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  • Writer's picturePaula Cullison

To the UAE from the USA

My trip to the United Arab Emirates was filled with unexpected surprises. To say that this trip was a magical experience is an understatement. It was such an honor to have been invited to submit for an international art exhibition in the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah - RAK. Being selected was so exciting, and attending the event was absolutely awesome. The entire trip was incredible.

I was able to snag a last-minute Business Class upgrade on Emirates for a nominal amount. I got lucky R/T - both ways, which made the 16-hour flight from LAX to Dubai - heavenly. The service was very professional. I also took advantage of the elegant Emirates Club at LAX before my departure flight.

The United Arab Emirates, with a total population of about 10 million as of 2018, consists of seven independent Emirates: Dubai (4.1 million), Abu Dhabi (2.8 million), Sharjah (2.3 million), Ras Al Khaimah (400K), Ajman (370K) Fujairah (150K), and Umm Al Quwain (72K). Formed in 1971, the UAE covers a total of 30,000 square miles with Abu Dhabi being the largest in area and Dubai having the largest population. Expats constitute over 80% of the workforce in the UAE. The official monotheistic religion of the UAE is Islam, as 80% of the population is Muslim. The call to prayer can be heard throughout the day from sunrise to sunset. The traditional dress of black abaya and head scarf for the women and white dishdasha with ghutra and agal for the men is worn by the Emirati. The expats wear western dress. Most potential travelers are unnecessarily concerned about safety. Rest assured, as the crime rate in the UAE is extremely low - under 1%. English is spoken by just about everyone, so there is no language problem. However, I did learn a few useful Arab phrases: shukraan jazilaan - thank you very much; as-salam alaykom - hello or greetings; insha’Allah - God willing

My friend Taher Deghayes (whom I met on a trip to Cuba a few years ago) and his friend Anita Gasteier (a REIKI Master and teacher from Germany) met me at the Dubai International Airport which is huge and absolutely state of the art. I spent the first five nights of my trip at Taher’s lovely home in Ras Al Khaimah. He was a gracious and generous host. His housekeeper Ricci and her husband Eugene were most accommodating. The first day I visited the Historical Museum where I met a local TV personality, two local educators, and some German tourists.

Taking a walk in the surrounding area, I came upon Dr Eman Shafiq Assi, a Professor of Architecture from the RAK branch of American University, and 10 of her students. It was a fun encounter and they requested my photo with the group.

Later that evening I was invited to a birthday dinner party at the luxurious five-star 723 room beach-front DoubleTree Hotel & Spa by Hilton located on Marjan Island. It was Nader Halim, the General Manager’s birthday. He is an expat from Egypt with almost 20 years of international hospitality management experience. Nader Halim and his lovely Macedonian wife Biljana invited about 40 people, representing 12 countries, to an awesome sushi dinner party at the hotel’s highly rated Sanchaya restaurant. The expat guests whom I met were employed in a variety of businesses including: construction, hotel management, tourism and environmental projects. I later learned that my friend Taher, who owns several businesses, is well-connected and well- respected in the expat community, as well as with the royal family. This was my first ‘night out’ in RAK and it was awesome.

During my first few days in RAK, I would also visit two local cafes – The Muse Café owned by Reem al Qassimi, granddaughter of Sheikh Saqr - the late father of the current ruler of Ras al Khaimah – His Highness Sheikh Saud, and The Brews Café owned by Sameera Gesse and her family. Sameera's brother, Shahed Hassanali, had just returned from coffee auctions in Ethiopia and Kenya. I also met Sheikha Al-Qassimi, another granddaughter of Sheikh Saqr. Sheikha Fatima Al-Qassimi is one of the most influential jewelry designers in the Gulf, and her work is offered through Cartier. I was so impressed by these entrepreneurial women. The warmth of their being and the strength of their character was wonderful to behold.

At the Muse, entertainment was provided by a singer / guitar player from South Africa who seemed to favor popular American songs (perhaps because I was there).

One evening we drove to see the site of the upcoming 7th annual Ras Al Khaimah Fine Arts Festival in the historic Al Hamra Village. We met Dr Natasha Ridge (of Australia), founding director of the RAK Al Qasimi Foundation, who is coordinating this huge project. During our brief visit, one of the equipment trucks hit a power line, sending an array of sparks into the night scene. Natasha jumped into action and made one call to get the repair done. The festival was only 10 days away. There was no time to waste! We would see her again the next morning for brunch at the Muse Café. She laughed, as she recounted the incident. Natasha received her Doctorate in Education from Columbia University in New York City where I lived for thirty years. Small World!

Having champagne while watching the sun set at the Hilton Beach Club with Taher, Anita, and Nicloas (environmentalist from France) was a moment in time that I will cherish.

An impromptu dinner party in the backyard of Taher’s home included a number of friends whom I had met and also Omar al-Nokhatha (a local beekeeper) who played the guitar and Rehman Akhtar, a stand-up comedian from Saudi Arabia. This was the first 48 hours. At that moment, I could only wonder what incredible experiences were ahead.

Anita invited me to take a long drive with her to see the Jebel Jais Mountains which were formed over 70 million years ago. At almost 2, 000 meters (6,500 ft) they are the tallest mountains in the UAE. Needless to say, I was thrilled. Although we got a bit lost, we soon found ourselves at the top. This is where a few weeks prior her good friend, paramedic Mark Roxburgh - age 42, had lost his life (along with three others). It was a tragic medical transport helicopter rescue accident, as it hit the world’s longest zipline (2.83km / 1.75 miles). Mark, a South African, was a young man who loved the outdoors. I think this trip gave Anita some closure.

I asked Taher to drop me off at the bus station, so I could take the bus to Dubai where I would be staying for four nights. It seems that most drive and do not use the bus between these two cities. My adventure continued with my meeting Saara Korchi and her father. She was waiting for the bus and her father told me that she would help me. When I got on the bus, I immediately noticed that the women sat in front and the men in the rear. Sarra sat next to me. During this 2-hour ride I got to know her. Sarra attends a university in Dubai on full scholarship. Now in her last year, she will soon graduate with a degree in Business. Not only does she ride the bus daily 2 hours each way, she then takes the Metro. When she asked how I was going to get from the bus station to my hotel in Dubai, I told her by taxi. Sarra said that I should take the Metro with her. Fortunately, I travel with carry-on luggage. So, with luggage in tow, we headed for the Metro. She helped me buy a pass. The Metro at Union Station was very modern. Unlike NYC, there are only escalators (no stairs). The first car is for Gold Card holders, the next two cars are clearly marked ‘women and children’, the following two cars are for ‘men’. This was another unique experience. I exited before Sarra – but would see her again.

From the Metro, I took a taxi to the Roda Hotel which is located near the Dubai Mall and the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building at 2,700 ft with 163 floors. I highly recommend this hotel; the staff is very attentive, the rooms are awesome, the spacious lobby is adorned with beautiful flowers, and the breakfast buffet (which was included in the room rate) is fit for royalty. I give it a five-star rating. That first night, I took a short rest and headed for the very luxurious Madinat – Jumeirah Resort Hotel (seemingly a village with over 1,000 rooms, 23 restaurants and a souk with 100 shops). It is situated on the Jumeirah beach with a view of Burj Al Arab, another luxury resort property. Lit up at night, Burj Al Arab seemed other worldly.

The dinner to which I was invited was at the Khymat Al Bahar restaurant (accessed by boat). Hosted by Sheikha Fatima Al-Qassimi, a professional jeweler, the dinner guests represented at least 10 countries. The members of this international organization were high-end jewelers, fashion designers, interior designers, and boutique travel agents. I really had to pinch myself! Well - traveled and well - educated, these guests created an evening to be treasured. At the end of the dinner, Fatima, always dressed in a fashionable black abaya, asked me where I was staying. Noting that her cousin owned the Roda Hotel and that it was on her way to her apartment in Dubai, she offered to drive me there. I had to pinch myself again. Fatima is a kind and generous woman with an incredible sense of humor.

The next day, I was eager to see Dubai, one of the world’s most unique cities, so I decided on the tourist Hop On – Hop Off bus. The central bus station was across from the hotel at the entrance to Dubai Mall. The bus itinerary was rather extensive with three separate routes (red, blue, yellow). I managed all 3 with only short time frames to actually visit the sights, which included the indoor ski slope in the Mall of the Emirates. At first glance, Dubai seems like a mixture of NYC and Las Vegas with a dash of Morocco. Extensive beach front hotels and resorts dot the expansive coastline. Historic sites and mosques can be seen throughout the city, as they are juxtaposed to the modern high-rise buildings. If I had time, I would have taken the included traditional Dhow wooden boat ride from the Dubai Creek Harbor and visited the old section with its art galleries and shops. Next time – for sure. This time my view was from above, as I sat in the bus – hopped on with little time to hop off.

Another area that looked enticing was the Jumeirah coastline, which beckons the traveler to come, sit, and relax on its sandy shore. The Global Village, which is a mini world’s fair, was another stop to be had on another visit.

The following day I decided to visit the Aquarium in the Dubai Mall and walk the mall. It was fun to see the locals and tourists alike enjoying themselves. The Burj Khalifa is adjacent to the Mall, so I went outside to see the water show and view the building from below. Competed in 2010, it is the world’s tallest building (2,700 ft) with the world’s fastest elevator. The visiting tourists seemed to reflect the United Nations, as one could hear many different languages being spoken. It was such fun!

Since it was so close, I decided to take a day trip from Dubai to the adjacent Emirate of Abu Dhabi. Before leaving on this trip, I had tried to secure a meeting with their head of the Women’s Commission, but no luck. The day tour, which I found through Viator, was well organized.

Our first stop was to the Ferrari World Museum (who knew). It was a strategic break. The tour van passed numerous palatial homes of the members of the ruling family, as well as the Emirates Palace, and the Corniche. We would later stop at the Abu Dhabi Heritage Village on the return trip.

The focal point of the tour was the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque which was completed in 2004 at a cost of $545 million. The largest mosque in the UAE and one of the largest in the world, it can hold 7,000 worshippers in the main prayer area and 40,000 throughout the mosque. With 82 domes, numerous fountains, colorful floral mosaic designs, and lovely courtyards, the mosque also has the largest one-piece prayer rug in the world. The carpet measures 60,546 square ft, weighs 12 tons and has 2.2 billion hand tied knots is a gift from Iran and designed by Ali Khaliqi. The seven chandeliers which hang in the mosque are made of Italian glass and Austrian Swarovski crystals. The largest chandelier adorns the main prayer hall; it weighs nine and a half tons and measures over 30 feet in diameter (with a height / length of 45 feet.) The tour guide provided all the women with the mandatory abaya (floor length role) and head scarf for this visit.

We took a break for lunch at the Villa Beirut, a middle eastern / Lebanese restaurant, in the Abu Dhabi Mall and then stopped at the Heritage Village. The guide pointed out various sights as we headed for the Jumeirah Tower where we had an incredible view of the city from the 75th floor Observation Deck. That was an unexpected surprise! If I had more time, I would have spent a night or two in Abu Dhabi, the largest of the seven Emirates and its Capital.

Time to return to Ras Al Khaimah for the Arts Festival opening in the Al Jazirah Al Hamra Old Town on Feb 14th.

The foundation underwrote a 3 night a stay at the Hilton Garden Inn, and I paid for an extra night so that I could relax before my return. The participating artists met in the lobby and were transported to the Opening. It was about a 25-minute ride. The event was a ‘red carpet’ affair with music, hors d’oeuvres, and dignitaries galore. His Highness Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, Ruler of RAK, is very interested in supporting the arts and is therefore very proud of this festival. After the welcoming address by Dr Natasha Ridge, Executive Director, and awards presentations, the Sheikh made the rounds and met all of the participating artists (including yours truly). It was quite the honor – I must say. He also told me that he had visited Phoenix. After the By Invitation Only reception (for 300) ended, the exhibit was open to the public. I enjoyed discussing my works with the attendees and the other artists who represented a dozen countries. This is such a small world. One of the participating artists whom I met was an awesome photographer named Jeff Topping. He lives both in the UAE and Arizona. What are the chances of that happening! At the reception, I also met Taher’s lovely mother - Zohra Zewawi and aunt - Umkalthum Zewawi.

I was absolutely amazed at the incredible job that had been done not only in the transformation of this once abandoned village into an art center, but also by the quality of the enlarged art works on display. All works were transferred onto 4’ x 5’ metal sheets. This was important, as the village was open and the works were exposed to the elements. Only the sculptures would be transferred to the local museum for display. Sarra, her father Tewfik, mother Khadijda and sister Hadjer came to see me at the Museum and present me with a thoughtful gift which I will cherish. I was very moved by this.

The RAK Fine Arts Festival was open to the public from about 8am – 6pm every day at no charge. I returned by taxi two days later, so I could take my time to view the art works with hardly anyone around.

I noticed that the hotel offered shuttle service to its sister property on the beach, so I hopped on and spent a few restful hours there. I had hoped to book a falcon / Bedouin trip, but I was too late. Being at the beach was certainly a good chance to reflect and unwind. While there I met Executive Chef Stefan Babits and we had a wonderful conversation about Switzerland, his homeland, and all the wonderful places he has worked: including China and Bangladesh. What a fun chance encounter!

Being so close to Oman, I decided to take a one-day trip there. It was a good decision, as I felt a need to put my feet in Gulf waters. The Masandam Peninsula juts into the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow entry into the Persian Gulf from the Arabian Peninsula. I googled and found a Masandam Dibba Cruise. After several hotel stops to pick up other tourists, most of whom were German and Russian, we headed for the water and climbed aboard a double-decker wooden 'dhow' boat. The scenery was lovely, as we sailed past mountains, fjord-like inlets, beaches, and villages. The sea breezes were soothing and it was another sunny day. The tour guide was very affable and knowledgeable and the staff prepared a tasty lunch. We had options: beach, swimming, snorkeling, speed boat riding. I chose the latter and held on for dear life! The day trip ended all too soon and I wished that I had more time to explore Oman.

For my last evening in Ras Al Khaimah, my new friend Anita treated me to a lovely sushi dinner in her home.

What a wonderful way to end a fantastic trip! I will treasure every moment in the UAE for a long time to come - insha’Allah.

Trip to the UAE – Ras Al Khaimah (RAK), Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ras Al Khaimah, and then to Oman February 2019.

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