The pace of change in the city states of the Arabian Gulf beggars belief. In scarcely more than three generations, within the lifetime of some of those living there, these tiny territories on the rim of Arabia have grown from underdeveloped fishing ports and trading emporia into global conurbations of unimaginable size and wealth. At the last count, Dubai had 17 of the world’s 100 tallest skyscrapers – the same number as the whole of the United States, and this for a population of not much over 2 million.
The first oil in the region was struck in 1932, in Bahrain, but initially the impact locally was slight and inadequate as a substitute for the vanishing pearling industry. Amazingly, no oil was exported from any of the Emirates until 1969. But the story is more complex than black gold; to cite Dubai again, the city derives only 5% of its revenues from oil.
With riches has come some of the most exciting urban architecture in the world (and lots of vulgar horrors as well), and huge expenditure on cultural infrastructure, with starry architects to the fore. Currently the outstanding example of this is I.M. Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art in Doha (Qatar), which together with its wonderful collection provides one of the finest museological experiences in the world. The imminent opening of Jean Nouvel’s Louvre Abu Dhabi will provide it with a worthy rival.
The rags to riches story provides part of the fascination of this tour, but equally interesting, and a salutary foil to the massiveness of modernity, are the remains of traditional culture. Preservation and restoration of vernacular architecture arrived in the nick of time; obliteration might otherwise have ensued. There is also a rich seam of archaeology to explore, but ‘old’ tends to mean not much more than a hundred years.
Perhaps one of the least expected features of the region is the indigenous contemporary art scene. Much of the work is approachable and appealing but not bland, often expressive and sometimes political. Museums, exhibition halls and commercial galleries are a significant feature of the tour. Part of the excitement of the tour arises from the different characteristics of each state. We visit five, including three of the seven United Arab Emirates, Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi.
Fly c. 9.00am from London Heathrow to Dubai (Emirates Airlines), arriving c. 8.00pm local time. First of four nights in Dubai.
Dubai. Until the mid-20th century Dubai was a small fishing port and entrepôt around an inlet, the Creek. Amid the bustle of Deira, location of the Gold Souk and workaday shops and businesses, there survive buildings c.1890/1920 including a school and a pearl merchant’s house, now museums. Maximum contrast: staked out by countless skyscrapers, the modern business district marches south for many miles. See some excellent recent architecture, The Gate financial centre and the Emirates Towers. Ascend the world’s highest building, Burj Khalifa (828 metres). Overnight Dubai.
Sharjah. Sharjah begins only ten minutes from the Dubai hotel. With the profusion of tower blocks it is initially indistinguishable from Dubai, but government and public buildings adopt traditional Islamic forms. The vast university campus is a striking and beautiful example of this. Sharjah strives to be pre-eminent among the Emirates for arts and culture. The Art Museum has an excellent collection of recent Arab art, and the Museum of Islamic Civilization presents Arab achievements through historic artworks. By special arrangement, visit the College of Fine Arts. Overnight Dubai.
Al Ain. 130km inland and a contrast to the coastal cities, Al Ain arose around a string of oases. The one-time governor and later founder of the OAE, Sheikh Zayed, exploited its natural resources and ancient irrigation system to plant innumerable trees and gardens. It acquired unesco World Heritage status in 2011 for its historical and cultural heritage. Visit a couple of picturesque mud-brick forts, the National Museum and the archaeological remains of tombs of the 3rd century bc. Overnight Dubai.
Dubai. The biggest cluster of preserved pre-modern houses is at Shindagha near the mouth of the Creek. Among them are museums devoted to traditional architecture and to photographs which graphically illustrate the recent changes. Another group of old buildings is in the Bastakiya district, some of which are now art galleries. In the late afternoon fly to Qatar (the new airport is by HOK Architects). The hotel is within the Wafiq Souk, a vibrant traffic-free district of retail and restaurants. Overnight Doha.
Doha. Msheireb is a district which has been handsomely redeveloped while retaining some old courtyard houses which are now enlightened museums examining local history. Then visit the Museum of Islamic Art, the finest of its kind in the world. In a beautiful lakeside building by I.M. Pei a spectacular collection brilliantly displayed. Plenty of time here, and some free time after returning to the hotel. Overnight Doha.
Al Zubarah, Doha. Drive through the desert to Al Zubarah, the remains of a 17th-century fishing and pearl trading town, now a unesco World Heritage Site. The fort is impressive – but dates only to 1938. Return to Doha, see contemporary buildings at the university, and visit the Arab Museum of Modern Art. Invariably there are several good exhibitions here. The Sheikh Faisal Museum has a vast, various and wonderfully old-fashioned private collection of art and antiques and all sorts (e.g. 200 vintage cars). Overnight Doha.
Bahrain. Fly from Qatar to the Kingdom of Bahrain. An island, the first oil in the Gulf was pumped here in 1932. Manama is less intensively high-rise than the cities of the Emirates, and an exploration begins at the Bab Al Bahrain, the recently restored 1930s centre. Two beautiful recent buildings stand beside water, the National Theatre and the National Museum. The museum has an excellent archaeological section and changing art exhibitions. Overnight Bahrain.
Bahrain. A day largely outside the city. Qal’at al-Bahrain, a unesco heritage site, has impressive remains of a waterfront settlement which thrived from the 3rd millennium bc to the 18th century ad – Dilmun, Roman, Islamic and Portuguese. Dilmun sites elsewhere include a partially excavated town, a temple and 85,000 round barrows, the largest necropolis in the world. The first oil well survives as part of a museum in an area of desert crisscrossed with still-functioning pipes and pumps. Overnight Bahrain.
Bahrain. Before Manama expanded, the main Bahraini town was Muharraq, which thrived on the pearl trade. A number of old houses have been preserved and converted to cultural and educational uses in a rare convergence of conservation and contemporary design. Also seen today are the Riffa Fort at the water’s edge in Muharraq and the Beit al Quran, an excellent and well presented collection of early Koranic manuscripts. Overnight Bahrain.
Abu Dhabi. Fly to Abu Dhabi, which is blessed with the largest oil reserves of the seven Emirates. Measured by skyscrapers Abu Dhabi has lagged behind Dubai, but its ambitions for cultural development outstrip other Gulf states. By the time of the tour an outpost of the Louvre will have opened on Saadiyat Island, in a building designed by Jean Nouvel. The afternoon is spent here. Overnight Abu Dhabi.
Abu Dhabi. Return to Saadiyat Island to see the New York University campus, the preview exhibitions of the Guggenheim and of the Sheikh Zayed Museum, developed in partnership with the British Museum. Among other sights are the World Trade Centre; designed by Foster Partners it’s an alluring take on traditional forms, and the Emirates Palace Hotel where glamour is underpinned by real grandeur and finesse. Overnight Abu Dhabi.
Abu Dhabi. Visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, perhaps the most opulent mosque in the world. Fly from Dubai and arrive Heathrow at 8.00pm.
Dr Karen Exell
Studied at Oxford University and St Andrews, before obtaining a PhD from Durham University. She directed the MA in Museum and Gallery Practice at UCL Qatar from 2011–15, where she is currently Honorary Senior Research Associate. She is also a consultant at Qatar Museums, developing the new National Museum designed by Jean Nouvel. Recent publications include Cultural Heritage in the Arabian Peninsula: Debates, Discourses & Practices and Museums in Arabia: Transnational Practices & Regional Processes. Her monograph, Modernity & the Museum in the Arabian Peninsula was published in April 2016.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £5,410 or £4,820 without international flights.
Single Occupancy: £5,980 or £5,390 without international flights.
Air travel (economy class) on scheduled flights with Qatar Airways and Etihad (Airbus A330-200); travel by private coach; hotel accommodation; breakfasts; five lunches and nine dinners with wine, water and coffee; all admissions to museums and sites; all tips for restaurant staff, drivers and guides; all state and airport taxes; the services of the lecturer, tour manager and a local guide.
Sheraton Creek Hotel Dubai (4 nights): originally built in the 1970s, the first five-star hotel in Dubai, it was thoroughly refurbished in 2013–15. Beside the Creek, most rooms have good views. Mirqab Hotel, Doha (3 nights): one of a group of characterful boutique hotels in the vibrant Souq Wafiq, a traditional shopping and restaurant area though largely reconstructed. Swiss-Belhotel, Bahrain (3 nights): a recently built four-star hotel with contemporary decor and spacious rooms. Beach Rotana, Abu Dhabi (2 nights): an opulent and expansive 5-star resort close to Saadiyet island. All hotels have swimming pools and free wifi.
There is a lot of walking involved and you will be on your feet for long stretches of time, in some cases on exposed sites and walking over rough terrain. Sure-footedness and agility are essential. The tour is not suitable for anyone who has difficulties with everyday walking and stair climbing.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.fco.gov.uk.