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Abu Dhabi gets its day in the sun

Shaking off its old image as glitzy Dubai’s poor cousin, Abu Dhabi is quivering on the starting blocks of becoming the next Arabian hotspot. Follow its form and get set for the race ahead.

By Rob Ingram
There's hospitality and then there's Arab hospitality. In Australia, the most visible sign of hotel training is the point at the end of the toilet roll. In Abu Dhabi, Saif, my butler at the Emirates Palace, has arrived with two welcome drinks, a tray of fresh fruit and lashings of enthusiasm and personality. This despite the fact that airline schedules have got me to the hotel at one in the morning, after 15 hours in the air, and it's now well after two. Bed beckons but the welcome ritual is non-negotiable. Saif has prepared two glasses of fresh orange juice and grenadine in the disbelief that anyone would experience the luxury and romance of the Emirates Palace alone. He expresses the hope that soon my luck will change and I will find a partner. And as Arab hospitality will not allow me to drink my welcome drink alone, he has the other one. And toasts the enjoyment of my stay.
Abu Dhabi - the largest and the capital of the United Arab Emirates' seven territories - is well placed to become international tourism's next hot destination. It has the money and momentum to put the attractions and infrastructure in place, it has year-round sunshine and dramatic landscapes, it has savvy marketers and planners. But amid all the energy and excitement of the place, there's an acknowledgment that the deeply rooted Bedouin tradition of hospitality and a genuine warmth of welcome is the cornerstone of Abu Dhabi's tourism potential. It must be said, though, that it's important to be able to read symbolism in this part of the world. Saif is valiantly trying to make me feel at home in a place that is not - to my knowledge - like anybody's home.
Emirates Palace is a kilometre-long confection of marble and granite. It has a concert hall for 1100 people and a ballroom for 2400, about 7000 doors (most of epic proportions), 6000 square metres of gold leaf and 1000 Swarovski crystal chandeliers. Its gold-gilded dome, one of 114 in the building, is larger than that of St Paul's Cathedral. The Al Majlis lounge could house two football fields and the gatehouse at the entrance is similar in size and shape to the Arc de Triomphe, but much more ornate. For 394 luxury rooms there is a staff of 1200, with guests of the presidential suites often bringing their own staff along for the stay. Visitors include Cherie Blair, Michael Jackson, Robert De Niro and Prince Charles.
Through some eyes the Emirates Palace may be a monument to excess, ostentation and bad taste. But it is a national monument in the same way as Russia's Kremlin and India's Taj Mahal. As recently as the 50s, Abu Dhabi was a smattering of barasti (palm frond) huts inhabited by pearl divers, fishermen and date farmers. What became one of the economic miracles of the 20th century began with the discovery of oil in 1958, and the Emirates Palace is a celebration of Abu Dhabi's spectacular progress. There is no concept here of ostentation being vulgar. Its size and cost makes this the ultimate expression of Arab hospitality.
It's as impressive as a hotel operation as it is a monument. Managed by Europe's oldest luxury hotel group, Kempinski, Emirates Palace turned a profit two years after opening and houses three of the finest dining experiences not only in Abu Dhabi but in the entire UAE. At Sayad, the epitome of luxury dining, the celebrated Shane O'Neill produces seafood dishes of sublime finesse and clarity. Luigi Antonio Piu is the master at the exhilarating Mezzaluna, and Zakarya Charaf's Diwan L'Auberge is widely regarded as the best Lebanese dining outside Gemayzeh.
Judge it, if you like, by the standard of its cultural entertainment. Not here the tired dinner show with the tawdry fake wedding ceremony engaging diners as participants. Emirates Palace recently presented the world's largest touring opera production of AIDA Monumental Opera on Fire using pyrotechnic and holographic effects and a cast and crew of 250.
The emirate of Abu Dhabi is the cultural, political and economic heart of the UAE. In a little over half a century it has grown from a row of palm huts to a high-voltage metropolitan capital with a Manhattan skyline. It offers luxury and leisure to rival the most glamorous international destinations. The city is on an island connected to the mainland by two bridges. Its impressive vertical growth has resulted in a compact centre, with the futuristic skyscraper architecture softened by the domes and minarets of traditional mosques and by fountains and lush green walkways.
A short distance from the city centre, the impressive Corniche begins its eight-kilometre sweep along the island's mangrove-fringed, white-sand shores. The Corniche East is the pavement café precinct and reinforces the cosmopolitan nature of the city. Abu Dhabi may have more than 90 per cent of the UAE's oil reserves but, along the Corniche East, espresso is the new black gold. Coffee is a big part of Arab hospitality and the traditional local brew has a distinct flavour of saffron and cardamom. Instead of being sweetened with sugar, it is usually accompanied by a date. Drain the cup and the dregs will trigger involuntary facial contortions that may insult your host.
For all the pride in its progress, Abu Dhabi is at pains to ensure the change is in harmony with its traditions. You'll inevitably hear a quote by the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the first president of the UAE and ruler of Abu Dhabi. He watched over the modernisation of the emirate with the warning, "A people who knows not its past has neither present nor future." Accordingly, great reverence is attached to The Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation, home to 4000 ancient manuscripts, the emirate's oldest building Qasr al-Hosn (or white fort), and the Bedouin Heritage Village, where you can have your photograph taken sitting on a camel.
For visitors interested in traditional crafts, a good bet is the Bateen shipyard on the west of the island, where graceful sailing dhows are built and repaired using ancient skills. Echoes of the past are also to be found in the many markets along the harbourfront. The fish and vegetable souk near the dhow harbour provides a cacophony of sound and activity from sunrise. This is definitely not a showcase of Abu Dhabi's dramatic progress - many of the faces are as ancient as the fish-handling techniques.
The Iranian souk is a cheerful, chirpy place cluttered with cascades of cheap terracotta pots and household goods brought in twice weekly from Iran. There's a tad more decorum at the carpet souk, another sanctuary of exotic timelessness, although haggling remains as vigorous as elsewhere. The gold souk is positively civilised and as modern as the fake Rolex. The workmanship of the jewellery is as variable as the prices, so the deciding factor is usually design.
Ninety minutes to the east of Abu Dhabi city is the garden city Al Ain, its seven natural oases framed by tree-lined avenues and landscaped parks. The emirate's second city boasts the palace museum of Sheikh Zayed, several forts, a livestock market and, on the border with Oman, a camel market. Al Ain is an oasis, too, of authentic Arab culture.
For all its current appeal, Abu Dhabi's profile will blossom further with the completion of a number of major projects already underway. The flagship venture in its transformation is the development of Saadiyat Island just 500 metres offshore of the city's north-east quarter. At 27 sq km, Saadiyat is about half the size of Bermuda and will be the Middle East's largest natural island development. Its point of difference from other constructions in the region - Dubai, in particular - is in the commitment to not only build epic shopping malls and apartment blocks but to create meaningful spaces for its residents. Due for completion by 2018, Saadiyat will make Abu Dhabi the new crossroads of world culture, embracing a Guggenheim Museum devoted to modern and contemporary art, a performing arts centre and national, classical art and maritime museums. The spectacular Frank Gehry design for Guggenheim Abu Dhabi - bigger than any of the existing five Guggenheims - plus the dramatic architecture of the other key entities, will make the visual component of this development a cultural attraction in itself. The immediate environmental context - ocean, desert, sky - provided the metaphor for the overall design.
The Saadiyat Island development ticks another box for tourism success with its sensitivity to environmental integrity. A mangrove lagoon is being retained to provide the setting for an eco-tourism resort being developed in association with the Angsana group. While Saadiyat is being hailed a cultural asset for the world, Abu Dhabi's achievements in progress, technology and prestige are being symbolised in the construction of a motor-racing circuit on Yas Island, which will stage a round of the Formula One World Championship in 2009.
What Abu Dhabi offers the tourist is a brave new world with even braver old traditions. It embraces the economy and lifestyle of the 21st century, but its traditional culture defiantly rejects the trend of global standardisation. Long may the juxtaposition exist.
  • Author: Rob Ingram