For me, an architecture geek, the two top sights in the United Arab Emirates are both new buildings. One structure is black, the other white. One secular, the other sacred. One reaches higher in the sky than any building on earth. The other spreads out so wide its central courtyard could hold three football fields. One you can’t miss; the other will require an excursion and an effort with the United Arab Emirate’s fledgling public transportation system. They are the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, and I managed to visit both one day even though they are 80 miles apart.
The tapering Burj Khalifa rises 2,722 feet, a record it will hold until a building under construction in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, surpasses it later this decade. Modeled loosely on a 60-year-old design by Frank Lloyd Wright, it cuts a mesmerizing figure from every citywide vantage. Architecture critic Paul Goldberger, writing in The New Yorker in 2010 shortly after its opening, called it “a shimmering silver needle, its delicacy as startling as its height. You would think that anything this huge would dominate the sky, but the Burj Khalifa punctuates it instead.”
You can catch gorgeous views of this building from just about anywhere in the city, but it beckons you. You want to be a total tourist and buy overpriced tickets for “At The Top,” the two observation decks. Advance purchase tickets to the 125th floor start at 125 dirhams, while you can get up to the 148th floor in an apparently much more impressive elevator for tickets starting at 350 dirhams. I went cheap. The 125th deck is high enough to see the vastness of the desert on one side and the outlines of The World — a collection of man-made islands designed to look like a map of the world — in the gulf.
After zipping back down, past the Armani Cafe, and into the Mall of Dubai, I then had to figure out how to make my way to Abu Dhabi — a trip that takes anywhere from 70 minutes to two hours, depending on traffic. I could engage a car service from Downtown Dubai that would set me back 800 dirhams round trip. I could hop in a cab and spend about 300 dirhams on the meter each way. I could head to the bus station and commit the next four hours to travel. Ugh and ugh.
Instead I decided to catch the metro as far south as it goes and then take my chances. I rode the elevated track for 20 miles, to the port of Jebel Ali. With each stop, the contrast between encroaching desert and high-rise construction became starker and starker. By the time I arrived a half hour later it was all skeletal construction and sand, very “Star Wars.” Clutching my meager provisions and Diet Coke, I descended into the entrance and saw a security guard sitting at a desk at the station entrance — basically a glassed-in pod set in a sandy pit beside a highway. “Do you know where I can get a cab to Abu Dhabi?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, whipping out his cellphone. Two minutes later, a cab pulled into a dirt embankment, the door slid open, and we were off. The cab driver charged 160 dirhams each way (about a 50-minute trip) and snoozed in the car while I toured the mosque.
What an amazing sight. The 96 marble columns in the main prayer hall are inlaid with mother of pearl, and the calligraphy on the Qibla wall (listing the 99 attributes of Allah) is enhanced with fiber optic lights.
But I best loved walking around that massive courtyard and then touring the grounds. Tourists must dress modestly, and if they don’t pass muster they’re sent to a room to get fitted with a simple covering. So you pay little attention to the people and instead contemplate the beauty of this place. At one point a woman in a full-length abeya, her head under a hood, shuffled by me. I looked down and saw her jangly ankle bracelet and bright pink toenails in a sandal.