Friday, April 15, 2016

The Arabian Peninsula: Abu Dhabi

Many months ago when we were looking at how to get from Tokyo to Europe we found a fantastic deal with Etihad - that national carrier of the United Arab Emirates, based out of Abu Dhabi. Of course, we booked it.

The flight wasn't direct, but rather, stopped in Abu Dhabi. As any good carrier does, Etihad has the option of a multiday layover in Abu Dhabi at no extra cost. How could we not stop? Our chance of returning to this area is mighty slim. So stop we did.

Before I get into Abu Dhabi itself, I need to mention the flight. As I was lying in bed in Tokyo, sick and feeling sorry for myself, I got an e-mail from Etihad that we could place a bid on being upgraded to business class for the Tokyo - Abu Dhabi portion of the trip. I let myself imagine how awesome it would be to be in business class for the 14-hour overnight flight. How awesome it would be lie flat to sleep. How awesome it would be to have all that extra space. How awesome it would be, period.

So, I bid for the upgrade.

And we go it.

It was better than I ever imagined! The fast check-in. The lounge with free food; free drinks too, but I was too drugged up to partake. And the gloriously spacious seat that went flat. It was mighty fine, we all agreed. We could get use to flying like this. 

Everything about it was fantastic. But in some ways, we are so weirdly awkward, we also all agreed that it was almost uncomfortable how many times we were asked if we wanted something. 

But onto Abu Dhabi, or as some in our Star Wars-crazed family called it, Jakku (that part of the movie was filmed near Abu Dhabi I've been told by the fans).

We weren't really sure what to expect. We knew there are a lot of temporary foreign workers (80% of the population it turns out), and that it's a Muslim country with some restrictions, but we weren't sure how strict there restrictions were. Turns out, during our short stay in a nice hotel, they didn't seem so strict. 

We could've explored the city more, but the kids were mighty happy with the swimming pool; some of us were a little bit sick; and despite our business class flight, we were quite exhausted. 

But rather than focus on what we didn't do, or could've done, I prefer to focus on what we did do, and how fantastic it was: 

We headed out on a dessert safari where we roared around the dunes like madmen. Crazy. Terrifying. Utterly fantastic. There may have even been a scream or two as we zoomed over the tops of some of the high dunes.  

Some of us fed camels, one of us petted a camel, and one of us quietly thought MERS ALERT! GET THE HAND SANITIZER!!

We rode camels.

Meaghan got a henna tattoo. 

We ate a meal of local food in the desert under the stars while sitting on huge comfortable cushions, watched belly dancing, and ate plenty of fresh and delicious dates. Sorry, I was too busy eating and enjoying myself to talk photos. Plus it was getting quite dark out by this point.

And to top it off, we had a fantastic guide/driver. He loved to talk and wasn't shy about sharing his views. We learned so very much about life in the UAE as an expat. For instance:

  • 80% temporary foreign workers, 20% locals (who the guide called Arabs, but he only meant Arabs from the UAE, as in citizens of the UAE, not anyone else).
  • No taxes for anyone, business or personal.
  • Free health care for citizens, but since everyone else is a foreign worker who needs to leave if they don't have a job, everyone who isn't a citizen has a job and varying degrees of health insurance.
  • Companies can be started by foreigners, but they need to be sponsored by a citizen who gets 51% ownership (keeps the locals busy and gives them a purpose and something to do, the guide explained).
  • There are some restrictions, but now that the guide has a kid, he's happy with the internet controls and restrictions on porn (I have no idea what else may be restricted).
  • Camel racing is big. They now have little robot jockeys strapped to the camels controlled by people in vehicles who drive alongside the track to stay within range of the remote control. But they didn't always have robots. In 2002 after pressure from human rights groups, they finally outlawed kids (mostly from south Asia) from riding the camels. That's because the kids were young (reportedly as young as 2, but more like 5-8) and were trafficked from South Asia and Sudan to live on camel farms and work. Many were injured or killed when they fell off the camel (no doubt!).
  • Camel beauty contests are popular - so much so that people are cheating by doing things to their camels to make them more beautiful. One of the camels we saw had been disqualified from a recent contest because something was done to her to make her lower lip hang down lower. The photo at the top of the post shows the droopy lip, but I don't think this is the shamed and disqualified beauty.
  • Internet is super pricey -- which explains why the free wifi in our hotel room was terrible. So terrible that I couldn't send any messages from my phone. Such a hardship.
  • The temporary foreign workers don't really interact with the citizens. Our guide has picked up more Urdu than Arabic. They groups run in completely separate circles. This was the biggest surprise to me. I'd imagined all these foreign workers interacting with locals and learning at least basic Arabic.

Even though our time here was short, it turned out to be quite an exotic and fantastic stopover. I have no idea whether we'll ever make it back, but if I have the chance, I'll jump at it.


  1. So exotic and fun! And how great you were able to fly business class for that loooooong flight!

  2. You guys are so fearless. I'm totally doing this in my next life! And business class--what a bonus!