We stayed up all night to find out what happens in Dubai
What’s everyone doing up so late? It’s a question many expats ask themselves on any nocturnal journey through this city. Take JBR at 3am on a winter’s evening – it’s packed with Emirati families (probably the largest concentration of dishdashas you’ll see outside the malls), strolling along The Walk in a flurry of nose-touching and coffee swigging.
Our nocturnal odyssey was inspired by this scene and by a single Arabic word, samar, which translates loosely as ‘conversations in the night’. We wanted to find out who stays up way past sundown in Dubai, and talk to them.
On one side, we found a city that never sleeps – papers to be wrapped, fish hauled in. And, of course, there’s the relentless beating drum of construction. But we also found a more languid side to our samar, with shisha cafés that come alive after 3am, populated by people who seem oblivious it’s the dead of night.
But one image stays with us. At 4.45am on Al Rigga Road, we found a Pakistani man sitting beside a flowerbed, reading in the light from a streetlamp. As we slowed to see what he was reading, he closed the book and ran – a ghostly figure in a salwar kameez running down the street. Dubai becomes a strange place once the sun goes down.
Dubai by night
So many things to do, so little sleep to be had…
Drive to Al Ain, but avoid the city centre and follow the signs to Jebel Hafeet. Numerous stops along the drive up the mountain mean spectacular sunset views at every turn.
Get picked up by a 4x4 at 3.15pm for an overnight desert safari. After an exhilarating dune-bashing session, you’ll settle down at a desert camp for an Arabic dinner, then stay the night before returning home the next day at 10am. 050 276 8111/04 357 2200; www.desertsafaridubai.com.
PADI night-diving courses are available at all scuba diving centres, including Al Boom in Fujairah, where groups meet at 5.30pm before going out to sea. The course costs Dhs1,400 and once you’ve passed your course, Dhs400 gets you three night dives. 04 342 2993; www.alboomdiving.com.
Set off into the mangrove swamps of Umm al Quwain to hunt down some crabs, armed with a spear and a torch. They’re later cooked up and served as a late dinner. Pick-up from anywhere in Dubai. 6pm-11pm. Dh170 per adult and Dh100 per child. Flamingo Beach Resort, 06 765 0000; www.flamingoresort.ae.
Seven Seas: Marine offers the chance to charter your own yacht by night that seats up to 14 people, at Dhs1,800 per hour. Boats must leave Fisherman’s Village near Jumeirah Beach Hotel before 8pm. Dhs1,800 per hour for a private yacht. 050 770 4727; www.sevenseasdubai.com.
Try a spot of night-time angling with Deep Blue Sea Fishing. The company not only guarantees a catch, but won’t charge a penny if you return empty handed from your trip. Dhs2,500 for four hours and Dhs3,000 for seven hours. 050 450 1340.
For early-morning birdwatching, drive down to Dubai Pivot Fields at dawn, located in a blink-and-you-miss-it turn-off after Dragon Mart. Take the exit after the petrol station, drive for 100m and take a left turn at the sign. Drive along the fence with trees on your left side, and turn off the tarmac road when the trees end. There’s a gate here, but even if it’s shut, birdwatchers are allowed in if they close it after them. You’ll spot white-tailed plovers, red-tailed wheatear and heron. E44 to Hatta/Oman, turn left at the Dubai Municipality sign. www.uaebirding.com.
Turn off right after Arz Lebanon on Beach Road. Follow the road and then drive onto the beach. It’ll be pitch black, but a great spot to watch the sunrise.
Join Balloon Adventures Emirates for an hour-long balloon ride to see the dawn breaking over the desert. Dhs950 per person. 04 285 4949; www.ballooning.ae.
Late-night restaurants Counter Culture This deli-style restaurant has a host of salads, sandwiches and mains to choose from. Dishes change during the day, offering variety at very reasonable prices. Marriott Harbour Hotel (04 319 4000). Open 24 hours.
Zaatar W Zeit: Stop in for a late-night fix of specialty saj or try the shawarmas, rolls, chocolate-coated breads and ‘freshly zweezed’ fruit juices. Sheikh Zayed Road (600 522231; www.zaatarwzeit.net). Open 24 hours.
Al Reef Bakery: The mother of all Lebanese bakeries has the best comfort food in Dubai. Shawarmas take a backseat to the mouthwatering kebabs, manakish and Arabic sweets. Karama (04 346 1980). Open 24 hours.
Café Au Lait at Ramee Royal: Not shabby for a lobby café, there are a few options to choose from the à la carte menu, or stuff yourself with the breakfast buffet. Ramee Royal Hotel, near Maktoum Bridge (04 334 4088). Open 24 hours.
Kan Zaman: The prime location just by the Creek makes Kan Zaman the ideal late-night shisha joint. The food is outstanding, with a few Emirati dishes thrown in. Next to Heritage Village (04 393 9913). Open 11am-4.30am.
Jumeirah Beach snack bar Interestingly, this tuck shop on Jumeirah Open Beach actually never closes. Or that’s what they told us when we last asked. Located on the Open Beach, at the base of the first jetty, near the police tower. Open 24 hours.
We find Nadia Baker and Haitham Samaan, set to be married in the next few months, working late on paintings to swap on their wedding day. Haitham, an architect, is meticulously reproducing thejamjar, whereas Nadia paints a more impressionistic image of flowers. thejamjar, Al Quoz.
This small Keralan and Tamil restaurant on the beach (turn right before the E-Library on Jumeirah Beach Road) serves up grilled fish and prawns, caught and hauled that day at the fisherman’s village on the other side of the road. Bu Qtair Cafeteria, Umm Suqeim.
We select a fish from the cook and he measures out a weight of prawns. A hearty meal for three, with South Indian curry, bread and rice thrown in, comes to no more than Dhs150.
You can hear the clatter of dominoes from down the street. Groups of Emiratis converge nightly at this tiny café in the depths of Al Wasl’s single-storey villa-land to slam dominoes on the table, drink black tea and have cathartic faux-arguments. Outdoor café, Al Wasl.
Dubai Fountain, The Dubai Mall The final display of the evening kicks off. We battle through throngs of bright-eyed tourists who, even at this hour, insist on posing on the bridge at Souk Al Bahar.
This Filipino cover band play here almost every night. When we arrive, they’re halfway through ‘Survivor’, performing to a group of five ageing British expats who holler and wave tips from the front seats. Rockwells, Capitol Hotel, Satwa. Balussamy, Indian: ‘We’ve been at sea for a week, fishing with rods for kingfish. We’re all exhausted, but it was a good catch. The freezer is full.’
We find these men sleeping on the beach, waiting for the dhow to come in so they can help to haul the fish in. The fisherman on board are tired and covered in guts after a week fishing. They work in silence, smashing their catch from the ice with a crowbar. Fisherman’s Village, Umm Suqeim.
Buddha Bar:This trendy haunt stays open until 3am and has a subdued hum after midnight. The later it gets, the more people move from the main bar area into darker, private booths. Grosvenor House.
Next door Infinity Tower, Marina Beneath the immense bulk of this floodlit, half-finished twisted tower we find this security guard in a tiny, brightly lit cabin. At first he thought we were trying to wander onto the site, until he realised we just wanted to say hello.
Sukhwinder Singh, Punjab, Indian: ‘I do a 12-hour shift, 6pm to 6am. One more year, and I’m finished. But, oddly, I still like looking at this building.’
As the bewildered leave the city’s pubs and clubs, a manakish frenzy ensues. According to the staff, the number of these cheese-filled, baked breads sold each night reaches well into the hundreds. Al Reef Lebanese Restaurant, Bur Dubai.
Karama We turn off a deserted street to find the pavement swamped with men organising newspaper inserts by hand. The workers, largely from India and Pakistan, give completed bundles to newspaper- wallahs, who then set off to make deliveries by bicycle.
Taxi drivers talk before the closing-time rush, while watching this building in the throes of demolition. The dust in the air and the occasional stumbling merry-maker gives the scene an eerie desolation. Outside Rock Bottom Café, Bur Dubai. Hassan Khan, Rajasthan, India: ‘I start my shift at this time and always come here [to Rock Bottom] first. I pick up so many foreign people who I have to wake up when we get to the Marina.’
Once the clubs close, this all-night shisha café and restaurant hazes with smoke until sunrise. A Lebanese singer in exceptionally tight trousers strolls in at one point, causing a furore. Sultan’s Palace, off Diyafah Street, Satwa.
Sharif Issa, Lebanon: ‘I’m a well-known singer in Lebanon. I’ve just come back from a gig at the Mina Seyahi. They loved me.’
This bustling market couldn’t be more alive. Lorries queue outside to make deliveries, while inside ice spills onto the ground. We find one counter selling kingfish (below) and wonder if they’re the ones we saw being hauled in earlier. Fish Market, Deira.
The call to prayer echos through the city. We find every pavement lined with labourers waiting for their bus to go to work. Dubai takes on a strange, otherworldly atmosphere at this time of the morning. Al Rigga, Deira.