Captivating United Arab Emirates
For 2000 years man has lived and thrived in the South-Eastern corner of the Arabian peninsula. But its only in the last 100 years and or so that he has been able to appreciate this big charming part of the globe from a very different angle - from above.
Bridging the Arabian Gulf and the Arabian Sea is a thriving Federation of seven emirates: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah. Together they form the United Arab Emirates - the UAE. From ultra-modern cities to mighty mountain ranges, from vast expanses of barren desert to lush and fertile oases. Seen from up above it's as though someone had travelled the world collected its best features and then brought them all together in an artful blend. Beauty, nature majesty, industry, fantasy! All of life is in the UAE.
The emirate of Abu Dhabi, home to the Federation's capital city, captures the energy and ambition of the UAE. Early in the last century Abu Dhabi drew its ridges from the sea. It produced some of the world's most lustrous pearls. But in the 1950s they found another, even greater treasure beneath their feet – oil. It was to fuel the extraordinary growth of Abu Dhabi, led by its ruler Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Zayed brought the seven emirates together to create the United Arab Emirates and became its first president. He was a visionary. And one of his many legacies is a transformed Abu Dhabi. Located on a 14 kilometer long island, its skyscrapers surge upwards like rising bars on a graph at its skyline is studded with architectural statements.
One of the finest is the Sheikh Zayed mosque - the Sheikh`s final resting place and the largest mosque in the UAE. This awesome edifice in white marble features four minarets of up to 107 meters and some 82 domes. Inside there is room for more than 40,000 worshipers.
No less understated is the building that costs three billion dollars to create - the Emirates Palace Hotel. But this hotel, to end all hotels, was four years in construction and reflects the hues and shades of the Arabian desert. Its grand atrium, the largest of the hotel's, 114 domes, is 72 meters tall.
But just when you thought that Abu Dhabi must surely have everything, much of the city is being transformed again by the plan Abu Dhabi 2030 initiative. Indeed this culture of investment includes the largest commitment by any government in the world to develop renewable energy. This is home of the world's first carbon neutral city where it's giant solar panels can produce up to 10 megawatts of electricity. That's enough to power some 8,000 homes.
From clean power to horsepower! Abu Dhabi's Yas Island has become internationally famous. In November 2009 it hosted the inaugural Formula One Grand Prix to worldwide acclaim. And not only for its state-of-the-art circuit. Here you can arrive by private yacht and even watch the race from your suite at the luxurious Yas hotel. For golfers the Falcon shaped clubhouse at the Abu Dhabi golf club. Means golf of the highest caliber. This includes the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship which has been part of the European Tour since 2006.
But for all Abu Dhabi's hunger to build, improve and transform, the emirate is also focused on conservation. Leading the way is Sir Bani Yas Island, 170 kilometers west of the city and another legacy of Sheikh Zayed. His passion for wildlife led him to turn the 87 square km island into an Arabian Wildlife Park. In the process he safeguarded the future of endangered species, such as the sand gazelle and the Arabian oryx. And offshore the waters ripple with marine life, such as dolphins, dugongs and sea turtles.
In stark contrast to Abu Dhabi is Rub Al-Khali, The Empty Quarter, and it's not hard to see why. There is virtually nothing here, unless of course you're looking for desert. This vast expanse of sand runs for more than 1,000 kilometers from the UAE into Saudi Arabia. Years can pass without any rainfall here and it's sand dunes can reach heights of 400 meters. There crescents sculpted by the wind. Rub Al-Khali comprises most of the southern third of the Arabian peninsula. 650,000 square kilometers of emptiness.
But then sitting on the edge of Rub al-Khali, we come to the Liwa oasis. After the seemingly endless expanse of gold, splashes of green signify life, crops and man. The Liwa crescent contains a natural aquifer and the Oasis supports the inhabitants of its 50 villages. Today tourism has augmented the once traditional living of hunting and date crops. The Liwa hotel has now been joined by the five-star resort of Qasr al Sarab. The tourists to want to experience traditional desert life, albeit in a rather more comfortable way.
And as the Sun comes up like a flaming coin on the horizon, no visit to the desert is complete without a balloon ride.
Floating over the red tapestry of sands as we head to the oasis of Al Ain. Lush vegetation, trees, crops are now near the Oman border, in Abu Dhabi's second largest city. In Arabic Al Ain means spring and is also known as the garden city. For more than 7,000 years people have lived here served by Al Ain's Oasis. And the Falaj, ancient irrigation system, is still used to bring water from bore holes of natural springs to irrigate the city's numerous farms. Al Ain is rich in recent history. Al Jahili fort was built in 1898 by Sheikh Zayed The First and became his summer residence.
On the western edge of the main oasis stands the Al Ain Palace. This was once the home of the father of the UAE Sheikh Zayed who was governor of the city. It is now a museum.
On the outskirts lies Jebel Hafeet mountain which rises to over a thousand meters. It gives fine views of the city and inside has an extensive network of caves. The 12 kilometer road snaking its way up the mountain. Has been hailed as the world's greatest driving Road and is popular with international cyclists who travel here to train. Heading east you come to the Hafeet graves, sitting like beehives on the dusty ground. Dating back as far as 3200 BC, they represent some of the UAE s ancient history.
From the largest Emirates Abu Dhabi we come to the most populated - the vibrant teeming hub of Dubai. Like many major urban centers its waterway helped to build its fortune by establishing Dubai as a city of trade and commerce. The salt water Dubai Creek or Khor Dubai runs for 14 kilometers and divides the city into two distinct areas Deira and Bur Dubai. And for many the creeks bustling banks are the soul of the city. If you want to cross the creek, you have several modern options but none has quite the atmosphere and tradition as the Abra's - Dubai's fleet of small wooden boats.
Down at the end of the Creek, at a million miles from the urban sprawl, is the Ras Al Khor wildlife sanctuary. Over six square kilometers of protected wetland with a variety of ecosystems providing a heaven for wildlife. If you take away one image it will probably be the flamingos, that bring twichers and other nature lovers from far and wide.
However it's impossible to describe Dubai without mentioning skyscrapers and to take you there the Sheikh Zayed Road. This eight-lane highway runs south from the creek and parallel to the shoreline. Alternatively you can take a lofty of view by jumping on the new Dubai Metro. Much of the red line runs alongside and above the highway.
And on your way you'll find one building doesn't so much scrape the sky as pierces straight through it. The new Burj Khalifa quickly exhausts superlatives. It is the tallest man-made structure in the world. It has the world's fastest and tallest reaching elevators. It has the world's highest observation deck. You can see its spire 90 kilometers away and at 828 meters. It is twice the height of the Empire State Building. It hasn't come cheap. This mighty edifice has cost more than 1.5 billion US dollars to build, but long before it opened it had already gained legendary status around the world.
But then talked about architecture is a hallmark of this ambitious city. The Burj Al Arab hotel is the tallest all suite hotel in the world, reaching some 321 meters up into the sky. The structure stands on a man-made island, capturing the world's imagination with its billowing sail design, inspired by the traditional Arabian dhow.
Just off the coast is another bold and joyous concept - the Palm Jumeirah. This island, a palm in the sea, has a main trunk, which supports sixteen fronts. And there's a crescent-shaped breakwater, which just for good measure, boasts a five-star resort - Atlantis the palm, with the largest water park in the Middle East.
Dubai's ambitions for the coastline don't end there. This is The World - a series of manmade islands. Each representing a country. And yet these bold big scale developments sit happily alongside nature. Birds of prey, such as the osprey, are still affirmed feature of the shoreline.
The superlatives continue. Jebel Ali Port - Dubai's major trading hub is the world's largest man-made harbor. It's also the biggest port in the whole of the Middle East. Sitting 35 kilometers from the city of Dubai the area operates as a free zone, and has attracted over 5,000 companies from 120 countries.
And wherever there's business, pleasure is never far behind. Golf in the Emirates has become more and more popular with each passing year. Inspired no doubt by world-class tournaments, such as the Dubai Desert Classic, the Race to Dubai and the Dubai Ladies Masters. The Jumeirah golf estates the Emirates golf club. The Montgomerie and the Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club are some of the club's combining sport and relaxation with upscale manicured surroundings.
110 kilometers east of Dubai lies a cool refuge from the summer heat. The town of Hatta is dominated by two watchtowers from the 18th century and the Juma mosque. The town is overlooked by the Hajar mountains with breathtaking vistas and cooler temperatures.
Heading north of Dubai takes us to our third of the seven emirates Sharjah, the only emirate that touches both the Arabian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. The numerous elegant mosques and no less than 17 excellent museums earned Sharjah the prestigious UNESCO title of cultural capital of the Arab world.
The city is proud of its fine souqs. The Al Mujarrah souq resplendent with its gleaming gold dome and the Blue souq, which with its immaculate gardens and backdrop of the Khalid lagoon, has been the focus of a thousand Nikons.
Meanwhile industry is never far away. From the nearby Khalid port and Hamriyah port further up the coast, Sharjah provides vital support services to the UAE`s offshore oil industry.
Sharjah is also a seat of learning. And the University of Sharjah was founded in 1997 to bring together the region's cultural and Islamic values. Within the campus the American University of Sharjah is emerging as a leading coeducational University, serving students from the Gulf and indeed the world. Education is highly priced in the UAE and Sharjah`s universities show the country's determination to rank alongside the best in the Middle East and the globe.
Sharjah is also a major link in the world's supply chain. Along the Gulf of Oman is the town of Khor Fakkan. It grew around a natural bay and its deep-water port is now a major International Container Terminal.
Of course where's the see there's fish and the town of Kalba is a thriving fishing harbor. And at the southernmost tip of the UAE`s Indian Ocean coastline, Khor Kalba`s extensive mangrove marsh is a designated nature reserve for several endangered species.
The UAEs tradition of trade is also alive and well in the port town of Dibba, which lies at the northernmost end of the UAEs east coast. The town is also the site of a fort occupied by the Portuguese in the 1500s.
From Sharjah we move on to the only Emirates located entirely on the Gulf of Oman - Fujairah, which stretches along 90 kilometers of UAE coastline. If you like the rugged untouched beauty of dramatic mountain ranges, or the comfort of a sandy palm-fringed beach, or both, Fujairah is exceptionally beautiful.
Its 360 years old Fujairah fort also stands proudly once more recently restored. It was seriously damaged by a British bombardment in 1925. And if anyone needs confirmation of Fujairah city's prime location, just look out to sea. It is strategically located on key international shipping lanes. Indeed it is the second largest bunkering port in the world. This emirate is also the home of the UAEs oldest surviving mosque - Al Badiyah mosque, which dates back to the 15th century.
Back on the Gulf Coast and heading north once more, we come to the smallest of the United Arab Emirates - Ajman. And yet, despite its size, it has been the focus of an intensive construction and development boom in recent years. The Port of Ajman sits along a natural creek, attracting ships, dhows and other vessels. And at the center of the town a grand old fort, now a museum, is a reminder of its distinguished past.
To the north we move from the smallest emirate, to one that has retained much of its original charm – Umm Al Quwain, which means mother of two powers. Was founded in 1775, it too boasts a fine art fort with parts of the original defensive walls still to be seen. It is also beautifully located, built around a blue-green lagoon and is dotted with curved islands, which are home to a host of bird life.
To the east of the city lies Tell Abrack, one of the most important archaeological sites in the whole of the UAE. Originally located on the coast, before the sea waters receded, the site was inhabited for 2,000 years until around 300 BC.
And so we come to our seventh and last of the United Arab Emirates, Ras Al Khaimah. Its name means top of the tent and it's the West Coast's most northerly emirate. People have lived here for many thousands of years serving and profiting from the major trade routes to Asia.
Today, however, the city is reinventing itself as a tourist destination. And you can see why. To the north lie wetlands with mangroves that provide a natural habitat for flamingos. It also borders the Hajar mountains which have everything: from Bedouin villages and camel farms to canyons, gorges and the highest peak in the country at 1910 meters. Just twice in recent years the locals have been enchanted by a rare sighting indeed - real snow. And throughout the mountains you come across villages in splendid isolation perched on the rugged outcrops.
Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah. In a world of beautiful places you could say that the United Arab Emirates has more than its fair share. Mighty acts of nature, extraordinary feats by man - the UAE is a feast of sight and sound, a celebration of the big, the bold and the inspired. And to see it from above is to bring an extraordinary world to your feet.