Thomas Bywater ditches the air-conditioning for instant Araby on a long layover in Dubai.

Dubai might be the most insecure city in the world.

No sooner had their Saudi neighbours announced plans for a tower in Jeddah, taller than Dubai's Burj Khalif, than it was seen as an affront. "Don't worry," said my taxi driver, as much for his assurance as mine. "We've started building another."

True to his word we passed a colossal site near Dubai Creek, earmarked for the development of the "new tallest building in the world" come 2020.

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After which point one assumes the Burj will blend into the skyline of white elephants as just the latest, spikiest addition.

Dubai's Dune Reserve Desert Safari. Photo / Thomas Bywater
Dubai's Dune Reserve Desert Safari. Photo / Thomas Bywater

Even the police have such an aching need for validation as to conspicuously park sports cars on the pavement.

Walking into Burj al Arab — rumoured to be the "world's only seven star hotel" to be built entirely out of superlatives — I pass a Bentley, Audi and Beamer, all in green police livery, parked out front.

"Calm down Dubai!" It's just a bit tryhard.

As the biggest urban metropolis in a country that is just 47 years old, you can kind of appreciate where it comes from. It's not yet had the time to develop the guarded subtlety of other boltholes for the
ultra-rich.

Unlike the contented, beige towns lining Lichtenstein and the Swiss Alps, the Emirati playground has something to prove. Dubai uses its newfound megabucks to furnish the skyline, install air conditioning in bus stops, and build designer islands out into the Gulf. In short, put on one hell of a show for tourists.

And this is exactly why it has become such a popular layover destination for Kiwi travellers flying through.

That and the world-class international airport — the third largest by number of passengers carried.

The city deals in wow-factor, temples to shopping and man-made spectacles to keep gobs smacked and heads spinning for at least 12 of your 24 hour layover. But at some point one finds one's attention waning as a sort of air-conditioned cabin fever sets in.

Thomas Bywater on his Arabian Adventure. Photo / Thomas Bywater
Thomas Bywater on his Arabian Adventure. Photo / Thomas Bywater

You begin to imagine what the place looked like a century ago — no, 30 years ago even. Carried over the dunes to the lilting melodies of Scheherazade, you can feel the pull of the desert.

As a tourist there are many ways to see the sands. For those with a limited window of time who wish to see another side to the Gulf state, Arabian Adventures runs an evening Desert Safari — a must for anyone making an overnighter in Dubai International Airport.

At 3pm our driver arrived at the hotel in a glistening 4WD. So far so Dubai, but soon we were heading south and leaving the skyline behind.

At the edge of the Dubai desert, Conservation Reserve tyres were deflated and we joined a convoy of other vehicles heading out over the sand. This drive in itself justifies the trip.

Within minutes we were sailing over the dunes. The 30 or so vehicles disappeared into the trenches between sand banks, emerging and weaving over the crests.

Each time the vehicle climbed to the top it offered a new perspective over the sea of dunes covering an area the size of the Manukau Harbour.

Perhaps "sailing" paints too graceful a picture of the journey, but it was a chance to live out one's Indiana Jones fantasies.

The drive was both exhilarating and uncomfortable. Eventually we arrived at a faux-Bedouin camp, a kind of Disneyland of the desert.

Ghost the falcon. Photo / Thomas Bywater
Ghost the falcon. Photo / Thomas Bywater

It is at this theme park within reserve where the tour fits in most of the activities. In six and a half hours, we packed in a falconry demonstration, camel rides, sand-boarding, henna painting, shisha pipes, a buffet dinner, star gazing and belly dancing. How do you get through so much, in such a short time? With great difficulty. The Desert Safari does many things and in not much depth, which is perhaps just the right amount for a stopover.

The schedule it ran to was tighter than a proverbial camel passing through the eye of a needle.
The company drives a convoy of tourists to the desert seven days a week, and there is a well-worn rigueur to the whole event. For the guides you have the impression it could be any of 1001 Arabian nights.

They are diligent hosts but you can't help but notice that this semi-permanent campsite, with fitted bathrooms and artfully placed floodlights on the nearby dunes, is more for the tourists' benefit than any kind of cultural conservation.

It is the Araby of imagination — the food and entertainment is more an Aladdin and his Lamp panto than a National Geographic expo — but that's fine. Things happen to set and regimented order, the lights are turned off for the five minutes allotted "stargazing" experience and then it's home.

You leave the desert wondering: where are the real Bedouins? And the answer is back in the comfortable, urban settings we left to come on this tour.

Our guide Mohammod said the Bedouins living outdoors are fewer now than they've ever been. On the way out of the park we pass rows of permanent housing where the nomads of yesterday now live. The Bedouin are keen to keep traditions alive, but the reasons and incentives to keep up the wayfaring desert lifestyle are no longer there. They might light a fire and camp out overnight, but probably no more than your average Kiwi does.

Burj Al Arab. Photo / Thomas Bywater
Burj Al Arab. Photo / Thomas Bywater

This romanticised tour might be the closest to the desert you can get in the Emirati tourism capital. It's a fantasy, yes, but compared to the ones they try to sell you at the Dubai Mall, it wins hands down.

Lastly there is the question of camel riding.

It is one of the most popular activities listed on the tour, but don't expect some epic TE Lawrence odyssey.

Ninety odd tourists pile on to the spit-muzzled animals for a 50m circuit in the sand. The extreme pride and value the Emirati invest in their camels — both culturally and in huge sums of dirham — tells you of the importance the animals hold for the local people. They are a much loved mascot for the desert state.

But here they are treated as more of a commodity.

 Dubai police cars. Photo / Thomas Bywater
Dubai police cars. Photo / Thomas Bywater

I left the camel experience feeling some discomfort from sitting atop a humped saddle.

As a way of ticking off your Arabian to-do list the tour has it all, but perhaps the highlight is just heading out into the reserve.

In the calm, serene landscape made of uncountable grains of sand.

Its sublime awe is the kind of natural resource the UAE can't just pump out of the ground.

Time spent in the desert is the perfect antidote to Dubai's air-conditioned glass complexes, and will make you appreciate them all the more on your return.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Emirates

flies direct from Auckland to Dubai, with onward connections to more than 150 cities.

DETAILS
arabian-adventures.com