I am standing on the observation deck of the world’s tallest building, 124 floors up Dubai’s futuristic Burj Khalifa tower, surveying the incredible panoramic vista from my eyrie. All around, citadels of glass and steel rise up from the parched land in huddled pockets, many of them topped by cranes, while others stretch far out into the waters of the Persian Gulf on man-made islands.

It is incredible to think that, barely three decades ago, most of what I am surveying was little more than desert. A fact vividly brought home by special viewing binoculars on the observation deck which, at the press of a touch screen, show you the same view as it was 30 years ago from photographs taken at the time.

Now, a spider web of highways threading between these needles of commerce and high-rise living and even spanning waterways; then, bare scrubland crisscrossed by dusty paths and the odd road.

The relentless growth in Dubai and neighbouring United Arab Emirates state Abu Dhabi over recent years has astonished the world, and continues to do so. The mind-boggling scale of it was emphasised even more by where I stayed during my recent visit. On my previous trip to the emirate about 10 years ago my base was a luxury hotel on the beach, fronted by nothing but sea.

Today, that view has been replaced by an artificial archipelago of gargantuan proportions built on reclaimed land in the shape of a huge palm tree, with fronds of land fanning out from a central trunk – The Palm Islands. And my home for five nights was the fantasy Atlantis mega resort at the end.

I was unsure of what I would find on my recent trip. Whereas Abu Dhabi’s wealth is built on vast oil deposits, Dubai’s success was founded on becoming the trading and commercial hub of the Middle East. When the global economic crisis hit in 2007, Dubai’s economy was seemingly heading for the buffers, with reports of ex-pat workers losing their jobs and abandoning their cars at the airport to return home, while several major developments were put on ice.

From what I could see, things are very much getting back on track, with construction sites a hive of activity and many major projects due to open in the next year or two. The mighty Burj Khalifa – which opened to great fanfare last January – is testament to the emirate’s rediscovered confidence.

Dubai is far more than a business city state, however. It has turned itself into an exotic holiday destination with the construction of luxury resort hotels, golf courses, shopping malls, top-class restaurants and leisure facilities, from theme and water parks to the world’s largest indoor ski park.

All of which has helped bring the whole Gulf region into tour operators’ brochures and encourage people to consider taking their holidays there. Indeed, a predicted 15 million international visitors will visit Dubai by 2015. Interest in the region as a whole is likely to
increase, too, following the success of tiny state Qatar in winning football’s World Cup in 2022, while other Gulf destinations are also now wooing tourists.


And while Dubai took the initiative, Abu Dhabi has taken up the baton with gusto. It embarked on an ambitious plan to harness tourism, targeting 2.3 million hotel guests by 2012, and has been developing world-class leisure and entertainment facilities. They include the recently-opened Ferrari World theme park, the world’s largest theme park which is located on Yas Island alongside the Formula 1 race track and sinuous curves of The Yas Hotel.

Here’s a look at what the two neighbouring emirates have to offer visitors and how some of the smaller states also shape up.

Dubai

The Burj Khalifa is set to become the new symbol of Dubai and forms the centrepiece of the new Downtown Dubai district. Towering an incredible 2,717ft, beating the record for highest building in the world by 1,000ft, it is over 200 storeys tall, 160 of them habitable. The observation deck, At the Top, is the world’s highest and is reached by the world’s fastest lifts, which take just 60 seconds to reach it. The tower includes the 160-room Armani Hotel Dubai and there are also over 1,000 residences.

Dubai is known as the shopping capital of the Middle East for its many malls and gold souks. Downtown Dubai is where you will find Dubai Mall, a sprawling shopping and entertainment centre which incorporates over 1,200 shops, one of the world’s largest aquariums in Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo, the Olympic-sized Dubai Ice Rink, the world’s largest indoor gold souk, an indoor-outdoor streetscape – the Grove – under Dubai’s only retractable roof and the dancing sprays of the Dubai Fountain, choreographed to sound and light.

Undoubtedly Dubai’s most iconic building is the Burj Al Arab, built on an artificial island to resemble the sail of a dhow. Billed as the world’s only seven-star hotel, it is the world’s tallest hotel and is close to sister property Jumeirah Beach Hotel, which resembles a giant wave. The Wild Wadi water park, set in 12 acres between the two hotels, has some of the highest and fastest water slides outside the US.


Indoor skiing

When the weather starts warming up, the coolest place to head to in Dubai is Ski Dubai – the first indoor ski centre in the Middle, featuring chairlifts and offering five runs including the world’s first indoor black run as well as gentle beginner slopes.

Atlantis, The Palm is the flagship hotel of The Palm Island and is a destination in itself, with the largest water park in the Middle East, Aquaventure. It features a Mesopotamiam-styled Ziggurat temple with seven water slides, two of which send riders through shark-filled lagoons. The resort has over 1,500 rooms in its Royal Towers and also offers 17 restaurants, bars and lounges, as well as the Lost Chambers maze of tunnels through the fabled ruins of Atlantis and an interactive dolphin experience at Dolphin Bay.

Although high-rise towers crowd the skyline, you can still get a feel for Dubai’s heritage by taking a guided walk of its old quarter, visiting the textile market and Old Souk area followed by a water taxi across the Creek to the Deira side for the spice and gold souks. You can also explore Dubai’s history at the Dubai Museum, housed in the 200-year-old
Al Fahidi Fort.

And for adventure, you can escape the city to go on a desert safari, cresting sand dunes and ridges in a 4x4 vehicle in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve to watch the sun setting over the desertscape followed by dinner under the stars in a desert camp, with optional camel rides, henna tattoos and entertainment from a belly dancer.

Dubai is also a great place to take spa breaks, as a number of hotels in the city have extensive spa facilities. While for golfers, there are now several excellent courses.

Abu Dhabi

The largest of the UAE-member emirates, Abu Dhabi covers 80% of its area. Having watched neighbouring Dubai take the lead in tourism development, it is now playing catch up – and how.

Two islands close to the city centre are being turned into world-class leisure and cultural destinations.

Yas Island, just 10 minutes from Abu Dhabi International Airport, is home to the Yas Marina Circuit, where the Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was the setting for the season-ending climax of the F1 Championship just a year after hosting its inaugural grand prix. The ultramodern Yas Hotel straddles the track, allowing guests to experience racing cars hurtling under a bridge and between the two sections of the hotel, the lights on its flowing exterior changing hue to dramatic effect at night.

But if it’s speed you want, the new Ferrari World theme park just across the track will have your hairs standing on end. Opened in October, it is the largest indoor theme park in the world and sports a huge Ferrari logo on its roof. There are over 20 Ferrari-inspired rides and attractions in the theme park, the Formula Rossa ride being the world’s fastest roller coaster and producing the same G forces as those exerted by an F1 car braking at maximum speed.

The Yas Links golf course, close by, is one of two new facilities by top-name designers to have opened in the last year in Abu Dhabi and is the work of Kyle Philips. The other recent addition is Saadiyat Beach Golf Club by South African legend Gary Player.

Cultural district

One of the most striking features of the club will be the new clubhouse, which has been designed by Canadian architect Frank Gehry – the man behind the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao among other landmark buildings. It will mirror the style of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum being built on Saadiyat as part of a multi-billion dollar cultural district and will also include a boutique hotel. No date has yet been set for its opening.

Besides the Guggenheim Museum, the Saadiyat Cultural District will encompass the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Norman Foster-designed Zayed National Museum as well as a performing arts centre. All are due for completion during 2013 or 2014. The whole Saadiyat Island project is projected to be completed in stages up to 2020 and will include nine hotels, five of which have been announced and will be finished between this year and 2013.

Among key sights in Abu Dhabi are the imposing Sheikh Zayed Mosque, which boasts 82 domes and gold-plated chandeliers, and the Abu Dhabi Falcon hospital, which is a popular family attraction. A visit to the opulent Emirates Palace Hotel – the world’s most expensive
hotel – is also a must, if you are not lucky enough to be staying there. There is gold leaf everywhere, and you can even have it sprinkled on your chocolate cake.

Beyond the city lies the oasis city of Al Ain. Here you can hear birds singing, water trickling and palm leaves rustling in the verdant Al Ain oasis. At the historic and picturesque Al Jahili Fort and Park, a permanent exhibition highlights the work of British adventurer Sir Wilfred Thesiger, who was affectionately named Mubarak Bin London by the locals.

Camels in the desert. Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority

You should also visit Al Ain Central Market, which combines a camel market and livestock souk. It is the last of its kind left in the UAE and provides great photo opportunities.

Other states

There are seven UAE states in all plus other nations which border the Persian Gulf. This is what some offer:

Bahrain

Rich in culture and history, the Kingdom of Bahrain is a unique tourism destination within the Persian Gulf. The island is home to some of the region’s most recognised tourist attractions including the Lost Paradise of Dilmun Water Park, the Al Areen Wildlife Park and the Bahrain International Circuit which plays annual host to the Gulf Air Formula 1 race.

There is something to appeal to every visitor to the island. For the adventurous or sporty type, there is karting or off-roading at the BIC or water-based sports such as swimming, sailing, fishing, diving and parasailing.

Those looking for a quieter pace of life can enjoy a dolphin-watching trip from the Bahrain Yacht Club, a visit to one of the country’s excellent spas or a shopping trip to the gold souk.

There is also a range of world-ranked heritage sites that are well worth a visit and several interesting museums, such as the Museum of Pearl Diving, which tells the story of Bahrain and its traditions and is housed in one of its oldest buildings. The National Museum of Bahrain houses artefacts covering 6,000 years of Bahrain’s history.

A notable historic landmark is the 16th century Arad Fort, which has undergone extensive renovation and is lit up at night.

Qatar

Tiny, independent state Qatar shocked the football world when it won its bid to host the 2022 World Cup, against the odds. That will help catapult it into the world’s consciousness. But for those going to the matches and visiting before then, what is there to do?

It may be just 100 miles by 50 miles, but it has plenty for visitors to see and do. Sights range from geological marvels such as the Inland Sea and Singing Dunes to historic forts, Doha Zoo and the city’s Museum of Islamic Art. It is also noted for its souks

Action and adventure options include sand boarding and sand skiing, plus desert safaris and diving.

Sharjah

Nature and adventure are the main appeals for visitors to UAE member state Sharjah. You can get close to the local flora and fauna on a kayaking trip through the Khor Kalba mangroves, or see the endangered Arabian leopard at the Arabian Wildlife Centre.

Head to the outdoor playground of its sand dunes for off-road adventures and camel trekking, or delve into its natural history, heritage and archaeology at several museums.

Gulf States facts

When to go

September to May is the most comfortable time to go, with pleasantly warm winter days. January temperatures average 24ºC. After that, it gets very hot, with summer temperatures reaching as high as 50ºC.

Getting there

Airlines flying direct from London to Dubai include Emirates (www.emirates.com), Virgin Atlantic (www.virgin-atlantic.com) and British Airways (" target="_blank">www.ba.com). Etihad
(www.eithadairways.com) flies to United Arab Emirates capital Abu Dhabi, 90 miles away, as does British Airways. Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com) flies from London to Doha.

Getting around

Local taxis are the best way to get around in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and other Gulf states. They charge by the km.


Accommodation

Dubai: Atlantis, The Palm (www.atlantisthepalm.com), The Address (www.theaddress.com), Burj Al Arab (www.burjalarab.com) Abu Dhabi: Emirates Palace (www.emiratespalace.com), Shangri-La Qaryat Al Beri (www.shangri-la.com),
The Yas Hotel (www.theyashotel.com) and the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr (www.fairmont.com)

Attractions

Dubai: Ski Dubai (www.skidxb.com), Burj Khalifa (www.burjkhalifa.com), Wild Wadi (www.wildwadi.com) Abu Dhabi: Ferrari World (www.ferrariworldabudhabi.com)

Tour operators
Companies featuring Dubai and Abu Dhabi holidays include Virgin Holidays (www.virginholidays.co.uk), Premier Holidays (www.premierholidays.co.uk) and Cox & Kings (www.coxandkings.co.uk)

Tourist information
Dubai Tourism and Commerce Marketing: www.dubaitourism.ae
Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority: www.visitabudhabi.com

All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you travel to the Gulf States.