I was in Abu Dhabi for a few days last week attending a conference I’d been involved in organising and which I was chairing. I didn’t have a lot of time for sightseeing, but had an afternoon and a few hours during the evenings to explore. There wasn’t enough time to get too far from the area I was staying, but I managed to see the two major attractions – the Grand Mosque and the Corniche
– and flew over the racing circuit and Ferrari World amusement park on the way in.We were staying in the Rotana Beach hotel where the conference was being held. So although it was hot outside (30 C plus) it felt rather that we were inside an air conditioned bubble for most of our stay. A rather artificial world of luxury.
- Abu Dhabi is the largest of the Emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates and the capital city bears the same name as the region. The city originated on a T shaped island jutting out into the sea, but has now expanded onto a number of neighbouring islands. There’s even a man-made island, Lulu island, just off the coast.
- It’s not that long ago that the city was a small settlement on the main island but since oil was discovered there has been a tremendous growth in a few decades – the population expanding from 58,000 in 1952 to an estimated 1.72 million in 2009.
- There didn’t seem to be a historic core of the city, at least I wasn’t able to find one. It’s very much a modern city of tower blocks and skyscrapers.
- A lot of very modern shopping centres full of expensive shops. All the usual high street names from the UK, Europe and the US. More evidence, if we really needed it, of globalisation.
- It’s still growing at a pace and almost seemed like one big construction site at times.
- Less than 20% of the population are natives, the overwhelming majority of inhabitants of the city being expatriate professionals from Europe, Australia, South Africa and the USA with a vast army of labourers, hotel staff, domestic servants and building workers from the Indian subcontinent and the Philippines. Consequently there’s very little contact with Emirati citizens on a day to day basis.
- There were some locals at the conference and I found them to be quite open and very hospitable.
- Abu Dhabi isn’t built for exploring on foot, particularly the newer suburbs. There are footpaths in the older parts of the city and when I got out of the hotel for a walk there were plenty of people moving around on foot heading home from work. But the pavements weren’t particularly in good condition and high kerbs made it difficult for anyone with even minor disabilities.
- The car dominates and the traffic during the busier parts of the day is horrific.And many of the drivers seemed completely mad driving at speed from jam to jam, swerving into gaps and driving very close to the vehicle in front.
- Taxis are cheap compared to the UK and are the best way of getting around the city. There are public buses too.
- There wasn’t a shortage of places to eat. All the usual fast food outlets plus lots of restaurants, particularly Indian and Lebanese.
- We mainly ate in the hotel (expensive but our costs were being covered) but we managed to get out one evening to eat in a Lebanese restaurant close to the hotel that was recommended by a Northern English expat we met while visiting the Grand Mosque. We had a sumptuous feast for about £10 a head – no booze though!
- The vast majority of the buildings were rather bland non-descript tower blocks thrown up when the city was developing. More recently a number of “landmark” skyscrapers have been constructed. Most were away from the hotel we were staying in but we saw some of them when we went out one evening to the Corniche and on the way to and from the airport.
- The most beautiful building we saw, and visited, was the Grand Mosque, a taxi ride from our hotel towards the airport.
- A number of major landmark projects are underway in the city including branches of the Guggenheim Museum and the Louvre on Saadiyat Island. The Guggenheim building has been designed by Frank Gehry and the Louvre by Jean Nouvel, a couple of “superstar” architects.
- Currently there’s very little of art and culture in Abu Dhabi. – I guess it says a lot that one of the main attractions is the giant flagpole that we could see over the water when we visited the Corniche one evening
- It’s all due to change in the very near future. Abu Dhabi is clearly positioning itself to attract more discerning tourists than nearby, brash, Dubai, with the development of cultural institutions on Saadiyat Island including branches of the Louvre and the Guggenheim as well as the Zayed National Museumand a Performing Arts Centre.
Saadiyat Cultural District will be a centre for global culture, drawing local, regional and international visitors with unique exhibitions, permanent collections, productions and performances. Its iconic institutions will be housed in buildings constituting a statement of the finest architecture at the beginning of the 21st century
- The Louvre is due to open next year and the Guggenheim in 2017.