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Dive the Desert – United Arab Emirates

The first thing that a lot of my friends have said to me, especially those from the USA, is that I am crazy, mad, lucky I am not on an American passport, and also to be careful!  First of all I would like to remove those misconceptions, and write a little about living in Dubai (one of the seven Emirates) and also some information about the diving here. 

Dubai is a modern city, on the blue waters and clean sands of the Arabian Gulf, and it neighbours Oman and surrounding Emirates.

It is an explosive economy that is growing 20% each year.  The first time I came here was in 1997, where I came to a trade show at the World Trade Centre, and it is unbelievable how the place has doubled in size since I was last here.  Dubai itself has a population of some 30M, of which only 2,5M are actually local Emirati people.  The Emirates survive on the input of workforce of expatriates, from all countries and all levels of people.  Unlike popular belief, Dubai’s main income is from the financial sector, construction and tourism, whereas other gulf countries, for example Kuwait, are far richer than the Emirates due to oil production.  Dubai is a tax-free country, and 1/3 of the world’s money goes through Dubai every day. It is fantastic to work here tax-free and save your money off-shore.

Passenger movement at the Dubai International Airport was expected to go up from 21.7 million in 2004 to 25 million this year, and 60 million by 2010, posing challenges on the security and safety fronts of airlines as well as passengers.  Dubai is building a new Terminal 3 in its airport to cater for growth and also house the purchase and traffic of the new A380 Super Jumbo.   

Dubai’s plan is to attract foreign investment, and gives tax benefits to companies who wish to relocate here from other continents.  A new area of Dubai is being built, called the Jumeirah Beach Residence.  Jumeirah Beach Residence is the opportunity of a lifetime. It is the only property that offers you a permanent beach resort lifestyle.  It is a unique urban community including shopping malls (The Walk shopping mall), restaurants, cineplexes, sports and health clubs, schools, medical facilities, 4 hotels and offices. 

Down the road you can visit the worlds largest shopping complex, due to complete in September 2005, called the Mall of the Emirates with over 350 shops and more than 2.4 million square feet of prime retail and leisure space, a 400 room hotel and a 400 metre long indoor ski slope & the largest single-level Carrefour hypermarket in the Middle East.  No need to taxi around when you will be able to stay at the first Kempinski Resort (at the Mall of the Emirates) which is located on Sheikh Zayed Road. It features over 400 suites including prestigious duplex ski chalets offering unique or extraordinary views over the indoor ski resort which is also one of the worlds longest indoor ski slopes and a snow play area where children can experience winter with real snow. A great break from desert boarding!  

The 48,000m² hotel will take pride of place at the forefront of the Mall with views over the Arabian Gulf. It will also including Ayurveda wellness centre, swimming pool and tennis courts.

Foreigners are now able to purchase property in Dubai, on a leasehold basis.  This is proving to be a profitable investment as the time to buy is now and the value of these properties is growing at an unbelievably fast rate.  Of my own experience, close friends of ours bought a house in a new development and the value of their property has increased by 30,000GBP (54,600USD) in the last three months.

If you are not interesting in buying, you can rent a 3 bedroom villa with a pool for only 20,000 USD a year. People who are employed here in a management or senior capacity will receive an allowance in their package, which will well cover this kind of rent.

In the new Dubai area, there are some 350 new towers being built for completion in the next 3 years, with offices, shops, apartments and penthouses.

The advantage of living in Dubai is a relatively crime free society, it is really safe to live here.  The cities, parks, roadsides are well maintained and most of them are grassed and flowered.  Sometimes it’s hard to believe that we live right next to the desert, except for the soaring temperatures which can reach 50°C in mid-summer!There are so many work opportunities here, in construction, banking, events, water sports, financial services, retail, advertising, tourism, medical, you name it, and there are opportunities here.  There are presently 10 new hotels to be completed and opened between now and mid-2006.  By the 2008 there will be accommodation completed (luxury and high-standard lifestyle type residences) for at another 10M people, or more?

Eating out in Dubai is total luxury.  From Argentinean to Yemeni restaurants, you can eat from basic to the highest luxury style, from just a few dirhams, to paying 70USD for a steak.  Wherever you eat, you can be assured of the highest quality, ask any Arab, you always have to eat well, they insist on it!  You can drink alcohol in some restaurants and all hotels.  As an expat you can apply for a liquor licence and buy alcohol at certain supermarkets.

Expatriates who come to work here are paid generously and also by law, are paid a bonus at the end of twelve months service as a gratuity from the Dubai government for working “in the desert”.  Housing allowances, transport and all medical and life insurances, and a return ticket home are paid for by the employer.  It’s no wonder that you don’t see grumpy people when you are out in Dubai!

Many of you may be asking how the expatriates integrate in with the Muslims.  Dubai is very cosmopolitan.  There are certain regulations on dress so as not to offend the locals, for example, once you leave the beach you should not walk around in your bathing suit, and around shopping malls etc you should be properly attired.  However, there are many expats who ignore local customs and walk around in skimpy clothes, nothing official is said to them but there may be one or two comments from the locals.  In the workplace you are expected to wear smart casual clothes, and men are not allowed to wear shorts, even if working on site in the construction industry. It’s no more prudent than working in London, and here the sun shines all day and when you get home at night you still have time of warmth and rays to enjoy…

The local Emiratis are very polite and helpful.  I have had rudeness in shops and government authorities only from expatriates!  The locals understand that expatriates are working here to assist their own country and bring in revenue, and treat us with respect.  However, one should always return the same respect or you may find your work permit expiring shortly… I have a couple of local friends who have only been courteous and helpful, and also hospitable by inviting me to their homes, taking me to the gym as a guest, showing me shopping centres, and bringing plants to my home for the new garden. When I lived in UK, I didn’t meet my neighbours until I was burgled and had to go and ask questions!

The traffic in Dubai is heavy, and the drivers are irresponsible, outrageous, fast, and sometimes just plain stupid.  There are people killed on the road every week, the majority of them being between the ages of 18-25, and mostly locals.  Fast money, fast cars and often boredom.  However, I have been told that Jakarta has worse traffic…

What is there to do in Dubai?

Whatever your interest, horse racing, cars, shopping, water sports, rugby, football, tennis, spear fishing or diving, it’s all happening here in Dubai. There are many shopping festivals with themes happening all year round, the main one being after Eid in February.  There are live concerts, events, trade shows, conferences, desert safaris, desert hotels, and also a new project which is being described as the 8th wonder of the world, The Palm Islands and the World Islands. check out the websites I have listed below to get an idea of all the latest events.

So what about the diving?

Diving in Dubai itself is not so spectacular as the coral reefs have been damaged to due all the dredging works of the Palm and WorldIslands.  However, the water is warm, and there is still a lot of fish life and Dubai is a great training ground to learn how to dive and further your diving education, as it has a couple of wrecks to dive with a maximum depth of 30 metres and there are still swarms of barracuda, pompano, nudibranch, shellfish and other small fish that hover around the wrecks.  There are many dive centres in Dubai, the main ones being the Pavilion Dive Centre  based in the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, and Al Boom divers based in the Le Meridian Mina Seyahi.  There is also Scuba Dubai, which is the oldest dive operation in Dubai, and they offer tank and compressor servicing and dive retail and training. Al dive centres offer trips to the east coast and Musandam (Oman).

I scouted around, asked questions and tried a couple.  My first experience was terrible and I have written a trip report about it on the Deeper Blue forums.  I have now chosen to dive with the Pavilion Dive Centre.  They are a PADI Gold Palm IDC Resort and National Geographic Dive Centre, and the advantage of diving with them is that you can also use the hotel pool and private beach as part of your diving experience, to chill out after the dives, and enjoy the sunset.  There is a Waterfront Café that makes great coffee!

The contact details for dive training and information by a Dubai based PADI course director at the Pavilion are:

Tel: +971 4 4068827 Fax: +971 4 3484754

Pavilion Divers are owned by the hotel, which is five star, so your diving experience and service is five star as well.  The Jumeirah Beach hotel faces the famous Burj Al Arab , which is spectacular to see and visit.  They have two diving boats, which are clean, comfortable and properly maintained.  They have four instructors and two boat masters, mainly South African and English, and on-going dive master interns who are out there to make your diving experience easy and pleasurable.  In the dive centre they speak English, French, Tagalog, Spanish, Hindi and Arabic, and also have a list of independent instructors whom they use if another language is required. A Fresh fruit selection (not just oranges, but apples, plums, tamarind, bananas, melon..), juices, cool drinks and bottled water are served on the dive boats and also they provide clean towels for the guests. In the winter they serve coffee and croissants. (What more can you ask for?)  The briefings are professional with much attention to safety and details of the dive and the members of staff are easy-going, friendly and experienced.

I was amazed to see how much training was going on at the dive centre, which is a very good sign, so I signed up for a course myself, and I will do my Staff Instructor course starting 16 May.  Their training facility is upstairs, it is air-conditioned and comfortable, sporting digital presentations and all the tricks and tools required for thorough and professional training.  Of all the dive facilities I have seen about the world, Pavilion divers has to be somewhere near the top.  All their rental gear is Mares with the latest air-trim BCDs. They have two equipment specialists on staff and keep a proper record of servicing.  They also provide Nitrox fills and training for those who want to enjoy longer bottom times.  The dive centre has a great retail section and the equipment rinsing area and guest seating area is spacious and comfortable, and non-slip!

Yesterday, I went with Pavilion Divers on an east coast trip.  The east coast of the Emirates is the Indian Ocean and has the coral reefs and marine life to match.  One of the customers said to me before my trip, “diving on the east coast is as good as anywhere”.  How right he was.

We took a comfortable air-conditioned bus provided by the hotel and drove two hours to the Emirate of Fujairah, to a beach town called Khor Fakkan.  We connected up with a dive centre down there for the use of their boats and tanks.  The dive centre in Khor Fakkan is called Divers Down, and is run by Paul Sant.  Divers Down reminded me of some the typical dive centres you may see on the Spanish coast, basic, but all the right facilities are there, and they make the best hamburgers after the dive.

They have a training centre there and can offer accommodation in the Oceanic Hotel or a youth hostel, so it makes an affordable diving experience and I would recommend it for dive clubs or groups wanting an affordable holiday in the Emirates to experience the beautiful diving of the Indian Ocean without paying the high prices charged by say the Seychelles or Maldives. The only disadvantage is that that is all there is in that area, and you will miss the excitement and variety of Dubai.

The water at this time of year is a pleasant 29°C average, with some colder thermo clines to 25°C.  In the summer (June-September) the water temperatures reach to over 30°C.  In the winter it drops to 19°C so you’ll need a thicker wetsuit. The backdrop to the ocean is the arid volcanic mountains that stretch across the Emirates to Oman.  One would never guess the colour and life that goes on under water…

The first dive site was called Martini Rock.  It’s a series of rock mounds layered in pink and red soft coral, sea pens, hard coral and I couldn’t count the shoals of small fish on the mound.  The visibility was about 10-15 metres, with a sandy bottom, where we found cuttle fish, scorpion fish, gobies, sea pens, feather stars.  In the rocky mounds amongst the corals were at least 100 different species of fish, including a fantastic sea horse (see picture).  There were moray eels, snapper, parrot fish, trunk fish, and all the typical small reef fish milling about.  The best part of the dive was at about 10m depth, where the coral just mounted up and wafted in the current, such beautiful colours and you could stay there for hours.

The second dive was at Car Cemetery, which is literally what it is, sunken coral encrusted cars with a great opportunity for macro photography.  However, not so macro when a very large loggerhead turtle swam in front of us! (see picture).  I have noticed that the nudibranch population in the Emirates is enormous and the species are the most beautiful I have seen, even beating my ever loved Maldives species. Up to now in the six dives I have done in Emirates I have seen six species of nudibranch.  Whether they are all variations of the same I am not sure yet but certainly variety is there.  It seems to be mating season and there were nudibranch eggs everywhere, which look like pink roses.

After the dive we returned to the dive centre.  The boats are moored off the beach, and you have to wade through the shallow water with your gear and walk up the beach.  I had the same experience in the Seychelles, so this was not new to me.  The instructors were helpful though in assisting to get your gear back to the dive centre.  The burgers were waiting for us and my head was buzzing with all the fish that I had seen.

We drove back to Dubai, and were back by five-thirty in the afternoon.  It was one of the most pleasant day trips I have experienced and it is certainly a must-do if you want to get out of the city and experience some of the rural Emirates.

Hope to see you here!

Here are some web addresses for your perusal:

The Burj Al Arab Hotel

The Pavilion Dive Centre

Al Boom Diving

Le Meridien Mina Seyahi


BAC Dubai

Charterhouse UAE

Kershaw Leonard (online newspaper)

Dubai information:

Sara-Lise Haith
Sara-Lise Haith
Sara-Lise is the former News Editor for She is based in Dubai.