Larry’s wife, who had never been to Dubai, and mine, who had, Larry was given the task of finding a pair of really great gold earrings. The plan was that Larry and I would go to the gold souk, take photographs of any earrings that looked promising, get the price, then e-mail the photographs back home for spousal approval. It was a good plan, even if it didn’t exactly work out that way.

The gold shops range from large, elegant establishments like one would find in any upscale American shopping mall to small stores consisting of two rows of display cases with a single aisle. They all have one thing in common: an awesome array of gold chains, bracelets, rings, earrings and coins.

The souk itself is little more than a broad alley opening off of Baniyas Road, a major thoroughfare forming a beltway around the main Dubai city center. A canopy extends across it, protecting shoppers from the fierce desert sun of the day or the all-too-short rainy season.

The gold souk runs two blocks, then dead-ends into a T junction. Turning right leads to about two more blocks of gold shops intermingled with a few souvenir shops before the market empties out into a maze of back-alley dirt roads and dusty shops. Turning left leads to a warren of streets with specialized souks selling anything from linens, clothing and luggage to children’s toys, watches and electronic goods.

This secondary area holds one of my favorite places — the spice souk, a series of literally hole-in-the-wall shops down a narrow, dusty alleyway that I love to wander along just for the exotic aromas and the mystique of those large open burlap bags full of strange and tempting spices.

I am familiar with most of the spices, but about others, I have no idea. I always buy saffron, although I don’t often cook with it. It’s one of the world’s most expensive spices in some countries, but in Dubai, it is cheap, and I have friends back home who love to make paella and saffron rice.

For the truly unusual Christmas present, there are always frankincense and myrrh to add to the gold.

But back to the earrings. The mandate was simple: beautiful, elegant, at least 21 carat, preferably 24. That latter part would be easy because 95 percent of the gold sold in Dubai is 21 to 24 carats. The remaining 5 percent is 18 carat. Anything below 18 carat is considered junk jewelry. Don’t ask; they don’t have it. Don’t ask for gold-plated, either. It’s solid.

Except for the very ornate gold pieces or those with precious stones, everything is sold by weight, based on the cost per gram of gold for that day. Though the initial asking price will be based on a careful weighing of the item and equally careful calculation, making it look very official, that is not the final price.

In the souk, or any of the little shops around Dubai, the first thing to ask for is “the best price.” That will be significantly lower than the original price. You then say that although that is very good, you really need it to be a bit lower. At that point, you will get the “absolutely best price.” That’s when the bargaining begins.

The final price depends on how much time you want to invest. In the more modern shops, such as in any of the many Western-style shopping malls scattered throughout the city, there is no bargaining. However, simply because I ask if the item I’m buying might be discounted, the price often will drop 10 percent.

While the prices in the gold souk vary depending on one’s skill at haggling, the shop owners operate under very strict government rules and are inspected regularly to ensure the quality of the gold. So even the initial price given, should anyone be foolish enough to pay it, would be an honest price and still better than the cost for the same item in the States.

In keeping with our plan, we would ask for the “absolute best price,” then write that down to send back with the photographs. However, when we found the perfect set, Larry knew it was exactly what he wanted — as did the shop owner. After Larry took the photograph and explained that he was going to send it to his wife, the “absolute best price” dropped just a bit more. When he explained that he could have an answer back the next day, the price dropped again — and it kept dropping. When it reached almost $200 below the initial asking price, Larry caved.

Very few people go to Dubai just to shop for gold. Americans tend to go there on vacation, although Dubai is a major tourist destination from Europe, Asia and Africa. We go there on business. Dubai is the commercial hub of the Middle East, taking its place alongside New York, London, Hong Kong and Singapore as an epicenter of commerce. If a global company wants to do business in the Gulf States, Dubai is the place for the company to establish Middle Eastern corporate headquarters.

Dubai also has become the Middle Eastern hub for conferences and exhibitions, with associations ranging from distributors of kitchen appliances to financial planners and international bankers putting it at the head of the list for annual meetings. Dubai’s new International Conference Center has almost 600,000 square feet of exhibition space.

Business travelers are finding, however, that Dubai is also an excellent place to take their spouses for great vacations. It is safe and exotic and offers many recreational activities. With the entire emirates being a tax-free state, it’s a shopper’s paradise.

Like most other Arabic nations, Dubai is a monarchy, controlled by the Al Maktoum family. However, its government is secular, with the philosophy that if you respect its laws, traditions and religion, it will respect yours. That respect also extends to women. My wife, Susan, has traveled to Dubai with me twice and loves it. She says it is one place where she can walk around the streets at night feeling perfectly safe.

This respect for other cultures extends to an understanding that not everyone practices the Muslim religious prohibitions — such as refraining from alcohol consumption. Virtually every Western-style hotel has at least one bar, and the local Irish Village is a place to meet friends, experience a true Irish pub and drink prodigious amounts of beer.

The key to Dubai is to forget preconceived notions about the Middle East. Within two days of arriving, you will have realized every one of them was wrong. Dubai is a place to accomplish a lot of business and have fun as an added bonus.

To attract more business and tourist travelers, Dubai is expanding its recreational activities. The business traveler looking for a bit of fun for himself or a chance to host important clients has a range of options, from the commonplace round of golf or water sports in the Persian Gulf to exotic desert adventures.

An advantage of attending conferences and trade shows is that at least one or more companies will host a golf tournament — and Dubai is a perfect place for them. It has three championship golf courses as well as other less noteworthy but still excellent courses.

I have played at the Emirates Golf Club and the Dubai Golf and Yacht Club, both of which have hosted the annual Dubai Desert Classic, where world-class professionals such as Tiger Woods vie for part of about $5 million in prizes.

The Dubai courses are similar to those in our Southwest, only without the rattlesnakes. The roughs are sand, rock, cactus and desert bushes; the fairways are beautifully groomed swaths of grass. Water hazards and large sand traps abound.

For a purist who feels he must play in sand, there is the Dubai Country Club, where you carry a small piece of artificial turf to place under your ball before hitting it. There also is a night course for golf fanatics.

For a more exotic adventure and a chance to impress clients, there are trips into the desert. These range from dune surfing — screaming up the face of a giant sand dune in a four-wheel-drive sport utility vehicle, then sliding down the other side — to wadi bashing, or driving through the dry river beds of Fujairah, another of the emirates.

Larry and I signed up with Arabian Adventures, a tour company that puts together everything from desert adventures to dinner aboard an Arabian dhow. We were picked up about 2 p.m. at the hotel by Mohamad Castle, our driver for the day’s outing. Four others joined us, so there were six of us in the Toyota Land Cruiser, plus Mr. Castle.

We drove about 30 minutes from Dubai on one of the main highways, then turned into a patch of desert obviously used as the gathering place because about 10 other SUVs were there. Our guide explained that three companies in Dubai run desert adventure tours, with Arabian Adventures being one of the largest.

While we waited for any additional cars to arrive, the drivers were busy letting air out of the tires to provide better traction in the sand.

We took off in a convoy across the desert. The first part of the trip, dune surfing, lasted until just before sunset, when we were driven to a camel farm to get up close and personal to a camel. Larry and I wandered away from the main group to where a camel herdsman was feeding his herd, or whatever a group of camels is called. He offered us a bottle of camel’s milk, which we drank. Wasn’t bad. Very rich-tasting and somewhat sweet.

The camel farm was followed by a short drive to a desert encampment where those who had always wanted to ride a camel could do so.

Riding a camel is easy. It’s staying on while the camel lumbers up from its knees, then drops back down again that is hard. A camel starts off on all four knees while you climb on, then gets up by suddenly rising up on its front feet, throwing you backward. That’s immediately followed by the back feet coming up, throwing you forward. The procedure is reversed going down. Not to worry; the saddles have handles.

In the encampment, a bar was set up with soft drinks, beer and whiskey; in one area, we could sit and smoke hookahs with fruit-flavored tobaccos. I have learned from several cocktail parties where expatriates in Dubai have been the hosts that smoking hookahs is considered a social activity, practiced even by Westerners there. It’s a bit like the old custom of the men retiring to the library for cigars and brandy — except that the ladies also are invited.

That social part of the evening was followed by an Arabian barbecue of chicken, lamb and beef — but no goat — and some interesting vegetables that might have been peas or beans.

The feast was topped off with a belly dancer who also dragged reluctant participants from the audience into the dance area to let them look quite foolish. It’s a touristy thing, designed specifically for the tourist trade — and we loved it.

For the traveler looking more for spectator sports, along with the major golf tournaments, horse races and camel racing, Dubai also stages international sports competitions such as powerboat racing, the Samsung marathon, and rugby and soccer matches with teams from all over the world. It’s almost guaranteed that whenever a business group is planning a conference, some interesting sporting event will be going on — even if it’s just dhow racing in the Gulf.

We arrived in time for the last day of the three-day Rugby Sevens championship tournaments, in which international teams compete in games with seven-minute halves. We were spending our first days in Dubai with an American expat couple who live there, so they and their twin 14-year-old daughters took us to the tournament.

Basically, it was a day of wandering through the stands meeting interesting people, watching a series of short rugby matches and eating Arabic versions of hot dogs and hamburgers while drinking Heineken beer (one of the sponsors). While the beer flowed freely inside the stadium, police were positioned at all the exits to ensure that it did not leave the arena.

The drinking of alcoholic beverages is strictly an indoor sport in Dubai.

The Middle East is not exactly a first-choice selection for vacation spot of the year. First, it’s relatively expensive to get there and a long airplane flight away. Second, there is the war in Iraq. However, Dubai is the safe zone, where the war does not exist and crime is virtually nonexistent. The thing to remember is that in Dubai, it is all a matter of doing business — and having fun.

Easy flight, but long, to Dubai

To attract the business traveler and general tourist, the Dubai government has made it easy to get there and easy to get in.

Dubai has one of the few totally open-skies airports in the world, meaning any airline that wishes to fly into Dubai can. As a result, it has the busiest airport in the Middle East and is the hub of Middle Eastern aviation, served by more than 100 scheduled airlines.

This makes it very easy to get to Dubai — if you don’t mind fairly long flights. Emirates Airlines, Dubai’s flag carrier, started nonstop service between Dubai and New York on June 1. The nonstop New York-Dubai flights take about 13 hours eastbound and an hour more flying back against the air currents.

The government has lifted all visa requirements for U.S. citizens as well as those from most Western European countries. While going through immigration and naturalization checkpoints in other Arabic countries requires filling out lengthy forms, including listing your religion, getting into Dubai simply requires showing a valid passport.

The hard questioning by the immigrations official consists of: “Are you here for business or pleasure?” “Both, actually.” “Thank you very much. Enjoy your stay.”

With the number of airlines serving Dubai, there is a good chance your favorite carrier either serves it directly or on code-share flights with one that does. Most foreign carriers have flights from the United States through their major hub, such as British Airways through London and Air France through Paris. Emirates also serves most European capitals, so it is possible, and sometimes cheaper, to fly to a major European hub, then continue with Emirates.

With the introduction of service between Dubai and the United States by Emirates, there is the option of flying nonstop on that carrier. The flaw is that for its initial service into the United States, Dubai will fly out of New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport — an extra cost and inconvenience.

Larry and I flew British Airways to London’s Heathrow Airport, arriving early in the morning. We quickly checked our carry-on bags at left-luggage in the airport, hopped on the Heathway Express into Paddington Station (15 minutes), spent the day in the city, then hopped on the train back to Heathrow in time to catch the evening Emirates flight to Dubai, arriving around 7 a.m. the next day. Flying either British Airways or Virgin Atlantic to London, then connecting with Emirates is a sure bet for service because all three of those airlines have won Passenger Service Airline of the Year Awards from Air Transport World, a pre-eminent international airline publication.

Prices vary widely, depending on the airline, specific flights and departure times, and the season, but a basic coach seat starts at about $1,300 during low season and moves steadily upward.

Dubai is a sportsman’s paradise, ranging from deep-sea fishing in the Persian Gulf to golf to horse and camel racing. Most activities can be arranged through the hotel, although for prior planning, it’s best to contact a company such as Arabian Adventures (www.arabian-adventures.com; [email protected]; and by phone at 971-4-303-4888), which can arrange activities from dhow dinner cruises, wadi-bashing and dune-surfing to city tours and deep-sea fishing. For corporate planning, the company also arranges activities for MICE — meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions.

For shopping, there are numerous malls much like those in the United States, only more Middle East-oriented. These contain many U.S. and European brand-name stores. There also is the souk.

Just ask any taxi driver to take you to the gold souk, then wander through the maze of little shops, going through the gold souk, the spice souk, the clothing souk, electronics and watches.

At some point, you will realize you are totally lost. Doesn’t matter. Eventually you’ll pop out onto a main street with lots of taxies that can get you back to your hotel. For long-range planning, Dubai is planning the world’s largest shopping mall — but it still will be just a mall. Stick to the souks.

Renting a car in Dubai is possible but not advisable unless you have a sense of high adventure and excellent sense of direction. Taxies are plentiful and relatively inexpensive, and the drivers tend to speak better English than taxi drivers in some of our major cities.

All are metered, and there is no haggling over the fare — unless you want it. It is totally acceptable to haggle a bit if you know it normally takes 30 dirham to get somewhere and you want to try to get the ride for 20 dirham. Sometimes it works, but do it before you get in.

If you do rent a car, figure on getting lost on a regular basis, even with a good map. Fortunately, Dubai isn’t very big, so even if you get lost, it’s relatively easy to find your way back. Unfortunately, Dubai is one of those places where if you make the wrong turn or miss the turn, you often have to go several miles before you can turn around.

• • •

For general information on Dubai, go to www.dubaitourism.com. For information on buying gold in Dubai and interesting facts on gold, go to www.dubaicityofgold.com. Two other Web sites, www.godubai.com and www.dubai.com, provide news and events in Dubai. The godubai site also provides information on hotels and booking arrangements.

Douglas W. Nelms is managing editor of Rotor & Wing Magazine.

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