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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 November 2018

Dubai Creek meanders at the heart of a great city

Peter Hellyer reflects on an overlooked part of Dubai
A water taxi patrols the waters of the Dubai Creek near the Shindagha side of Bur Dubai. Antonie Robertson/ The National
A water taxi patrols the waters of the Dubai Creek near the Shindagha side of Bur Dubai. Antonie Robertson/ The National

One afternoon last week, I found myself sitting on the terrace of a cafe overlooking Khor Dubai, looking at the anchored dhows on Deira side, watching the abras plying back and forth and idly scanning the swooping gulls to see if, by any chance, there was an oddity among them. There wasn’t – there rarely is – but I could have happily watched them for hours.

Behind me were the narrow covered alleyways of the textile souq, from which little groups of tourists emerged, some clutching newly purchased souvenirs, coming to a halt as they too stared at the Creek, taking a picture or two with their cameras or smartphones before they moved on.

A little later, I and a select number of other voyagers – including my daughter – boarded an abra ourselves for a bit of journeying up and down the waterway as the sun slowly set behind the restored buildings of the Bastakiya area.

While the tourists happily soaked up the January sunshine, I must confess that I found it rather chilly and was glad I had donned a coat. That made the impromptu outing more enjoyable.

The reason for my somewhat unusual weekday trip was a request from an international tele­vision channel that I talk, on film, about the maritime heritage of Dubai and the broader UAE. The Creek is certainly a good place to do that.

The dhows – some fairly new, brightly painted and polished, and others, paint flaking and showing the ravages of numerous ocean journeys – are visible evidence of the centuries-old trade to the east and to Africa. The textile souq and the spice and gold souq on the other shore offer imported goods from many nations.

The Bastakiya district itself, with its wind towers, was built by merchants who migrated here more than a century ago, keen to benefit from Dubai's traditional welcoming of foreign trade.

Not far away, at Al Qusais and in Jumeirah, are archaeological sites that extend the history of Dubai’s role as a trading port back nearly 3,000 years. It wasn’t difficult to talk about that and to wax lyrical about how Dubai and its Creek have been at the heart of the UAE’s maritime heritage for millennia.

Port Rashid and the great port and free zone of Jebel Ali may be the core of Dubai’s shipping business these days, but few would contest, I think, that the heart of it – and of Dubai itself – is still to be found in the Creek.

Not for the first time, I was reminded that those of us fortunate enough to live in the Emirates, whether as citizens or expatriates, are often inclined to overlook, through familiarity, aspects of the country that visitors, millions of them, may find really rather fascinating. There are often perfectly good reasons for that.

For my part, I don’t particularly enjoy driving in traffic and find the modern road network of Dubai with its underpasses, overpasses, slipways and the like, often flanked by towering skyscrapers, rather intimidating. I get lost far too often. When I take a break from Abu Dhabi, it tends to be the delights of the mountains or of Fujairah that call to me, not another bustling city.

As a result, it’s been some time since I last visited the Creek, and then only to wander along its quays. It must be at least a couple of decades since I took a ride on an abra – and ­Dubai was very different then.

It was with some surprise, therefore, that I found that I was thoroughly enjoying myself. It wasn’t just the weather, or because I was out of the office, but the ambience of the place – the busy waterway, flanked by its historic buildings, the gulls, the souq, the happy tourists.

Dubai may not quite be the Venice of the Gulf, as it was once called, but here, in its very heart, it really does have remarkable charm.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture