Four new cities, three new countries and my second trip to the Gulf
Hello everyone and apologies that it’s been a little while since I’ve posted! I’d love to be able to commit to writing posts more regularly but when I’m away with work there don’t ever seem to be enough hours in the day. I arrived back in the UK just over a week ago early on Thursday morning at around 6am, which is always delightful at Heathrow airport (think major airport rush hour). I wanted to write a general post about my trip so you can find out what I got up to and some of my first impressions of the new cities and countries I visited on my trip, which was my second to the Middle East. I’ll follow up with some more city-specific posts over the next couple of weeks.
As the title suggests, my whole trip consisted of new destinations for me: I went to Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the UAE, Muscat in Oman and Manama in Bahrain, bringing my total country count to a healthy 35. I really enjoyed my trip and I did manage to make the most of my free time in all cities apart from Muscat. This was pretty good going considering I was only in each city for between one and three nights, although I am disappointed I didn’t get the chance to see any more of Oman than the hotel I was staying in (still a pretty nice hotel though!). I’m hoping to go back to some of these places again in the Summer and/or the Autumn, so I still have a second chance! June/July will probably be too hot to get outside so my summer trips to the region will be a quick in-and-out and I’ll save some more touristing until September/October.
Dubai is one of those super-hot-right-now destinations, particularly in the social media/Instagram sphere so I was really excited to visit in person. To be honest, I did have mixed feelings about Dubai before I went, having heard various reviews from lots of different people. I arrived late in the evening and had no problems with immigration; I think it took about 10 minutes for me to get through, which was a good start! I did have to wait ages for my bag to come off but once it did it was very straightforward to head to the exit, pick up a taxi and head off to my hotel.
I was straight into meetings the following day, but not before I was invited to a random Saudi guy’s ranch near Dammam to ride horses with his daughters… I don’t think so, thanks. What does a girl have to do to be able to eat her hotel breakfast alone in peace?! Anyway, after I escaped from my unwanted breakfast conversation, I hopped in a taxi to head to my meetings, which gave me my first chance to see Dubai in the daylight. It really is quite something to see, with countless skyscrapers in all their gleaming glory. My first impression was that it actually reminded me quite a lot of some of the big cities in the USA – I’m thinking Houston and Dallas specifically due to the road layout and the space. I didn’t see anything else really until that evening, once I’d managed to coordinate an Uber pickup from my last meeting, which was no mean feat and took several attempts because I couldn’t for the life of me understand how addresses/buildings/roads worked.
That evening I met up with my Mum’s cousin who works out in Dubai and we headed down to Souk Al-Bahar for dinner, which was lovely. Souk Al-Bahar is located right next to the Dubai Mall, at the foot of the Burj Khalifa. There are quite a few restaurants down there so it’s perfect for dinner and drinks followed by watching the free fountain light show by the Burj. It was also so lovely to finally get chance to dine al fresco after this long, dreary UK winter. We ate in The Meat Co. where we had beautiful steak washed down with a bottle of red – a perfect introduction to Dubai for me.
My event the following day didn’t start until the afternoon/evening so I did have some downtime that morning. A colleague had recommended that I head out to a new part of Dubai called La Mer, so that’s where I headed for lunch. La Mer is a great place to head for a wander along the boardwalk, some beach time and a swim. There were a lot of families and couples there so it had a really nice holiday vibe (although this is always so disappointing when you know you have to work later!). The range of restaurants there was excellent; you could get anything from sushi to burgers. I went for a burger and a mint lemonade at Bare Burger, where all their food is organic and sat outside to maximise people-watching opportunities.
Overall, I was quite impressed with Dubai; there are a lot of positives about it and there are definitely still a lot of things I would want to see there that I haven’t had chance to yet. It’s somewhere I might consider travelling to on holiday to do all the tourist things and for some guaranteed winter sun, but I don’t think it’s charmed me enough to make my list of top wishlist destinations. There’s definitely a very superficial feeling about the place and I’d recommend seeing it at least once to appreciate the sheer scale and level of urban development, but it’s probably not for everyone.
Abu Dhabi, UAE
Again, I headed down to Abu Dhabi possibly with fewer preconceptions than Dubai, but with them nonetheless. I’d heard that Abu Dhabi was much more chilled out than Dubai, and following my extremely short visit I would say that that’s probably true. I was really excited to visit though, mainly to see the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. The other main attraction I know of in Abu Dhabi is the Louvre, and I think some people I was travelling with were thinking of going but I didn’t end up doing that in the end. I find that when I travel with work, cramming in as much as possible every single day isn’t a great way to go about making sure you’re in a fit state to do your actual work… So I headed to the Grand Mosque with a few colleagues as my main Abu Dhabi activity.
We timed it so that we caught the sunset as well as the 6:30pm call to prayer, which was incredibly atmospheric when heard from inside the mosque. If you’re visiting the mosque, it’s important to remember that you’re expected to dress modestly. For women, if you aren’t dressed suitably then they’ll provide you with a free abaya (cloak) with a hood, which you need to put up to cover your hair. I was wearing a loose maxi dress with a long cardigan on top and a pashmina and I was waved through without needing any additional cover up, which was great. For men, t-shirts are fine but I did see they gave men who were wearing shorts a thawb/dishdash, which is the traditional white robe worn by men in the region. Entry is free to the Mosque and there are guided tours but we didn’t opt for one of these this time.
It was pretty busy when we visited; however, the Mosque is so large that there was plenty of space for everyone and it was still possible to get some great pictures without people in the way. The Grand Mosque was built between 1996 and 2007 and is full of incredible workmanship, such as pillars inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The white decor with all the pillars and gold decoration is breathtakingly beautiful, and you also get chance to see inside some of the rooms of the Mosque, which are adorned with huge chandeliers. Once the sun sets, the Mosque is lit up with blue lights and you can see the lights and the Mosque reflected in the pools at the front.
I’m not sure that there’s a great deal more to see in Abu Dhabi, although I would like to try and see more of the actual city on my next visit. If you’re ever visiting Dubai, I think it’s worth popping down to Abu Dhabi for the day to visit the Mosque and/or the Louvre, as the drive only takes around 1 hour 30 from Dubai.
Now, this is my most disappointing city from my whole trip. Not because Muscat itself is disappointing; to be honest, I have no idea what it’s like at all! Muscat was one of those stops that was very much straight in and out with only one night there, and the hotel was around 40 minutes from the centre of Muscat by taxi. I did find the people extremely friendly, polite and the vibe was much more down-to-earth and genuine than I found in the UAE. I think the main difference was that in Oman you see locals manning the reception in the hotel and driving taxis, whereas you don’t see Emiratis doing those kind of jobs in the UAE. So I enjoyed a beautiful lobster mac and cheese in the hotel restaurant and sampled the complimentary Arabic coffee in the reception, but I can’t really say much more about Muscat than that! Hopefully I’ll get chance to head back in the Autumn and look around a bit more, so until then, Muscat!
My final stop on my trip was Manama, in Bahrain. Again, this is one of those countries where I was anticipating having some issues getting through immigration as I haven’t visited before and I’d heard stories of British passports being taken away for an indeterminate amount of time for extra checks, but I didn’t have any issues at all and it was a super quick process getting through. Bahrain isn’t particularly known for tourism, but I really did want to see something whilst I was there because a lot of colleagues had said they’d never seen anything. I also felt bad for not being able to see any more of Muscat than the airport and my hotel. I identified the main attraction, which was Bahrain Fort and headed there via a cheeky Nando’s in a shopping mall en route. Bahrain Fort seemed to be located right on the edge of the city and when I arrived it was completely deserted apart from myself, one jogger and another guy having a look around. It was kind of creepy to begin with but I actually really enjoyed having a look around in the end.
The fort is actually a ruined fort and it’s completely free to go in and have a look around. There is an audio guide that you can pick up at the tourist centre for a small fee but I headed straight in without going for this option (sorry I can’t comment on any of the guides; I become a massive cheapskate when I’m travelling for work and sometimes I’m literally just out and about for a change of scenery from the inside of my hotel room!). They did have some information to read within the fort itself on its history once you were inside. As the fort is slightly elevated, it offers a great view of the Manama skyline from various vantage points. As it was so quiet, it was also a great opportunity for me to try out my Gorillapod tripod that my boyfriend bought me at Christmas; it’s a great little accessory that can stand on uneven surfaces (i.e. ruin walls) and lets you get some great photos from a distance when you’re on your own.
All in all, this was a great trip for me. I got some much-needed sun, had chance to look around some really interesting places and to experience a range of Middle Eastern societies. And the work was pretty good too, which is, after all, what makes my work trips worthwhile!