Middle East: Oman, Emirates, Saudi, Jordan, Syria

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After having gone through Syria, Jordan, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Sultanate of Oman, our travels in the Middle East come to their end in the United Arab Emirates. We must admit that we never really got used to one aspect of local lifestyle: gender separation and women's "invisibility", although we respect the cultural, historical or religious factors behind such traditions. As a result, we met considerably fewer Arab women than men. They constantly proved to be welcoming, friendly and humane. We are grateful for their hospitality and cherish the friendship which has bloomed between us in quite a few places.
Click on pictures to enlarge them.
Sultanate of Oman. Apart from the ObGyn ward, we had not expected hospitals to be fully gender separated.
Sultanate of Oman. It was while visiting the beautiful fjords of Musandam Peninsula, near Hormuz Strait that we understood how in the old days, dhow skippers could keep on steering for hours on end...
Museums in Muscat, Oman and Al Ain, UAE. Traditional leather masks are sometimes covered with gold leaves to improve protection from the sun. In 2006, we frequently spotted such masks being worn by country and city women alike, for instance in shopping malls.
United Arab Emirates. To go from snowmobile to "sandmobile", this prototype was being modified in 2006 to face two last hurdles: protection against sand abrasive quality and making up for the cooling effect normally provided by snow. Already quite a thrilling ride on sand dunes though!
United Arab Emirates. In case of a "sandmobile" breakdown, one can always turn to tradition and call upon sleigh dogs! Anything is possible in Dubai, including seeing a Husky play in the dunes in the winter time. The local dog, the saluki, looks very much like a greyhound.
United Arab Emirates. One can doubt that these 4WD limos do actually get offroad...
United Arab Emirates. To go to sea, this amphibian vehicle is equipped with a propellor and with colored lights according to marine regulations, red and green for starbord and port.
United Arab Emirates. A purple horse marks the roundabout leading to Dubai racetrack, while a light blue one welcomes visitors to "Media City". Another dark blue specimen can be spotted in the same district and other colors can be found elsewhere in the city.
United Arab Emirates. This replica of an Indian palace houses a car dealer's showroom and offices. Dubai is a melting pot of cultures where almost any idea could be financed...
United Arab Emirates. In Dubai, all sorts of restaurants are available, even one serving drinks and food!
United Arab Emirates. Is this shop name supposed to attract an Argentinian clientele? Will we one day get to see Barbara Bush-i, Bernadette Chirac-i or Raissa Gorbatchev-i shops?
United Arab Emirates. With a name like "Vilebrequin" - (crankshaft) - we expected to find overalls in this shop rather than... classy underwear for men. More appropriate than "piston" though! And make sure that your sweetheart does not understand French before offering her a piece of jewelry from "Faux Bijoux"... (fake jewels, in English).
United Arab Emirates. At the "Mall of Emirates", "Ski Dubai" offers visitors a permanent temperature of -4° C and slopes ranging from easy to fairly difficult, from green to red, enough to soothe sudden urges to rush to Chamonix ou Aspen. For locals, a visit at the "snow park" is often a first contact ever with cold and snow, which they experience warmly wrapped in lengthy black coats worn over traditional long dress with matching white or black headscarves. Westerners often come dressed in their shorts, since red and blue ski suits are part of the equipment provided which includes gloves, but not hats.
United Arab Emirates. Right after your snow or ski experience, how about a warming "fondue"? Outside, the desert awaits you, with temperatures averaging 40° C...
United Arab Emirates. Let your bank do the driving!
United Arab Emirates. "Dragon Mart" offers quite a contrasting sight to Dubai's fancy malls, with its little shops sometimes attended to in a most relaxed manner... Within the same 4x8 meter shop will be displayed Chinese kitchen utensils such as ladles, side by side with Chinese compressors or industrial pumps... Would a new marketing concept be on the rise?...
United Arab Emirates, Dubai. Even a newcomer to this store could not fail to read its sign of warning! Supermarkets in Jumeira, a district mainly populated by expats, offer an array of international deli products, some of which are quite scarce in the Middle East, such as "unpure" pork meat...
United Arab Emirates. Dubai is a gigantic construction site, such as here at "Internet City" which houses companies from the hi-tech sector. Some brand names are already well known and some might become so in the future...
United Arab Emirates. Plumbing and electrical problems are a frequent source of frustration in Dubai homes. To fix an A/C or pool problem will require at least two or three attempts by a maintenance team of two, three, or even four "technicians". When the most qualified one is at work and needs a tool, a request will be passed down from one technician to the next and the tool will come up the same channel - that is if the least qualified, standing by the toolbox, can find it in there. We ourselves witnessed several such acts of stand-up comedy in a city where home maintenance is a favorite and endless subject of conversation among friends. Not only are repairs rarely successful on the first attempt, but the matter is only made worse by increasingly poorer construction standards, a phenomenon which has become even more worrisome for the last ten years...
United Arab Emirates, Dubai. How not to cancel all your aqua-gym classes in summer time? A water-cooling system for pools is an essential piece of equipment in luxury hotels and homes and the only way to keep water under 40° C.
United Arab Emirates. It is always fun to take a look at local packaging for global products and see how they are adapted to a specific market using a different alphabet but also different texts and photos. Here, men and women conduct their activities separately, a far cry from our stereotyped family pictures where daddy will invariably stand next to daughter and son next to mommy.
United Arab Emirates. The Burj Al Arab hotel has become the Dubai international trademark. Its daring design - that of a sailboat complete with spider and tall masts - is reproduced on every postcard and souvenir in town. It even used to be represented on all new licence plates, although only a few still remain visible. Wondering why such a sudden fall out of love? Whispers have it that when viewed from the sea, its masts resemble a Christian cross...
United Arab Emirates. You certainly have your driver's licence, but how about your alcoholic drinks licence? This document is issued by the police for a yearly fee to expatriates with a work contract and determines their monthly quota of alcohol according to their revenue. This is to prevent alcohol traffic. Tourists need not worry, they can always go to higher-end cafes and restaurants and consume alcohol at will, but they should not venture out into the streets when drunk, for this is a serious offence.
United Arab Emirates. Why buy half a car? These are sold as "spare parts" for export to countries where cars are heavily taxed - whole ones, that is. So when labor is cheap, an organ transplant becomes worth it.
United Arab Emirates, 2006. Dubai. Police point out several reasons for the high rate of accidents in town. One of them is that windows and windshields are heavily tinted, sometimes well beyond authorized levels, thus dangerously reducing drivers' visibility. Now how about a black veil? Does it interfere with front and side vision when worn over face and eyes, especially at night behind tinted windows? Martine agreed to put it to the test, but only within the perimeter of a private residence.
Road "acrobatics" and failure to maintain a safe distance between vehicles are part of a "Karach-mbay" driving style imported to Dubai by drivers hailing from highly populated cities.
Another dangerous feature of Dubai is those big double-engine vehicles often seen in residential streets of Jumeira going well past 90 km/h. So would you be surprised to hear that Sheik Zaied Road sadly holds the world record for deadly accidents?
United Arab Emirates. No, not all fire trucks are red! They can be yellow such as here, a feature we also noted in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Sultanate of Oman.
United Arab Emirates, 2006. The free, home-delivered "7DAYS" newspaper has become a staple of Dubai. Through its articles and readers' letters, it often talks about those little glitches in local regulations which unnecessarily affect people's lives. It has recently pointed out a number of popular Internet sites which have been blocked by telecom authorities on "moral" grounds and Internet telephone services which no longer provide an affordable link between expats and their families and friends back home.
United Arab Emirates, 2006. Before being placed on newsstands for sale, each Western magazine is reviewed by an officer whose job it is to censor nudity with a black marker. It is ironical that a rare example of meaningful and useful nudity in a French ad got censored just the same. This campaign against breast cancer says: "Last year, this woman showed her breasts and saved her life."
United Arab Emirates, 2006. Could it be that the censorship officer would be mainly concerned by female nudity? Did he just miss this photo or is see-throughness not considered nudity? We do not know the answer but wonder who benefits the most from male nudity?


Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Choosing a smashed car as a business sign for a repair shop is quite self-explanatory. But why are there so many car wrecks on the side of the road? We do not know whether these are private initiatives or an official campaign targeting road hazards. Either way, a most relevant and laudable effort for this country.
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Urban decorations are often inspired by local geography, as is the case here along the Red Sea.
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Red Sea, 2006. Wherever we camped on the Red Sea shores, our "security" was assured courtesy of the local police, with one or two patrol cars guarding us 24 hours a day... Forget privacy, we found ours in the mountains.
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 2006. Some police officials took to heart to enlighten us regarding their religion by giving us several booklets designed to convince and why not convert their readers. Such brochures clearly refer to the original ideas of peace and tolerance developed by this religion in the 7th century. Be careful not to promote any other belief though, for the religious police is watching you!
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 2006. Gas stations, supermarkets or smaller shops such as this one all close down suddenly several times a day, at prayer times. Thirty to forty-five minutes later, one can return to shopping or eating at a restaurant. Visitors are sometimes allowed to remain locked inside during that time.
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 2006. Excerpts from dress code recommendations as described in the welcome booklet handed out to visitors upon arrival in Riyadh:
...In town it is generally unacceptable to wear shorts although on week-ends, even young Saudis can be seen wearing them in supermarkets. Sleeveless T-shirts are considered improper dress. The regional dress worn by nationals would be most unusual if worn by a Westerner, perhaps even frowned upon.
Western ladies should acquire an "abaya" (black opaque neck to floor length cloak) soon after arriving. Head covering seems to be becoming less and less of an issue but a matching (to the abaya) headscarf in one's handbag is a useful accessory. Far from being a constraint for Western women, the abaya is a positive boon. Buying an abaya means not having to buy a whole wardrobe of conservative clothes which you may never wear again after leaving Saudi Arabia. The all-purpose cloak goes just as well over T-shirts and jeans or shorts as it does over a glamorous evening dress. The rule of thumb is: if you are wearing an abaya you are properly dressed.
On the left, abayas as they are worn by Western women, with hair showing. On the right, an abaya worn with a fully covered face. Please note that Martine modelled for these photos, as we do not publish pictures of female nationals, out of respect for local traditions.
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 2006. Has this ad for a shopping mall been recycled from a foreign poster? Or does a drawing come with an artistic licence impossible with photos? Here, female faces are not covered, wear make-up and show a little bit of hair, which is considered locally as an object of sexual desire. Moreover, bodies are not hidden under abayas but underlined, while in the background, other female shadows show their hair undone.
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 2006. The window of a toy shop displays on the right the official religion's holy book, incidentally the only one allowed to be sold here. Even dolls conform to the local dress codes and make for a very popular item with little girls.
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 2006, "Cinema 500 km". This film's title illustrates a local idiosyncrasy: Saudi probably is the only country in the world which has no movie theaters. The director based his film on the true story of a friend and movie buff who, in order to see a film in a movie theater, had to: apply for a passport, drive from Ryiadh to Alkhobar, cross the border with Bahrain, go to a shopping mall, and lastly buy his ticket for a movie. The director, Abdullah Eyaf, mentions that although he got permission from the Ministry of Culture and Information to shoot his film, he knows that there will never be a public showing within the Kingdom.
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Several times we have noticed drivers well under fourteen driving powerful sedans or 4WDs. For women, who are not allowed to drive in this country, this is a practical way of having a driver and a "man" of their family be with them at all times, according to the local custom. This custom does not apply to foreign women who can more easily take taxis - driven by men. And at what age is a local male legally considered a man then? Age 11. Please note that this is a custom rather than an official rule: women are allowed to go shopping or to the bank by themselves, although we ourselves have not seen any during our rather short two-week stay in the Kingdom. No offence meant here, this is just what we witnessed.
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, 2006. The zoo's opening hours are based on Asr prayer time. And the zoo goes one step further in the non-coed regulations otherwise applied to public places. At museums, for instance, opening hours for men and schools are different from those for families. But at the zoo, entire days are dedicated to either male or female audiences, a system which mirrors a strict presentation of animals by gender: female animals on female days and male animals on the other days, thus with no risk of shocking women, teenagers or innocent little girls. Of course, little boys can go with their mothers and sisters until they reach the age of 10 or 11 and then become "men".