A rich grouping of marked contrasts

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 April, 2005, 12:00am

Camel caravans ply their way between UAE's modern cities

YOU MIGHT NOT have heard much about the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on the news, but you have certainly seen images of its pride and joy - the 52-storey Arabian Tower - in magazines and on television. With huge atriums and gigantic cross beams, the sail-shaped edifice, dramatically set on a man-made island off Jumeirah Beach, has become a symbol of the modern face of a changing Middle East.

The UAE - a federation of seven emirates, or states - is a land of contrasts. Modern highways criss-cross the landscape and tree-lined boulevards bisect the cities, where shopping malls rise like mirages in the desert. And yet camel caravans continue plying the sands as they have since the region was first settled more than 5,000 years ago.

Blessed with tremendous natural wealth, the UAE has one of the world's highest per capita incomes. This wealth has been invested in a modern infrastructure, turning the country - and its capital - into a centre for commerce and trade.

Abu Dhabi, the nation's capital, is one of the world's most modern cities. High-rise buildings rub shoulders with ancient wind towers. Five-star hotels sit next to ancient mosques. There are leafy parks, shady boulevards, air-conditioned shopping malls, and the Abu Dhabi Cultural Centre, where a variety of events are held throughout the year. Key attractions include Al-Hosn Palace, also known as the Old Fort, the oldest structure in town. For local colour, check out the Old Market, or souk, and the Dhow Wharf and Fish Market.

Dubai, the country's second-largest emirate, is home to the award-winning Dubai International Airport, which was ranked the world's sixth-best last year by Skytrax. The Jebel Ali Free Trade Zone, the world's fifth-largest, has attracted more than 900 multinationals, including such household names as Aiwa, Daewoo, General Motors and Heinz.

The Dubai Air Show is ranked the world's third best, attracting tourists from around the globe. Occupying the Al-Fahidi Fort on the waterfront, the Dubai Museum is thought to be the oldest building in the city. The Bastakia Quarter has a number of wind tower houses that the city's rich and famous once called home.

Sharjah - the country's self-proclaimed cultural capital - has made rapid progress since oil was discovered near the island of Abu Musa in 1971. It was the first port in the Middle East to possess fully equipped container facilities.The attraction for tourists, however, is the plethora of museums, art galleries and theatres. The Sharjah Archaeological Museum, the Sharjah Science Museum and Planetarium, and the Sharjah Natural History Museum all warrant a visit. Umm Al Quwain, the least populated of the emirates, has clean beaches and an enclosed lagoon. There is a natural reserve for birds, deer and Al Qaram trees. The world's largest aqua park, Dreamland, is under development.

Ras Al Khaimah, the northernmost emirate, features a treasure trove of archaeological finds, indicating that an advanced civilisation had flourished there thousands of years ago. It has been ruled by the Muslim Caliphs, the Persians, Portuguese and the Dutch before becoming a part of the Al Qawasim State.

How to get there: Gulf Air maintains a hub at Abu Dhabi Airport. Passengers from Hong Kong must change planes in Bahrain.