September 27, 2019

Abu Dhabi: Out of the shadows

Build it and they will come. And so they do – in rapidly escalating numbers. Glenn A. Baker discovered the dazzle of Abu Dhabi.

What has been built is a hotel on the scale of the Palace of Versailles, a Formula 1 race circuit, an international tennis complex, skyscrapers, museums and galleries (with an actual Guggenheim and Louvre to come), African and domestic game parks, golf courses, shopping malls, a Ferrari amusement park, a ‘fun city’, scattered outdoor artworks, a heritage village, gardens, a camel market and a zoo. And watching the horizon there, it seems that something new, something imaginative and innovative is springing up between blinks.

For many years Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, provided the wealth and steadying hand for the Dubai miracle, content to watch from a distance as Dubai dazzled the world. But then it emerged from the shadows determined to shift some of the global focus to itself. The establishment and incredible rise of Etihad Airlines ensured that visitors did come – agog tourists and those whose transfer hub was no longer automatically the traditional Asian ports.

Abu Dhabi had a big sell to accomplish. The perception of this part of the world has long been desert dunes, empty quarters, desolation, unremitting heat and sparseness. Bahrain and Dubai have gone a long way to erasing that particular mosaic leaving Abu Dhabi to surge as a thoroughly 21st-century destination – modern, sleek and enticing – one that exercises the imagination.

Well, it certainly exercises its visitors. For those who do come tend to not sit still for long. Abu Dhabi is not a destination for wallflowers. Here you strap yourself in and soar, swoop, glide and bump to behold.

If you’re not gazing upon arresting artworks or catching film festival screenings then it’s a fair bet that you’re out of your plush hotel and dune bashing in four-wheel drives, hot air ballooning, sand boarding and skiing, desert camping, biking, catching camel and horse races, slicing about on catamarans, snorkelling and kayaking, subjecting your limbs to henna art, going on helicopter excursions, riding a Big Bus and becoming acquainted with the ancient and noble tradition of falconing.

Opulence is the motif

Tradition and history can be a rewarding pursuit in this Persian Gulf nation. The temptation, when you are in Abu Dhabi, is to shoot up to bustling Dubai because of its proximity – just a 90-minute drive on a wide highway. Fewer visitors think of taking a journey out to one of the 200 islands that are an essential part of the emirate; a group of them have been linked together as the ‘multi-experimental’ Desert Islands, some 240km off the mainland, a half-hour small jet flight away.

At the heart is the largest, Sir Bani Yas. The title has nothing at all to do with some old English gentleman but refers to the Bani Yas tribe who took up residence on the ancient island thousands of years ago – an island that has been featuring in European literature for centuries.

The island is home to the only discovered (20 years ago) Christian monastery in the UAE, which dates back almost 1500 years which is open to the public. So too is the Arabian Wildlife Park and bird sanctuary, a touch of Africa in the Middle East established in 1971 by the UAE founder Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nayhan as part of his ‘Greening of the Desert’ program. Now by his son, the current ruler, it boasts more than 10,000 free-roaming animals and occupies a good half of the island. The most dramatic shapes in the landscape are seven giraffes but there are also ostrich, hyenas, oryx, gazelles, antelopes, urial and barbary sheep and a couple of cheetahs. In the seas, a protected marine park, dolphin and sea turtles can be spotted.

Now opulence is almost an Abu Dhabi motif, as anyone who has moved across the lobby of the extraordinary Emirates Palace Hotel holding their jaw shut can attest. So it seems almost proper to arrive at the Desert Islands Resort & Spa after you have been collected from the small airport.

The Anantara hotel group, which also operates the impressive Eastern Mangroves Hotel in Abu Dhabi proper, has moved into the emirate in a big way. Their vehicles make it possible for you to range across the Arabian Wildlife Park with a quality guide, as well as hike into the world’s oldest salt-dome mountains, investigate the island’s well-stocked stables and then participate in riding, archery and snorkelling across the reef. The restaurants and creature comforts have you wondering if you have actually left ever-evolving Abu Dhabi city.

It doesn’t take long to understand just what drives that evolution and the spectacular growth you see all around you from the moment your flight touches down. Forbes and CNN have both declared Abu Dhabi (which means Father of Deer) to be the richest city in the world and when money is no obstacle, then possibilities, if not exactly unlimited, are within far easier grasp.

Originally published in
Get Up & Go, Winter 2014

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