Blog of the trip to Arabia

Pictures of Arabia

Trip to Arabia
Monday, January 28, 2008, 04:05 PM

Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Thursday, January 31, 2008, 11:30 PM

See "Notes on Dubai" in the right column -->

Photos: Photos of Dubai

The UAE (United Arab Emirates) is the 117th country i have visited in my life.

Free visa upon arrival at the airport for USA and European citizens.
The currency is the dirham, which can be changed at will back and forth
($1=3 dirhams).

Very safe, very clean, very westernized, very modern.

Sharija, United Arab Emirates
Saturday, February 2, 2008, 02:02 PM

Photos: Photos of Sharjiah

Sharija is another emirate of the United Arab Emirates. it is located
just 30' outside Dubai. Unlike Dubai,
that is radically westernized, Sharija maintains a more puritanical Islamic attitude. It is a city of many mosques. The airport itself
looks like a mosque with minarets. Even foreigners are not
allowed to sleep together if they are not married. Etc.

It is a less wealthy city. The high-rise buildings are far less spectacular than in Dubai. Families shop in regular downtown shops.
The percentage of Arab natives to foreigners is much higher than in Dubai.
The main attractions are the mosques and a couple of places that are meant to represent the historical heritage of Sharija.
Sharjia prides itself as the cultural capital of the Emirates, and boasts one of the largest universities in the world.

Monday, February 4, 2008, 12:01 PM

Photos: Photos of Qatar

Qatar is the 118th country that i have visited in my life.

Doha is quite a shock coming from wealthy Dubai. Much poorer.
Just like in Dubai the population is mostly immigrants from poor
Islamic countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, etc.
There will soon be two Dohas though. Old Doha has been restructured
but basically remains a traditional Islamic town, mostly inhabited
by workers. New Doha is being built on a strip of land in the middle
of the sea, and, just like Dubai, is a huge construction project.
There are literally dozens of skyscrapers sprouting up in that narrow

Qatar is also a land of contrast: it is the homeland of Al Jazeera,
the main propaganda arm for the Islamic terrorists, but it also
hosts a large USA military base.

There is no international bus service to Qatar because Qatar is
surrounded by fascist Saudi Arabia.

A tourist visa is handed out at the airport to western citizens for
100 Riyals.

After a 500m walk to the highway, one can take bus 49 to the center.
The bus stops at the Public Bus Station, which is surrounded by hotels
(Tower, Remal, GOlden, etc) that have rooms for $50 and up.

The Public Bus Station is walking distance from the corniche.
Bus #76 goes around the corniche, from the fishing port to the Sheraton.

Manama, Bahrein
Wednesday, February 6, 2008, 08:30 AM

Photos: Photos of Bahrein

Bahrein is the 119th country that i have visited in my life.

Compared with Dubai and even Qatar, that are colossal construction
projects, Manama is far less intense. There are four main attractions:
* The Al Fatih mosque (very big but not very pretty)
* The Beit Al Quran museum, a collection of ancient copies of the Quran. I was pleasantly surprised to see on display a rare copy of the
7th century Quran in a script that is not the current Arabic script,
a fact that made those copies very controversial when they were discovered, because it would imply that today's Quran is a translation. Also on display were suras sculpted on grains of rice and on seeds, as well as the first printed copy of the Quran (1694, printed in Germany because it was illegal to print the Quran in the Islamic world until not long ago)
* The World Trade Center towers, a spectacular skyscraper that looks like the wings of a plane or two sails facing each other
* the BNP Paribas towers of the Financial Harbor, facing the sea
The rest of Manama is mostly a series of middle-class and lower-class

The tourist visa for Westerners is handed out upon arrival at the airport for 5 dinars ($15).

Bus #1 and 6 go from the airport to Moharreq. Bus number 1 runs from this bus stand to downtown (Municipality and beyond).
Note that this is the only place in the Gulf emirates where taxis don't use taximeters.

Because of the exchange rate, Bahrein is an expensive emirate to sleep in. There are lots of cheap hotels south of the Beit Al Quran
on the left side of Exhibition Rd but the cheapest (possibly the Mirage +973 17296888) is 15 dinars ($45).
Even the Youth Hostel (south of town) is 14 dinars.

Saturday, February 9, 2008, 11:20 PM

Photos: Photos of Oman

Oman is the 120th country that i have visited in my life.

Oman is very different from the United Arab Emirates.
There are absolutely no high-rise building. Wealth is no ostentated at all.
The country is clean and safe as the emirates, but in a more traditional way.
For example, roads are flanked by endless displays of flowers. The coastal highway is basically a 500 km flower garden.
Most cities stick to the traditional architecture of the single-family home, even when they are brand new constructions.
Muscat is a federation of towns, the real capital being the tiny area around the sultan's palace. The sultan's palace itself is a good example of Oman's different view of modernity: it is simple and harmonious despite the colossal size of the compound. Its square is one of the most beautiful in the world. The view from the harbor is spectacular: hills and forts surround the palace from all sides, including the sea side.

The main things i saw in Oman were:
* The Wadi Shab, that lies in Niyabat Tiwi, Wilayat of Sur, 76 km south of Qurayyat. The road was being rebuilt in several places, but overall it was a fairly nice trip along the coast. The wadi (dry river bed) starts from Tiwi and goes inland for 20-30 km. The landscape is reminiscent of the Grand Canyon.
* Muscat (the palace area)
* Mutrah, the town next to the palace which is part of larger Muscat and has a Mediterranean feeling
* The forts around Nizwa (Bahla, Jebrin, Nizwa itself)
* The huge Qaboos Mosque that is being built north of Muscat

The visa is handed out at the border and it is free.
The currency is the ryal which is worth $3. One ryal is exactly
10 dirhams, so the dirham is also used. No need to change to ryals if you are coming from the United Arab Emirates.

Useful link:

Tuesday, February 12, 2008, 04:31 PM

Kuwait is the 121st country that i have visited in my life.

Kuwait is no Dubai. While the numbers say that Kuwait is at least as wealthy as the United Arab Emirates, there is neither the frantic high-rise construction program nor the rich infrastructure.
There are a few high-rise buildings, but nothing too spectacular.
In between the skyscrapers there are lower-class residential areas that could be anywhere in India or Egypt. Buses are run-down, cafes are rather primitive. The kingdom's wealth has not trickled down, not even in terms of public works. Some neighborhoods look like ghost towns.
The main attractions are the Kuwait Towers (located at the northern extreme of the peninsula, not really downtown) and the Fatma mosque (Abdullah Al Salem, technically speaking, located in the southern suburbs). The colossal royal palace is by far the main attraction of downtown, but it's more quantity than quality.

The people are extremely friendly, at least with Westerners. I have rarely seen people who go out of their way to help a foreigner the way the Kuwaitis did.

Like everywhere else in the region, Kuwaitis live under an Islamic dictatorship that forbids them to get an education in any other religion and even bans any discussion of Islam.
Even the website of the Kuwait National Museum was blocked when i was there!

A tourist visa costs $12 for USA and Europeans. It requires standing in line for one hour or so at the "Visa issuing" desk of the airport.
The Kuwait currency is the Dinar (KWD) that is worth $4.

The cheap airline Jazeera Airways flies to Egypt, Turkey, Cyprus, Iran (Mashad and Shiraz), Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Dubai. From Dubai it flies to Mumbai, Delhi and Maldives.

There are two bus terminals in the city: the main one by the Liberation Tower and the Sheraton one.
Bus 501 goes from the airport to the city's main bus terminal for $1.
Buses 17,22,23 go about 1km from the Fatma Mosque (you have to cross the highway on the footbridge and then ask the locals how to get there).
Buses 51 and 103 go to the Kuwait Towers. You have to cross the square and turn around the construction to get to the seaside. Then you can walk almost to the base of the towers.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Wednesday, February 13, 2008, 09:32 AM

Construction in Abu Dhabi is far less ambitious than in the sister city-state of Dubai, but this also gives it more of a feeling of a real city. The high-rise buildings tend to be concentrated on the Corniche, which also has the nicest gardens.

Abu Dhabi's designers seem to have been aware of several architectural styles of the world. The new area built on top of the Old Souq is reminescent of downtown Manhattan. The two mosques in its middle, one facing the other, are reminescent of Roman squares. The capital gardens are reminescent of Central Park or the Golden Gate Park (replete with species of trees from all over the world). The mosques themselves come in many styles, from Romanesque to post-modernist to medieval fort.

At the very end of the Corniche is the most spectacular of all buildings, the Emirates Palace Hotel, straight out of a fairy tale.
It hosts an exhibition of the forthcoming Saadiyat Island's Cultural Center, besides other cultural events.
The only historical building in town is the heavily restored fort Qasr Al Hosn.

Abu Dhabi is turning its Saadiyat Island into a major cultural center.
Some of the most famous architects of the century have been hired:
Frank Gehry designed the Guggenheim;
Zaha Hadid designed the Performing Arts CEnter;
Jean Nouvel designed the Louvre;
Tadao Ando designed the Maritime Museum;
Pei-Zhu and others designed the Biennale Park.

In 2008 Abu Dhabi announced construction of the world's first zero-carbon, car-free city, Masdar. Powered by solar energy, it will provide public transportation on magnetic tracks. The eight-year project is estimated to cost $22bn. When finished, it will provide houses for 50,000 people and offices for 1,500 businesses.
This followed a similar announcement that Abu Dhabi is investing $15bn in a five-year project to develop clean-energy technologies, including the world's largest hydrogen power-plant.

This is a city with no city buses. Buses only seem to run from the bus station to the suburbs. Tae a taxi to the bus station. Taxis do not use taximeters. Bargain before entering a taxi.
Bus 901 goes between downtown and Terminals 1 and 2 for $1.

To get to Abu Dhabi from Dubai take bus E1 for 15 dirhams ($5) from the Bur Dubai bus station. It takes about 1h 45'.

Tourist information at the seventh floor of the Chamber Tower on the Corniche.

Cheap hotels: Vendome, Claridge, Khalidia, Al Ain (hard to get below $40)

Abu Dhabi Tourism:
Abu Dhabi city maps:

Link for new cultural district:

Liwa Oasis, United Arab Emirates
Thursday, February 14, 2008, 10:15 AM

Camped in the desert and visited the Liwa oasis.
The Liwa oasis is located at the border between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, about three hours by car.
(By bus take the Abu Dhabi bus to Medinat Zayed and then 30 minutes to Mizairaha and then a minibsu to Hameem, but the best dunes are actually near Mizairaha).
If driving, a new road runs from Hameem straight (really straight) to the coastal highway (almost at that junction there is a new car museum).
This whole highway is flanked by palm trees (that are kept alive with a 190 km watering system). Camels can be seen moving alone the highway.
Liwa is one of the largest oases on the Arabian Peninsula and the entry point to the so-called "Empty Quarter".
It boasts some of the tallest dunes in the world and famous date plantations.
The oasis is home to the Bani Yas tribe, the Bedouin ancestors of Abu Dhabi's emir. The palace is on a hill overlooking Mizairaha

Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Friday, February 15, 2008, 09:21 AM
I fly back to San Francisco in a few hours. End of the Arabian trip!
Look at the link to the photos in the right column.
The map below has the summary of the places i visited in this trip.

Notes on Arabia

Pictures of Arabia

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