50 Reasons to Visit the UAE in its 50th Year - Part 1: Architecture
Updated: Jan 21, 2021
The United Arab Emirates celebrates its 49th National Day on December 2nd 2020, so I got out pen and paper and scribbled down 49 of my favourite things to do in the country. And then my other half said "why don't you make it 50?" which seemed like a jolly good idea, especially since the country will be celebrating its Golden Jubilee in 2021. Inevitably my list ended up longer than 50 and I'm still deciding what to cull, but in order not to overwhelm you I'm splitting it into manageable themes for readable posts that won't have you snoozing into your karak tea. For today, let's start with architecture. In the interest of full disclosure, some of you have asked if I'm creating a lot of my content for Dubai Tourism, which actually isn't the case (although my recent video was a collaboration - you can see it here). The fact that overseas travel has been curtailed this year means that I've been able to get out and really explore the UAE for the first time, and I wanted to share some of my discoveries with you. There's so much more to see than at first meets the eye, and if I can help to broaden your horizons beyond the malls and skyscrapers for your next visit, then that makes me happy. So here we go, our UAE archi-tour!
1. The Jumeirah Archaeological Site, Dubai
Let's start where it all began. Whilst modern Dubai as we know it today may have grown up around the Creek and pearl trading, centuries ago Dubai was at the confluence of the trade routes that crossed Arabia. At the newly opened Jumeirah Archaeological Site you can visit the ruins of an ancient caravanserai and see the rooms where travellers would have spent the night as they traversed the peninsula, effectively an early hotel. Discovered in 1969, there are ruins of a mosque, market and houses, some of which still have intact circular ovens and parts of which date back 1,000 years to the Abassid era. You can even see how these early architects chose to decorate their buildings, with zig-zag edges on some stones, and geometric floral patterns on others. It's a fairly big site - 80,000 square metres - and you'll be driven around it by buggy, which is helpful in the summer heat. With the ultra-modern Burj Khalifa presiding over everything in the background, it's a genuinely unique place where history and modernity come together in the most unlikely of spots, i.e. the middle of one of Dubai's most upscale residential neighbourhoods.
2. The Burj Khalifa, Dubai
You just can't ignore it. The Burj Khalifa thrusts skywards, piercing the blue skies with its needle-like point, shining like a thousand mirrors when the afternoon sun hits it, towering over everything around it. The world's tallest building, all 828 metres of it, is a thing of beauty, with shiny surfaces that reflect the clear desert sky and, if you're lucky, fluffy clouds in winter. At night it twinkles and flashes with lights every 30 minutes in time to the dancing fountains. One side is the world's tallest advertising hoarding, used to celebrate international days, advertise luxury brands, and even, as happened in 2020 to pretty much universal disbelief, as a gender reveal (it was a boy, if you're wondering). It can be strangely elusive - from some parts of the city you can't see it at all as it somehow gets lost behind the jumble of other skyscrapers. Whenever I've been out to the desert or the east coast and catch my first glimpse of the tower in the distance as I approach the city, it always reminds me of Dorothy and her friends seeing the Emerald City for the first time in the Wizard of Oz. If I point my car in the direction of the Burj, I know I'm close to home.
3. The Al Madam Ghost Village, Sharjah
Not all architectural projects in the UAE are as successful as others. Out in the red dunes of the Sharjah desert is the Al Madam Ghost Village, a small settlement of houses and a mosque dating back to the 1970s that lies completely abandoned and is being consumed by the desert. It was inhabited at one point, but only for a short time - you can still see traces of the lives that must have been lived here, with the remnants of bathroom fixtures, a collapsing bed, peeling wallpaper and the odd disintegrating curtain still being visible. The reason for its abandonment is something of a mystery and rumours abound that a terrifying djinn caused the inhabitants to flee. But visit on a hot and windy summer day and you can see what the more likely reason would have been. This area is almost wholly hostile to human life, with strong winds barreling through, blowing the sand into the houses, piling it up against the walls, stacking it as high as the roofs. No one wants to be sweeping sand out of their house all day, every day, to no avail as it seeps through every nook and cranny. Today it's brilliantly photogenic (you may end up meeting an "influencer" or two while you're there as it's a fairly spectacular backdrop for a photoshoot) and not that hard to find - the location on Google maps is fairly accurate, although I'd recommend you leave your car on the surfaced road rather than attempt to drive into the village itself. The sand is soft and deep, and even if it looks fairly solid, chances are it's not, and you really don't want to get stuck out here.
4. Qasr Al Watan, Abu Dhabi
You might need to book a massage after a visit to Qasr Al Watan as you'll spend most of your time looking up, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, and your neck will definitely start to ache. This is the Palace of the Nation, located inside the Presidential Palace compound in Abu Dhabi, and the scale and detail of the craftsmanship is extraordinary. Each of the doors alone, made of solid maple wood, took 350 hours to make, and the overall palace took a total of 150 million hours to build. The mosaic-covered Great Hall measures 100 metres by 100 metres, and has mirrored glass boxes in each corner that reflect the detail in even more splendour. You could stand in the centre of the hall and stare for hours and hours, and your eyes still wouldn't take in the full intricacy of the mosaics. The Spirit of Collaboration Hall houses a 12-tonne chandelier make from 350,000 crystals with a staircase inside so that a workman can enter and change any faulty lightbulbs. There's also a room dedicated to Presidential Gifts, where you can see a selection of falcon hoods from Germany and an entire suit of Samurai armour from Japan. If you plan on coming for an hour, you'll inevitably stay two. There's just so much to see.
5. Louvre Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi
The architecture of the Louvre Abu Dhabi is as much a reason to visit as the art collection housed within. Designed by Jean Nouvel, when it finally opened in 2017 after many delays it brought something completely new to the UAE, a world-class art museum with a collection highlighting the similarities between civilisations rather than their differences, in a structure that was unlike anything that had ever been seen before. Inspired by the way the light falls through moving palm leaves, the building's roof is a metallic dome with interlaid "stars" that let the bright sunlight through. At certain times of day it looks as if beams of light are piercing the ceiling, coming all the way down to the ground. There are no major external walls so there is a constant interplay of light and shadow, of indoors and outdoors, with vistas of the Arabian Sea being as much a part of the architecture as the physical structures themselves. The art collection is housed in white cubes spread out under the dome. Come as soon as it opens in the morning and you're likely to have the whole place to yourself, at least for a little while.
6. Al Jahili Fort, Abu Dhabi
A day out to Al Jahili Fort in Al Ain has long been a favourite of mine. Dating back to the 1890s and built of sun-dried mud brick, the fort was built by Sheikh Zayed bin Khalifa to provide protection to the date palm oases in the area and as a summer residence away from the heat and humidity of the lower lying areas. The fort was abandoned in the early 20th century, and in the 1950s was taken over by the Trucial Oman Levies, a military force in the Trucial States, the name given to the British protectorate territories along the Arabian Coast that now make up the UAE, as part of their regional HQ. Today the fort has been fully restored, its circular watchtowers standing tall and proud, and is home to a fascinating exhibition of the photography of British Explorer Wilfred Thesiger's travels through the Empty Quarter by camel in the 1950s. You'll be welcomed with traditional Arabic coffee and dates, and you can wander around the buildings, climb up the tower, and look out over the surrounding countryside and Al Ain's UNESCO World Heritage Site oasis. It's worth spending some time there too as you can pootle around on a funny little two-seater bicycle contraption in the shade of the date palms. And why wouldn't anyone want to do that?
7. Al Buhais Geological Park, Sharjah
Ross on Friends knew that "geology rocks". But even if you're not a fan, you should still make your way out into the Sharjah desert to see this extraordinary example of innovative architecture out in the dunes. Opened at the beginning of the year, the Al Buhais Geological Park features rare 93-million-year-old Ophiolite rocks, pieces of the ocean's crust that, due to plate tectonics, were forced over the edge of the Arabian Plate, eventually ending up on the Earth's surface. There's also a collection of fossilised sea creatures that used to live in this area 74 million years ago, when this whole desert was underwater, and a theatre room where a video tells you the story of the process, before the screen slides away theatrically to reveal spectacular views of the desert mountain outside through huge curved glass windows. And if even that's not enough to tempt you to come out here, the pods in which the museum is housed, designed by Hopkins Architects and inspired by the fossils of ancient sea urchins, should be enough to convince you. They look like the kind of buildings we'll be using on Mars to grow our own food when we've colonised it. Take the geology trail and you'll be able to admire them from a slightly higher elevation.Well worth the journey, and easily combined with the equally wonderful Mleiha Archaeological Centre, just a few kilometres further along the foot of the mountains. For some reason they still don't have a website or social media, but if you Google the location you'll easily find it.
8. Modernist Architecture, Abu Dhabi
I've always had a fascination with modernist, brutalist architecture, and have explored examples in Georgia, Uzbekistan, and even the Queensgate Market in my home town of Huddersfield where I used to go shopping with my Nan when I was little. At the time, people though it was a concrete monstrosity, along with many of the other "new" buildings in town. I wonder if people thought the same of the1970s buildings in Abu Dhabi when they were first built, or if they were seen as symbols of modernity? I suspect the latter since the city had no prior history of significant architecture other than its forts. A stroll along Electra Street (officially known as Zayed the First Street, but no one calls it that) and the road behind it, Hatta Street, reveals some modernist treasures. The Buty Al-Otaiba Tower, covered in tiny hexagonal lozenges, is a good place to start, and don't miss the next door Hamed Centre covered in puffy looking diamonds with tiny windows, a row of portholes above the ground floor, and the niftily named Confidence Typing shop at street level. Walk a little further and you'll come to the Obeid Al Mazru'i Building with a facade of circular holes which open onto balconies. And perhaps the most handsome of all is just a stone's throw from here, the circular Al Ibrahimi building with its slightly protruding balconies looking almost like the weft of woven fabric. It's named after the restaurant on the ground floor, and dates back to the 1970s, a brilliant example of no-holds-barred modernist architecture and urban planning (or lack thereof - it doesn't seem to correspond to anything else on the street). Over by Qasr Al Hosn, the newly-renovated oldest building in Abu Dhabi, parts of which date back to 1790, is the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation, a brilliant integration of modernist and Islamic architectural styles. The only hints from the simple facade as to what lies within are the arches decorated with blue and orange tiles. Inside, the main exhibition floor is a wide-open space with metallic doors that open to reveal more exhibition space, and a ceiling featuring geometric designs in wood. My favourite parts of the building are the large, tile-clad mosaic walls with simple chairs and pot plants in front of them. They look as stylish in this 1980s setting as they would in any contemporary urban hotel anywhere in the world.
9. Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah
Sharjah gets a thoroughly undeserved bad rap from many people in Dubai. It's unfairly dismissed as being chaotic, messy, having terrible traffic (I will concede on this one), and being "dry", hence not worth a visit. I am a huge fan of the emirate, and if there's only one thing that will convince you to dip your toe into Sharjah's exotic waters, it should be the Sharjah Art Foundation. Located in the historical Heart of Sharjah and made from traditional buildings, reclaimed coral and white cube-like galleries, the Foundation spreads across a number of different buildings close to the Corniche that have been renovated over the years to create the leading showcase of regional and international art. It's a breath of fresh air, with cool, bright spaces showcasing unexpected art, retaining a feel of typical Sharjah in a contemporary setting. The narrow alleys between the different gallery spaces have traditional oil lamps on the walls, and the lovely Fen Café beautifully adds a contemporary touch to a traditional building with columns and local floral design touches, complemented by European furniture and lighting. Additional buildings have also been acquired by the foundation, including the brilliantly brutalist Flying Saucer, once a newsstand, café and supermarket and now a community arts space, and the Al Hamriyah Studios in the north of Sharjah close to the beach, a light-filled art space built on the site of a former souq. And don't miss the Rain Room, located in a purpose-built concrete space where you walk through a downpour without getting wet. A beautiful experience in the middle of the summer heat.
10. Arabian Hotel Design, UAE
You have every type of hotel you could possibly ever dream of here in the UAE, from glass and steel towers to uber-bling palaces that dazzle with gold leaf, understatedly chic hideaways, tents that range from rustic to luxe, fairly bland yet affordable business hotels, and everything in between. But the hotels I love are the ones that adopt touches of Arabian design into their architecture. I realise that's a broad swathe of influences, and could really incorporate elements from all across the Islamic World, but give me a colourful mosaic, a tinkling water fountain, a symmetrical line of metallic lanterns and a colonnade of arches, and I'm in heaven. Throw in some desert dunes or shady palm trees, perhaps a candlelit shisha lounge or the quiet strains of an oud player, and it's even more magical to me. Some of these hotels may perhaps verge on the pastiche; others take a more measured approach using more subtle design touches, but there's just something about the Arabesque that I find alluring, romantic, and nostalgic for something that feels just out of reach, perhaps because it's really nothing more than an Arabesque fantasy. Favourites that you'll already have seen on my blog and social media are Anantara Qasr Al Sarab, Al Maha and Jumeirah Dar Al Masyaf, but I also love the arches that reflect on the shiny marble floor at the Four Seasons Resort on Jumeirah Beach, the reflective pools and wooden doors at Bab Al Shams, and the seating nooks and shady courtyards of XVA Art Hotel. Dream away.