The dark side of Dubai

There’s another side to the City of Gold, says Kaye Holland

The festive season is upon us and apparently an ever growing number of Brits are opting to spend Christmas abroad in Dubai, the UAE emirate that enjoys temperatures in the mid 20s during December.

I can understand the desire to spend Christmas cutting lose in the kingdom of bling but would exercise caution: Dubai is after all an Islamic state, even if it isn’t quite how you’d envisage Arabia.

And this writer should know, having moved to Dubai for a couple of years back in 2005: I was 25, craving adventure – and an escape from dark, dreary winters. I was out there when Brits, Michelle Palmer and Vince Accor, found themselves facing jail after police caught the pair bonking on a beach following a boozy Friday brunch but, as sex on the beach most definitely wasn’t on my agenda, assumed I’d be absolutely fine.

It didn’t take me long to discover that while on the one hand the emirate is as urban and western as anywhere (not for nothing is Dubai described as the ‘Las Vegas of the Middle East’), it was (and is) simultaneously nothing short of a police state where a hard-line interpretation of Shariah law often lands tourists and expats alike in jail for acts that few would even dream were illegal.

Case in point? I refer to Mathew Hedges, the 31 year old PHD student who was jailed for life for “spying on the UAE” after a hearing lasting less than five minutes (fortunately this was over turned last week). Then there’s the case of British dentist Ellie Hollman who, together with her four year old daughter Bibi, was detained in an airport detention centre for three days during summer 2018 for having had the audacity to drink a glass of wine on an Emirates flight.

Or, from my own experience, the boozy brunches that take place in Dubai’s swanky hotel each and every Friday and are positively encouraged (Fridays are all about one thing in Dubai: brunch). Just, afterwards, when inebriated, don’t attempt to walk or take a taxi home for it’s a crime to be drunk in public in the emirate.

The sun kissed state (and indeed the other six emirates that make up the UAE) also deem homosexual acts unlawful. Even seemingly innocuous films such as the Adam Sandler vehicle I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry were banned by censors (censorship is alive and well) while I was living in in the desert.

Meanwhile I flat-shared–first with a British chap called James and later with a Kiwi, Guy, both of whom had to pass me off as their cousin during my tenancy because the authorities  could’t comprehend that it was possible for different sexes to live together if they weren’t family.

Posting anything anti-UAE or anti-government on social media, swearing in public, protesting or dancing (yes really) in public, buying, taking or selling drugs, writing a cheque that bounces, smoking electronic cigarettes and kissing or holding hands in public can also all land you in (scalding) hot water in contradictory Dubai.

Bottom line? Scratch beneath the shiny surface – the skyscrapers, colossal shopping malls and sumptuous hotels and you’ll find that, in reality, Dubai is nothing like that other world-famous desert city destination.

Dubai and Las Vegas may both extend a welcome as warm as the weather to tourists but, unlike the latter, gambling is frowned upon in Sheikh Mo’s strict Muslim state.

Brits looking for a looking for a hedonistic week away would do well to remember that, when booking their Christmas holiday.

Ras Al Khaimah’s best hotel villas

Sumptuous spas, first class restaurants, bedrooms bigger than your London flat, conscientious concierges – yes, there’s a lot to love about luxury hotels.

However if you want to be able to wander to the kitchen for a midnight snack, connect your iPods to the central sound system or relax by a pool without being bothered by the chatter and splash of other guests, then a hotel villa is invariably the answer.

Happily for anyone headed to Ras Al Khaimah (RAK) to make the most of the mountains, deserts, pristine white-sand beaches and some of the best hiking in the Middle East, the UAE’s northern most emirate is home to a handful of hotel villas just begging to be booked.

And fortunately for you, dear reader, Best in Travel has done the hard-work. Here we round up RAK’s best hotel villas – just don’t forget to send us a postcard…


Ras Al Khaimah, Al Hamra Beach Villas
The Ritz-Carlton Ras Al Khaimah, Al Hamra Beach – the second luxury resort for The Ritz-Carlton brand in Ras Al Khaimah – features 32 luxurious tented villas, each with its own pool and direct beach access, offering comfort and privacy complemented by breathtaking views and indulgent amenities.
Guests can choose from two types of villas. The Al Naseem Villas feature local design elements inspired by traditional Bedouin architecture and offer an elevated level of seclusion, while the Al Bahar Villas include open views and private beachfront access. Both are a tonic for trammelled travellers.

The Ritz-Carlton Ras Al Khaimah, Al Wadi Desert
Set in the midst of 500 acres of desert in the northern part of Ras Al Khaimah, the resort has 101 villas, spread across the protected Al Wadi Nature reserve.
Each of the stand-alone villas features a large outdoor furnished terrace with private infinity pool, some with steps directly down to the dunes, while others are more enclosed for those seeking extra privacy.
Inside, guests can hunker down in front of the huge television in the living room, snuggle up in a spacious bed or take a bath with Asprey amenities in a stand alone tub so large you’ll never want to get out.
Anyone opting for a tented villa, should expect Ia glass-enclosed rain shower,  free-standing tub with views out to the pool and desert dunes and a dressing room with double wardrobes. Tempted? You should be.

The Cove Rotana
Welcome to The Cove Rotana – Rotana’s first property in the emirate that everyone is talking about.
The resort – which is located on an idyllic water inlet on the Ras Al Khaimah beachfront overlooking the Arabian Gulf with 600m of pristine beach – offers  78 one, two and three bedroom villas that are perfect for those who want to enjoy all the privacy and intimacy of a villa experience while still being able to take advantage of the hotel service. 
All villas are furnished in contemporary Arabic styles and offer every comfort and amenity that a discerning traveller would expect.

Jannah Resort & Villas Ras Al Khaimah
Ideally located in Al Mina, Ras Al Khaimah, just a 45-minute drive from Dubai International Airport, Jannah’s villas consists of 4 four-bedroom beachfront villas boasting temperature-controlled private pools and private gardens that are only steps away from the beach.
No need for four rooms? There’s also 15 three-bedroom garden-view villas and 5 three-bedroom pool-view villas, situated a stone’s throw from the shoreline, with 348 square meters of space. Stay a little while and you may never want to leave…


Anantara Mina Al Arab Ras Al Khaimah Resort
RAK’s hotel villa scene has never been shinier, smarter or more exciting than it is right now, thanks to a slew of stylish openings that have dramatically changed the hitherto forgotten emirate.
But the upcoming opening we’re most excited about is Anantara Mina Al Arab Ras Al Khaimah Resort. Set to open in 2020 – just two short years, people – the resort will feature the first Maldives-inspired overwater villas of their kind in the emirate and embrace guests in authentic luxury. We can’t wait.

Sporting heavyweights soak up the sun in Dubai

Sporting greats Anthony Joshua and Novak Djokovic have been snapped taking a break from their punishing schedules, in the sun kissed emirate of Dubai - which took home the title ‘World's Leading Festival & Event Destination’ at World Travel Awards’ recent Grand Final 2017.

Heavyweight champion, Joshua, has made the former fishing village something of a second home: the Watford born boxer held a promotional training session on top of the 800m high Burj Khalifa - voted Middle East's Leading Tourist Attraction 2017 by World Travel Awards - last year, and regularly posts pictures on Instagram of his holidays in the dazzling desert kingdom.

Tennis ace, Djokovic, also has a penchant for Dubai and is known to spend his off-seasons in the emirate. The Serbian is still in sunny Dubai, having been forced to withdraw from an exhibition match in Abu Dhabi last Friday and this week’s Qatar Open owing to an injured elbow. The former World No 1’s injury has raised placed questions over his participation in the forthcoming Australian Open - the first Grand Slam of the Season.

The 12 time Grand Slam Champion said in a personal statement on his website: “Unfortunately, the situation with the elbow has not changed for the better since yesterday. I still feel the pain. Therefore, I will have to withdraw from the ATP tournament in Doha.”

Joshua took to Instagram earlier this week to post a photo of him and Djokovic enjoying the Dubai heat, with the Burj Al Arab hotel  - hailed World's Leading Luxury Hotel 2017 by World Travel Awards - in the background.

The British Boxing hero captioned his social media post: “A real humble brother, all the best next year.”

While it is not known when Djokovic will next be fit to play, Joshua could soon be set to return to the ring. 

Eddie Hearn, Joshua’s promoter, is on the verge of announcing a deal for his man to fight Joseph Parker this spring, a bout that will unify the WBA, IBF and WBO world heavyweight belts.

A venue and date for the mega-fight have yet to be finalised but stadiums such as Twickenham and Cardiff's Principality Stadium are being considered, while dates including March 24, March 31 and April 7 have all been touted.


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What I do and don't miss about Dubai

t’s been 10 years since I left Dubai and it’s time to reminisce about the desert kingdom that I loved to hate and loathed to love…



The buzz


A favourite local saying in the UAE (of which Dubai is one of seven emirates) has long been: “Miss a week and you’ll miss something major” and certainly it’s true that in Dubai’s desire to take its place on the world stage, change is the only constant. Dubai reinvents itself more times than Madonna and, in the 10 years since I left, has had face lift on a scale that even Cher would balk at.
The Burj Khalifa – aka the world’s tallest building- was still being built during my Dubai days. Today it stands 828m high and offers dizzying views of Dubai’s skyline, but plans are already in place to top it. Enter the Dubai Creek Tower which will become the highest in the land, standing at 928m upon completion in 2020.
Dubai is also gearing up to welcome the world’s largest Ferris wheel. Situated on Bluewaters Island (, the Ferris wheel will boast 48 air-conditioned capsules when it opens in 2018.
Not that anyone should be surprised by by the scale of Dubai’s ambitions…. In the words of the emirate’s charismatic ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, himself: “Becoming number one is not impossible – the word impossible doesn’t exist in our dictionary.”

247 sunshine



As recently as two decades ago few Brits had heard of, yet alone been to, Dubai. Now the emirate is a permanent fixture on the winter sun scene thanks to its promise of guaranteed rays, without the need to fly halfway around the globe. For while in Britain the sky is the colour of porridge, the leaves are falling and everyone is succumbing to flu, in Dubai it’s baking-in-a-bikini-hot – making a few years in the desert, a tempting prospect to warm weather starved Brits like myself.
I spent three consecutive Christmases in Dubai and I loved every single one of them. Don’t believe me? I’m willing to bet that when you’re lying horizontal on bone white, flour-fine sand basking in the sunshine, The Queen’s Speech, Eastenders omnibus and over-cooked Brussel sprouts will soon lose their festive appeal.



The land of bling (not for nothing is it described as the ‘Las Vegas of the Middle East’) may extend a welcome as warm as the weather to footballers and reality TV stars who delight in holidaying in the emirate’s hip hotels, but it’s residents are a much more diverse bunch.
Make no mistake: living in the UAE means you get to mingle with a melting pot of cultures that make up modern day Dubai. Case in point? I used to reside with an Aussie, an Egyptian and a Filipino and be taken by a Bangladeshi born taxi driver to work – where I would be greeted by colleagues from Lebanon, South Africa, Syria, Jordan, Canada and more. On any given day, I was able to learn a little about their cultures  – not exactly something you can do in a homogenous suburb in Middle England. Very few places on the planet open its arms to so many.

Traditional Dubai


People, perhaps understandably given the emirate’s penchant for publicising its outlandish projects, have the wrong idea about Dubai – believing it to be all about  malls and modernity. 
However scratch beneath the shiny surface and you’ll find another side to the ‘city of gold’. Alongside the skyscrapers like the Burj Al Arab (the self proclaimed seven star hotel, shaped like the sail of a dhow) and the Emirates Towers on Sheikh Zayed Road, sit historical sites such as Bastakia and the creek – arguably the heart beat of Dubai. Here you can watch abras and dhows (traditional Arab sailing boats) weave their way across the water, as they have done for centuries. 
I also enjoyed sauntering through the souks (traditional Arab market places) on Saturday browsing and bartering for everything from curly Aladdin-esque slippers and jewellery to pashminas (a necessity given the Arctic air conditioning levels that you’ll find in Dubai’s myriad malls and hotels), batteries, bananas, spices and Indian sweets. All are sold out of large open sacks, making for sensory overload.


The living is easy


Let’s face facts: life in London (my former and current base) can be a grind. There comes a point when you grow weary of being squashed up against a stranger’s armpit on a packed Central line tube during rush hour. Of wearing ear plugs every night to block out the sound (walls in London are paper thin) of your neighbours snoring, or worse, having sex. Of the nightmare that is the night bus home (expect urination, violence and vomiting) at the end of an evening out.
By contrast in the sand pit (as we expats affectionately termed Dubai), the living is positively easy. Friendly petrol pump attendants fill up up your car (with dirt cheap gasoline), while supermarket assistants  bag your shopping with a smile. Instead of watching drunken people fight on the night bus, you can hop in a cab for peanuts prices after a night out on the town. Hungry? Panic not: the cafe/restaurant/shop you live next door to will happily deliver your order – even if it’s only a bar of chocolate – to the communal rooftop pool in your apartment block where you can spend weekends toasting on a sun lounger…Yes Dubai is an incredibly convenient destination – not that most expats realise this until they return to their Motherland.
Or in the words of the Chinese writer, Lin Yutang: “No one realises how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow.”


The dark side of Dubai


While Dubai excels in many areas, it doesn’t do well ecologically. Worryingly the UAE has one of the largest ecological footprints (signifying a lifestyle that wastes resources) in the world, second only to the USA.
Carbon footprint concerns aside, I was horrified by how many of the migrant workers who helped transform Dubai from a sleepy fishing village into a futuristic city were (and are) treated. A large percentage typically arrived in the UAE deep in debt – having paid recruiters in their homeland large fees for visas, jobs and plane tickets – only to have their passports are confiscated (despite the fact that the confiscation of passports is illegal). Forced to work long hours in searing heat by their employers for a low pay cheque, these migrant workers from the sub continent have little choice but to live in cramped, labour camps on the outside of town.
Bottom line? Next time you visit Dubai and stay in a swanky hotel on the Palm, don’t forget how it was built and by whom…

Mad, bad, driving


The Dubai metro – the world’s longest (but of course!) self driving metro system – has helped ease road congestion in the emirate, no end. However back in my day there was no metro system – car was king – and subsequently traffic in Dubai was as aggressive and chaotic as anything you’d find in India. Little wonder then that Sheikh Zayed Road – the highway that links Dubai with its sibling Abu Dhabi – earned the moniker Death Side Road owing to reckless drivers weaving in and out of traffic at breakneck speed in huge SUVs.
During my spell in the emirate driving was a necessity rather than choice due to limited public transport, but it still remains the most dangerous thing I ever did in Dubai.

The strict morality laws

Unless you have been living under a rock, you’ll know that it’s a punishable offence to drink, or to be under the influence of alcohol, in public in the UAE.
However not everyone knows that the UAE  deem homosexual acts unlawful. Even seemingly innocuous films such as the Adam Sandler vehicle I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry were banned by censors (censorship is alive and well) while I was living in the UAE. My message? It’s not great – something a couple of my former Time Out Dubai colleagues can attest to – for gays living in the Middle East.
For while Dubai may look like any other western city, in reality it’s a strict Muslim state. Although it’s more liberal than its neighbour Saudi Arabia, all displays of public affection between the sexes is banned as Michelle Palmer and Vince Accors – the two Brits who were accused of having sex on Jumeirah Beach in Dubai – discovered. The pari were jailed, although their sentence was later suspended.

Dubai is flying high

The Cinderella story of the travel industry is one of the top 10 tourist destinations in the world, but has even higher ambitions


“Miss a week and you’ll miss something major” is a favourite local saying in the dazzling desert kingdom of Dubai.

And for good reason: in the emirate’s desire to take its place on the world stage,  change is the only constant.

For while the former fishing village may boast the world’s tallest building - take a bow the 828m Burj Khalifa which opened in 2010 - plans are already in place to top it. Enter the Dubai Creek Tower which will become the highest in the land, standing at 928m upon completion in 2020.

Dubai is also gearing up to welcome the world’s largest Ferris wheel. Situated on Bluewaters Island (, the Ferris wheel will boast 48 air-conditioned capsules when it opens in 2018.

Back on the ground, the glitzy emirate will host the 2020 Expo ( a prestigious global event) between the 20 October 2020 and 10 April 2021, while the Waterfront Market ( is due to open its doors next month in the historic Deira area, offering fresh produce around the clock.

Meanwhile the forthcoming three day (16-18 November) Waldorf Astoria Driving Experience ( will give guests the chance to go for a spin in a Lamborghini past some of the city’s famous landmarks. 

More imminently, the ‘city of Gold’ will host World Travel AwardsMiddle East Gala Ceremony at the Armani Dubai Hotel, this Sunday (29th October) for an incredible tenth time.

Not that anyone should be surprised by by the scale of Dubai’s ambitions…. In the words of the emirate’s charismatic ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, himself: “Becoming number one is not impossible – the word impossible doesn't exist in our dictionary.”

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