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Dubai or not Dubai

By Alice Kühne

Dubai is known as a shopping destination, a city of superlatives and world records. What I discovered after a long weekend there was a cosmopolitan city with many friendly faces. With over 80% of the population made up of expats from around the world, this is no ordinary city. For one thing, the cityscape is like a set from a sci-fi movie, and the contrast between religious modesty and the decadent lifestyles of the super-rich had my head spinning.

A little background
Dubai sits in the south of the Persian Gulf, and is the second most populous city in the United Arab Emirates after Abu Dhabi. It was formally established in 1833 by Sheikh Maktoum bin Buti al Makhtoum, and has been ruled by the Al Makhtoum family ever since. The UAE has the world’s sixth-largest oil reserve, which built the foundation of Dubai’s economy. Today, however, Dubai thrives on real estate, tourism and financial services. The official language is Arabic, and the official religion, Islam.

Dubai uses the UAE Dirham. As a city of mostly foreigners, exchanging money is easy and available in every mall. You will usually get a better rate if you spend cash rather than charging your credit card, so take some cash with you if heading out to Dubai.

Dubai's Marina

Respectable dress and behaviour
Although Dubai is a Muslim country, they seem to be a bit relaxed when it comes to tourists. Modest dress is recommended: loose clothing, shoulders and cleavage covered, shorts and skirts a decent length. Public displays of affection should be kept to a minimum (ie. holding hands). Having said that, some hotels and restaurants seem to be completely free of these rules, especially if they have an alcohol license. Drunken behaviour is taken seriously, and you will pay heavy penalties if you’re caught drinking and driving. Rather get a taxi.

Getting around
Dubai has a brand new metro system that can take you from the airport to most major tourist spots. It’s quick, clean, air-conditioned and very affordable. For a step by step guide to riding the Dubai Metro, timetables and tickets, go to the Dubai Roads and Transport Authority website: Alternatively, there are Dubai Taxi Corporation taxis everywhere and they are very affordable too. They even have taxis designated for ladies and families, recognisable by their baby-pink roofs. For more information on taxis, go to the Dubai Taxi Corporation website:

Dubai is one of the safest cities in the world. Single women can get around without worry, although a decent dress would be recommended in the more traditional parts of the city. Everywhere you go there are CCTVs, and crime rates are low.

Tourist attractions
Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa, the current tallest man-made structure in the world (828m tall), are next to each other and worth visiting. The metro stops close-by and there is a free shuttle from the metro station to the mall. Dubai mall is the largest mall in Dubai (in a city of over 70 malls, it’s no small feat), it is home to just about every brand you can think of and boasts the world’s largest viewing panel in its aquarium. I particularly enjoyed browsing Kinokuniya, the biggest bookshop I’ve ever been in. For latest events and opening hours, take a look at the Dubai Mall. The mall opens out onto the Dubai Fountain, set on the 30-acre Burj Khalifa lake. The fountain has 6600 lights, shoots water up to 150 metres high and was designed by the creators of the Fountains of Bellagio in Las Vegas. The Burj Khalifa is a short walk around the lake. To get to the top of Burj Khalifa, you can save time by buying your tickets online, or simply show up to see Dubai’s skyline from the world’s tallest building.

Burj al Arab in Dubai

The Burj Al-Arab was opened in 1999 and became famous as the world’s only seven-star hotel (although some say it is only five stars). Its recognisable ship sail shape stands on its own artificial island off the Dubai coastline. It is on just about every Dubai tourism poster and synonymous with the grandeur of Dubai living (guests are chauffeur driven in Rolls Royces when they are not dropped off by helicopter). If you have a lot of money to spend on a hotel room, check out the special offers on their website:

The Mall of the Emirates is home to Ski Dubai (, an incredible 22,500m2 indoor winter wonderland in the middle of the desert. The ski slope is 85 metres high and 80 metres wide. There are five runs with varying difficulty and Ski Dubai can accommodate up to 1500 guests. It’s very popular with young kids for bum-boarding and building snowmen.

The Palm Islands are man-made islands built by Dutch and Belgian land reclamation specialists (a truly remarkable feat as they succeeded in selling sand to the Arabs). It is in the shape of a palm tree, with a main tree trunk, 16 fronds and a crescent island surrounding it to form a breakwater. The island is five kilometres by five kilometres.

The Atlantis, the Palm, is a theme park resort by Sol Kerzner (the creator of our own Lost City). The iconic hotel is salmon in colour, with a large Arab dome silhouette punched out the middle. The hotel reception has ghastly murals and a Venetian glass installation rising about six metres tall that looks like a secret graveyard for balloon sculptures. Other than the distasteful décor, the Atlantis is home to the wonderful Aquaventure water park, an aquarium and Dolphin Bay, where guests can swim with dolphins. It reminded me greatly of the Lost City, but with a different theme. The hotel often has partner specials with airlines, check their website for details:

My 72 hours in Dubai
After a restless overnight flight, we touched down in Dubai at 5am to a dark and stirring city. Dubai International airport is large and clinical, the only notable feature being the large double elevators, each the size of a ship container. The customs officials were unsmiling Arab men in meticulous white robes and sandals. They processed the tourists entering their country like jail wardens herding prisoners. They were unbearably slow and seemed to change shifts every 10 minutes.

Just before I left on my long weekend, I had emailed a friend who had lived in Dubai for some tips on visiting Dubai. One of the things she pointed out was: be careful what you wear. No miniskirts, bare shoulders or cleavage; and absolutely NO KISSING in public. Needless to say, I was a bit wary of respecting these rules while I was there. After my short nap upon landing, I groggily dressed to go sightseeing. I threw on a long, dark, cotton dress that happened to be sleeveless. For South African standards, the dress is comparable to a nun’s habit. However, as I strolled through the Mall of the Emirates, I saw a large poster of a cartoon woman in a sleeveless top with a big red cross on it. I started to panic. I had meant to wear the dress with a top, but in the heat of things (Dubai is in the desert, after all), I’d forgotten the top! For the next 15 minutes, I crossed my arms, averted my eyes and frantically searched around for another female with bare thighs, shoulders or cleavage. Finally I spotted a teenage girl sporting really short shorts. I relaxed a bit. “At least they’d arrest her first, those young thighs are WAY more sinful than my flabby arms.” I thought smugly. But, the moral of the story: cover up to be safe. After all, there’s air-conditioning everywhere so there’s no reason why you’d feel too much heat.

I spent much of my three days in three very large malls. My feet ached much but strangely my credit cards survived unscathed: there was so much choice I just couldn’t make a decision. On the second evening, I dragged my husband to “old Dubai”, to the souks (markets) to seek out a bit of authentic Dubai, whatever that was. The souks we found were newer and cleaner than my kitchen. We were highly disappointed. We did, however, catch a ferry across the river at sunset and enjoyed a very cheap cruise. On the other side, we found streets dedicated to every household need: a street for plumbing goods, a street for sporting equipment, a street of ironmongery… it went on. We also stopped and had the most delicious shwarma from an Indian vendor; this we felt was very authentic, complete with grubby tables and surrounded by litter. While feasting on our Indian delights, walking past us were groups of Pilipino men, Nigerian women dressed to the nines, Indian workers in traditional robes and other working class folk. This was a very different side of Dubai compared to the spotless malls.

On the other side of the fence is Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa. If the modern Aladdin promised to show Princess Jasmine the world on his magic carpet, “shining, shimmering, splendid…” I’m pretty sure Dubai Mall would be the perfect destination. Besides labels you only see in imported fashion magazines, the jewellery stores all seem to have a minimum rock size of two carats. The Burj Khalifa, Dubai Mall’s tall neighbour, was actually known as Burj Dubai during its construction. The cost of construction totalled US$ 1.5 billion, which unfortunately coincided with the global financial crisis. The Dubai government was unable to fund its ambitious projects and had to seek help from its neighbour, Abu Dhabi, who has a lot of oil and a lot of money. The UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan was then honoured by having the tower renamed to Burj Khalifa at the opening.

On our last evening, we were treated to a feast at a popular Lebanese restaurant: Reem al Bawadi. Along with our (non-alcoholic) drinks order was our shishas order (or hubbly bubbly). These bubbling pipes stood at waist-height next to our table the whole evening. The waiters would start off the flame for the customer using a sanitary tip before passing it over which made me wonder whether they ever sued the restaurant for compensation for carcinogens inhaled in starting these pipes. Anyway, there was live music (a man with a really small guitar) and the food was delicious, authentically eaten with hands; the only dish I found a bit strange was cream of mushroom sauce over lobster. Not a great marriage of flavours.

Dubai - city of the future

Dubai is an unusual place. It is by far the cleanest, shiniest and safest place I’ve ever been to. It is the only city I know with that new car smell. And yet its history goes back to the Bronze Age. I’m still undecided about this place; it’s all a bit surreal and clinical for me. But if you have the chance to stop over, I’d highly recommend a visit, even if just to open your eyes a bit wider. If you like newer, bigger, better, shinier things, then Dubai would be the perfect holiday destination for you.


Alice Kühne is a Taiwanese-South-African architect-turned-writer. She
grew up in Johannesburg and has lived in Amsterdam, Lagos and Cape
Town. She is an avid chatter-box for corporates on social media; and
she reviews restaurants, travel services and exotic destinations in
her spare time. She's a copywriter during office hours and a
passionate tango dancer after hours. She takes her shoes and handbags
very seriously.


Airlines flying from Johannesburg to Dubai



Johannesburg to Dubai (DXB)


(in partnership with Kenya Air)

Johannesburg to Dubai (DXB)

Nairobi (NBO)

British Airways

Johannesburg to Dubai (DXB)

London (Heathrow)

Ethiopian Airlines

Johannesburg to Dubai (DXB)

Addis Ababa (ADD)

Kenya Airways

Johannesburg to Dubai (DXB)

Nairobi (NBO)

Qatar Airways

Johannesburg to Dubai (DXB)

( DOH)

South African Airways
(codeshare with Emirates)

Johannesburg to Dubai (DXB)



Apr 2012

Emirates replaces the use of its Airbus A380 with a B777-300ER, whilst it carries out safety checks on the A380.

20 Jan 2009

Emirates announce that they are reinstating the 3rd daily flight on the 30th March 2009.

20 Oct 2008

It is announced that Emirates are cutting out the 3rd daily flight from February 2009 (due to slow delivery of aircraft from Airbus and Boeing).

13 Sep 2007

Emirates announce that they are increasing their frequency to 3 daily on Mondays (from 1 February 2008), Fridays (from the 28th October 2007) and Saturdays (from the 28th October 2007).

flight path from Johannesburg to Dubai

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