In October of 1987 I boarded an Emirates airline flight from Cairo to Dubai for what I thought was going to be a one-month rotation to cover the “tanker war” that was raging in the Persian Gulf. My colleague, who had been covering the conflict since U.S. President Ronald Reagan had agreed to reflag 11 […]
In October of 1987 I boarded an Emirates airline flight from Cairo to Dubai for what I thought was going to be a one-month rotation to cover the “tanker war” that was raging in the Persian Gulf. My colleague, who had been covering the conflict since U.S. President Ronald Reagan had agreed to reflag 11 Kuwaiti oil tankers earlier that summer, had convinced the editors at the news agency we both worked for that I should replace him. I had been a stringer for the news agency in Cairo for the past two years and now I was being given my big break.
On my way to the airport I was extremely nervous about going on this travel assignment outside of Egypt. My initial fear was that I had forgotten something, which was then followed by a feeling of unpreparedness. I couldn’t help worrying about the magnitude of the story and whether I was really ready. Besides having last minute jitters, there was another part of me that was dying for this chance to finally get out and prove myself as a news photographer; and what better platform than the Gulf, where the eyes of the world were focused.
After battling through Cairo’s traffic, the taxi I was in finally made it to the airport, with time to spare. I checked in and went through passport control and then sat in the departure room staring out at all the planes taking off and landing, waiting anxiously to board my flight. All I wanted was to be on my way.
The plane ride to the Dubai
The minute I stepped on to the Emirates jet and found my seat, I suddenly felt a sense of calm come over me. The plane was so clean; the seats comfortable with plenty of legroom and the hostesses extremely polite. I hadn’t experienced such comfort on a plane in years, and mind you, I was traveling in economy class.
Emirates airline had been operational for only a couple of years with service to less than a dozen destinations. However, in the short time the airline had been around they single handedly raised the bar on international travel. I had flown numerous airlines throughout the Americas, Europe and Africa, but Emirates had something extra special to offer.
By the mid 1980s the airline industry in America and Europe was in crisis mode with one airline after another down sizing or battling bankruptcy. The glamorous years of the 1960s and early 1970s for the airline industry were all but over and now economy long distance air travel was on par with the Greyhound bus, without the luxury of being able to get off, stretch and smell fresh air every so often. As airlines around the world were cutting back on amenities, Emirates was doing the exact opposite. And this newfound luxury was not limited to the airline.
I had never been to any of the Gulf Arab countries before, so I had really no idea what to expect. Up until now my travels in the Arab world had been confined to North Africa. My only encounter with Gulf Arabs was during Islamic holidays or summer vacation when droves of Arabs from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates would flock to Cairo, in search of cooler temperatures and a relatively open society. The sight of Arabs wearing the traditional white “dish-dash” lounging around the pool, lobby and the restaurants of five-star hotels, or sitting in the casinos gambling at the roulette and blackjack table, was my only impression of the “Khaleej.”
I couldn’t remember the last time I had had such a good meal on a plane, or was served by such friendly and attractive hostesses. Besides the food and the service, I was pleasantly surprised to find the “drinks cart” available throughout the entire flight. Being able to get up at will and procure a cocktail did wonders for settling my nerves and eventually putting me to sleep.
When I awoke the plane was slowly descending and the cabin crew was making final preparations for landing. I looked out the window and saw a brightly lit highway leading to Dubai, which was illuminated on the horizon. The jet continued over the city, and just as we were about go out over the water I noticed an unusually shaped high-rise that appeared to be three modern buildings attached together at different angles. At first I couldn’t figure out what it was, but as we continued to circle above Dubai, in a holding pattern, it became clear to me that the building was either a luxury hotel or convention center. There was a spattering of windows that were lit and on top of the middle structure a florescent light blue swimming pool that glowed in the night sky. Above the smallest of the three buildings was a circular structure that resembled the bridge of the starship Enterprise, from the classic 1960s TV show “Star Trek”. I figured that it must be a revolving restaurant. I sat in my seat gazing down, and I thought how lucky the people were who could afford to stay there.
A blast of hot air hit me as soon as I stepped off the plane, followed by a chill from the air conditioning as I entered the terminal building. The terminal was white and spotless, which was in contrast to the hordes of people waiting in line to go through passport control. The arrival hall looked like a fashion show at the United Nations. There were people wearing traditional dress from the sub-continent, the Far East, Africa and numerous other places from around the globe that I never knew existed.
Outside, my colleague, whom I had come to replace, was waiting for me. We jumped in his car, and as we were leaving the parking lot I could see that crazy looking high-rise in the distance standing all by itself against the night sky. “Mike, what the hell is the building over there? I noticed it when we were landing.”
“Well, my friend,” Mike said, and then took a long pause, “that there is the brand new Hyatt Regency, the newest and most modern hotel in the Middle East, and as of tonight, your new home!”
The Hyatt Galleria was a combination five-star hotel, luxury apartment complex and shopping arcade. On the ground and first floors there were numerous restaurants, designer clothing stops, a small supermarket, a cinema, a game room with the most up to date video games, a spanking new disco that had the best sound system in the entire Middle East and a revolving restaurant up top. There were squash courts, a state of the art gym, tennis courts and two pools — one of which was the pool I had seen from the air and was reserved for the apartment residents only. And finally, to top it off, there was an ice skating ring smack dab in the middle of the shopping arcade. Suddenly, I thought I was dead and gone to heaven. Three years of living in squalor and suddenly all this.
After giving me the grand tour, Mike sat me down, and as I tried to digest everything I had seen, he said, “Remember, you have a job to do.”
As we got up and headed to my apartment, he patted me on the back and said, “By the way, welcome to Dubai, you’ll do just fine.”