Our next port was Fujairah, in the emirate of the same name, nestled between the massive Hagar mountain range and the sea. Unlike Dubai, Fujairah follows Islamic law more closely, which means no bars and no liquor sales. This may partly explain why more westerners flock to Dubai, although our tour guide for the day said that Fujairah was quite popular with Russians (who must bring their vodka with them).
We chose a spectacular – and quite long – tour in an off-road vehicle that took us up an unpaved, rocky road into the mountains, ending at the 3,280-foot summit of Mt. Hajjar. En route, we passed small clusters of stone houses where modern Bedouins raise goats and grow date palms, and have satellite dishes and four-wheel-drive Lexus SUV’s. So much for the romance of Arabia.
The mountains are incredibly rugged and beautiful, rising steeply from a plain once covered by the sea to tower over the coastal landscape. The volcanic rock formations on the mountainsides are dotted with caves and the occasional hardy tree or shrub; and our route led us along the Khasab Wadi, a narrow gorge famous for its destructive flash floods during the rainy season. In fact, along the coast highway there are signs warning that the road is impassable when the water reaches the red mark on the sign, three feet above the surface of the highway. At the summit of Mt. Hajjar, we were greeted by a sweet-faced donkey who apparently belongs to a Bedouin, since there was feed and water provided there for him. We couldn’t figure out what he was doing there, unless it was to provide a photo opportunity for the tourists – which we took, of course.
Our driver-guide, Farouk, was a Pakistani who had lived in the UAE for more than 20 years, since he was ten years old. We learned that there is no path to citizenship for non-natives of the emirates, even second-and third-generation residents married to natives, and that they are able to stay in the country only on renewable short-term visas, subject to their being employed. When the recession hit Dubai, in particular, and the real estate and construction businesses tanked, hundreds of foreign workers were unceremoniously deported.
On the way to and from the mountains, we drove through a sliver of another emirate, Sharjah, which appeared to be extremely prosperous, judging from some of the opulent homes we saw from the road. But Sharjah is even stricter in its Islamic observation than Fujairah – it has a beautiful beach, but according to our guide, laws prohibit anyone from using it for any purpose. I guess they are afraid that a woman might give in to temptation and wade barefoot in the water, thus exposing an inch of skin to public view. Needless to say, sales of swimwear in Sharjah are pretty slow.
The United Arab Emirates is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its creation on December 2, so flags are flying everywhere in preparation for the festivities. The UAE consists of seven emirates: Dubai, Fujairah, Sharjah, Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Ras al-Khaimah, and Ummal-Quwain, most of which you’ve never heard of (and neither have we). When we ask our guides if unification has been a success, they all say it has; but from what we’ve seen, each emirate retains its own king and royal family, its own police force/ army, its own legal system, its own form of Islam, and its own economy. They all use the same currency now, and there are no border crossings between emirates (much like going from state to state at home), but there doesn’t seem to be a strong central government. One of the ruling kings acts as president of the country, but he is chosen by the other six kings and not by popular election. Currently, the president is Khalipha ben Zayed al Nahyan, the ruler of Abu Dhabi. But of special interest to us is the fact that the vice-president is Mohammed ben Rashid al Maktoum, the owner of the world-famous Godolphin Stables, whose thoroughbred race horses compete all over the world. The UAE is a beautiful and fascinating part of the world to visit, and we were treated with kindness and courtesy wherever we went.
Now about Nautica – she is a lovely vessel, a sister to Regatta, the Oceania ship we sailed on from Venice to Rome a few years ago. She can carry just under 700 passengers, and the public areas are so spacious that we never feel crowded. The staterooms are very comfortable and well appointed, most with verandas, and the cabin service is superb. I don’t think I’ll be carrying out my threat to throw Gerry to the pirates if he complains about the food – it has been excellent, especially in the two specialty restaurants.
Speaking of pirates: Nautica is the ship that outran a boatload of Somali pirates on a similar itinerary in 2008, and she is well prepared to fend them off again, if necessary. Our captain was the staff captain on that voyage, so he certainly has experience. The ship carries water cannons and (probably, although we won’t see them) armed security personnel, and it has some new technology that emits a concentrated beam of extremely high decibel sound to deter any unwanted approach. We had a ship-wide pirate drill as we crossed the Arabian Sea, where we were told what to do in the event of an attack (basically, get out of our rooms and off the open decks, go into an interior passageway, and stay low to the floor). One of our onboard enrichment lecturers, a retired Coast Guard Commander, gave a very informative talk about piracy in the21st century, with lots of detailed history about Somali pirates in particular. When he said that the pirates always approach from astern and try to catch up with the target ship, Gerry looked at me and said, “Uh-oh.” (Naturally, our stateroom is at the very back end of the ship.) We’ll be in the general zone of the pirates’operation until we pass the Seychelles, but there is very little risk of attack on a cruise ship.
And speaking of ships in general, when we were in port in Fujairah I counted 45 cargo ships on the near horizon, passing through the Gulf of Oman en route to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. They were coming from Bahrain and Iran, I think, and a lot of them were probably oil tankers or ships carrying liquefied natural gas. When this region eventually runs out of oil, natural gas will be how it will survive.
Next time, Oman and the legendary city of Muskat. We loved it!