Spellbound by the Big Apple

Spellbound by the Big Apple

The Empire State building is lit up in colors and reflected in the East River in New York City. (File/ AFP)

I occasionally come across people who say they do not like America. For me, such a blanket statement is on par with disliking the world. The US is one of the most diverse nations on earth, a melting pot of ethnicities, faiths and cultures bound together under one flag. America is much more than its government of the day or its sometimes controversial foreign policies.

Every city has its own special flavor and ambience, but one thing they all have in common is the warmth with which Americans welcome visitors. They are a friendly, open-hearted people who, in my experience, cannot do enough to make others feel comfortable. They go out of their way to make tourists happy no matter their nationality, with the realization that tourism creates jobs and benefits the economy. No matter which side of the political spectrum they sit on, they are patriots and proud to call themselves citizens of the world’s richest and most powerful nation.

I have traversed the US from coast to coast too many times to remember and never fail to be amazed at the variety of landscapes, cuisines, accents and climate, not to mention some of the most stunning natural wonders seen anywhere. Americans may not feature among the planet’s biggest globetrotters — more than 60 percent do not have a valid passport — but, when their homeland offers it all, from the icy tundra of Alaska to the swaying palm trees of tropical Florida and the majestic orange dunes of the Mojave Desert, I get why so many choose not to vacation abroad.

Everyone who has traveled extensively around the US inevitably has their favorite places, to which they return over and over again; mine is New York City. Once I had bitten the Big Apple many years ago, I was hooked. It throbs with energy day and night. If you wake up at three in the morning, you will see people jogging or rushing to get to work.

The unusual sights and sounds stimulate the senses. New Yorkers are straight talkers. They do not wear social masks and I find that refreshing. I enjoy chatting with strangers or simply sitting in a cafe, people-watching.

The other day, while having lunch, I was struck by the variety of patrons representing many races, colors and religions. Some were fashionably dressed, others conservatively smart, yet others were what we might term as, in my part of the world, eccentrics. Despite the disparities, no one was out of place; they all blended in seamlessly. Acceptance of the other, tolerance and the freedom to live as one pleases is what makes New York such an icon of what is best about America.

Like any metropolis, New York has its faults. Do not seek perfection. It has to be taken as a full package. It is a powerhouse attracting the super-rich, financiers, diplomats, movie stars, technologists, and glamorous high-fliers, as well as an army of high-powered lawyers. At the same time, New York is the most expensive city in the country. The cost of living for those privileged enough to live in Manhattan is almost 137 percent higher than elsewhere. Sadly, more than 63,000 New Yorkers are homeless and there are areas in need of a makeover.

The unusual sights and sounds stimulate the senses. New Yorkers are straight talkers. They do not wear social masks and I find that refreshing. I enjoy chatting with strangers or simply sitting in a cafe, people-watching.

Khalaf Ahmad Al-Habtoor


Nevertheless, the city offers unparalleled opportunities for those hungry for the fabled American Dream and tenacious enough to achieve it. I particularly admire the work ethic displayed by the residents of New York; they are hard-working, self-disciplined and they take pride in whatever they do.

No matter how many times I visit or how long I stay, I can never get enough of New York. I always meet fascinating people and come away feeling intellectually stimulated and alive with new ideas and projects.

This month, as in previous years, I flew to New York to join a high-level delegation from the UAE to support the annual Zayed Charity Marathon, a race that heightens awareness about kidney disease. It also raises funds that are donated to America’s National Kidney Foundation in recognition that it was in the US that our country’s founder, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, received a kidney transplant.

The Zayed Charity Marathon — also known as the UAE Healthy Kidney 10k — is one of the main events on my calendar because it reflects this great man’s highest virtues of tolerance and respect and his honorable deeds, including his philanthropic work within and outside the UAE’s borders. I appreciate the great love he showered on his people and the world and, barring unforeseen circumstances, I always make sure to attend for various reasons.

Firstly, to make the American audience aware of kidney disease, which often stems from diabetes — a disease that is afflicting Gulf states as well as the US — is a worthy calling. Secondly, I hope to inspire young Emiratis studying or working in the US to realize the importance of their role as their country’s unofficial ambassadors and to never forget the principled pillars on which the UAE stands in terms of generosity, good manners and hospitality. Lastly, to celebrate the life of Sheikh Zayed — a visionary without whom the UAE might never have existed, let alone emerged as a shining beacon of progress in a troubled region.

OK, I have to be honest. I have just as much fun at the race as everyone else. It’s a great day out. I get the opportunity to catch up with old friends, laugh at some of my out-of-shape team members huffing and puffing around the course, and my heart swells with pride at so many competitors wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the UAE flag. Did I run? Sorry folks, I am not letting on.

New York combines the fabulous, the good and the ugly, which is the secret to what makes this incredible microcosm of the planet so captivating. I am happy to be its captive. I will be back.

  • Khalaf Ahmad Al-Habtoor is a prominent UAE businessman and public figure. He is renowned for his views on international political affairs, his philanthropic activity, and his efforts to promote peace. He has long acted as an unofficial ambassador for his country abroad. Twitter: @KhalafAlHabtoor


Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view