Dubai on the cheap

For a small price, Dubai caters to more than just the rich and the richer, writes Ben Groundwater.

A hand shoots up from the group of diners sitting on the courtyard floor. "Um," a woman says, "why do the men get to wear white robes but the women have to wear black?" Nasif grins, as if he was hoping he'd be asked this question. "There is an answer for that," he says. "A good answer."

He's been asked this before, of course. It's one of the questions that most visitors to Dubai have probably had float through their minds but wouldn't usually have the opportunity to ask. But this is their chance.

We're sharing breakfast at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding in the old town of Dubai. First lesson: Dubai has an old town. It's not a city built purely of gleaming skyscrapers and five-star beachside resorts, although it can certainly seem that way on first glance. It's a dense mass of glass and metal from the moment you step off the plane, but there's culture within the morass.

The aim of the Emiratis who run the Sheikh Mohammed Centre is to break down the barrier in Dubai that is invisible but intensely apparent: the separation between the tourists and the locals. There are Westerners in this city, expats and visitors in their shorts and T-shirts, and there are Emiratis in their dishdashas and abayas, but seldom do the two interact.

Except this morning they do. Nasif is an Emirati whose wife eventually tired of him bringing guests to their house to share meals, and she encouraged him to create something a little more formal. The result is this centre, a small building in the low-rise old town with a slogan over the door: "Open doors, open minds."

The idea is that travellers will come here for a meal, eat the traditional Emirati food that is almost impossible to find in restaurants, and ask questions of the local staff. Why do women cover their faces? What do young Emiratis do on dates? Do you have arranged marriages? Isn't it hot under those robes?

Nasif and his co-workers do their best to answer, and the guests leave full of food and hopefully stuffed with knowledge about the country they are briefly visiting. And the best part? The whole experience costs the equivalent of $18. That's significant, because there aren't many experiences in Dubai that cost only $18. This popular stop-off point between Australia and Europe is a shopper's dream and a high-flyer's heaven, but it's not cheap, not if you want to stay in fancy accommodation and go wild at the malls.

For those who don't want to do that, however, there are options, and they will bring you far closer to Emirati culture than a trip to the mall. The first of those experiences is breakfast at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre, gaining a crash course in Emirati customs before strolling around the oldest part of Dubai, past the Grand Mosque, through the Dubai Museum ($1 entry) and down to the creek, where "abras", traditional old boats, wait to take passengers to the souk, or market.

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Abra rides cost one dirham, or about 30¢. It's a riot of sights on the water, from the skyscrapers that loom out of the haze on the horizon to the minarets on the river shore and the wooden boats that pour in from Iran and India laden with produce to be sold in the souk. It's also significantly cheaper than, say, a trip up the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, which will set you back about $120. Ouch.

Back on dry ground, more bargains are to be found, and this time it's another side of Emirati culture. Because, while the city is governed by the local Arabs and patronised by Western tourists, it was built largely by an imported workforce of Pakistanis and Indians, many of whom now call the emirate home. And they've brought a few things with them. Chief among those is food, and there's no better place to try it than Ravi's Restaurant. Dubai might be known for its Friday brunches, the sumptuous feasts held in luxurious resorts, but ask any taxi driver where he'd like to eat and it's likely he'll say Ravi's, Dubai's famed Pakistani eatery.

On a busy street in Satwa, a residential area popular with subcontinental dwellers, Ravi's does business until the small hours, its metal tables always crowded with diners keen to try the Lahori cuisine. A no-frills meal of curry, rice, daal and naan will set you back about $6 at Ravi's, and it'll be the best food you'll find in the city.

Finally, no stopover here would be complete without getting out of Dubai completely.

For those on a budget, it could be a full-day four-wheel-drive tour through the desert, a dune-bashing experience with Arabian Adventures that passes through the Sharjah emirate and briefly crosses the border into Oman. Again, it's a way to see another side of the emirates, from the undulating sandscapes to the time spent with Waled, our driver and a Yemeni migrant who has stories to tell. He's proud of his home country's cuisine, he says, and he makes a stop at a tiny Yemeni restaurant in a sand-blown one-horse town to pick up some extra dishes for our lunch. The company has provided chicken wraps and salads, but as soon as Waled opens up a box of spiced lamb and rice it's clear what the winner will be today. He smiles as we share his country's food in a wadi deep in the desert.

This is what a trip to Dubai can be, away from the shopping malls, away from the skyscrapers, away from the resorts. It can be affordable and it can be enjoyable. And you'll be able to find out for yourself why men wear white robes and the women wear black.

The writer was a guest of Dubai Tourism.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Emirates flies direct from Sydney to Dubai three times daily, including twice-daily A380 services. Return economy fares start from $1799. 1300 303 777, emirates.com/au.

STAYING THERE

The Ibis Deira City Centre is perfect for budget travellers, with a central location near the airport and double rooms from $60 a night. ibis.com.

SEE + DO

Arabian Adventures offers the "Secrets of the Desert" four-wheel-drive tour, a full-day adventure taking in sand dunes, wadis, mountains and canyons. Prices start from $108 a person, with lunch included. arabian-adventures.com.

MORE INFORMATION

definitelydubai.com

FIVE MORE WAYS TO DO DUBAI ON THE CHEAP

DUBAI OUTLET MALL

Dubai is famed as a shoppers' paradise but most goods seem to be on the luxury end of the scale. For fancy items at bargain prices, head to this outlet mall and in particular a store called Priceless.

DUBAI FOUNTAIN

One of Dubai's newest and most impressive attractions isn't just cheap, it's free. Head out to view the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, and then duck next door to watch the dancing fountains.

ENTERTAINER DUBAI BOOK

Those staying longer than a couple of days should think about investing in this coupon book, which offers discounts at a huge range of restaurants, cafes, theme parks, golf courses and attractions. At 356 dirham ($109) the book will probably pay for itself within days.

RIDE THE METRO

Taxi costs can easily skyrocket after a few trips across town but the antidote to this is to ride the spanking new Metro system. The train line bisects the entire city and costs from only 1.80 dirham a ride.

MADINAT SOUK

Those keen on a tipple are usually horrified at the price of a drink in the United Arab Emirates. At the Rivington Grill in Madinat Souk, however, happy hour drinks specials run until 8pm.

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