If you summon into your mind everything that represents the Arabia of storybook and legend, you may have something approaching a picture of Abu Dhabi. Camel racing at dawn, spice souks, date palms, burning-red sand dunes, deserts, mosques and minarets — Abu Dhabi has them all. Yet, over and above this romantic Arabian Nights image is superimposed a metropolis of glitz and glamour unrivalled anywhere in the world.
Abu Dhabi is the biggest, richest and most powerful of the seven sheikhdoms that make up the UAE or United Arab Emirates, as well as being the UAE’s capital city. Despite its initial impression of an ultra-modern city full of glass and metal skyscrapers and futuristic shopping malls, it has a history going back thousands of years, to the third millennium BC. Less than 70 years ago, it was a sleepy little fishing town surrounded by barren desert, the principal means of livelihood being pearl fishing, animal herding and oasis agriculture.
What brought about this stunning transformation was the discovery of oil in the mid-20th century, while it was still part of a British protectorate. When the British withdrew in the late 1960s, the UAE was formed, with Abu Dhabi assuming the dominant role both politically and economically. This domination continues till today, with Abu Dhabi possessing 90% of the UAE’s colossal oil reserves, and 60% of its gas reserves.
Not surprisingly, this vast wealth has enabled the city to become a playground for the rich and famous — not just from the Gulf, but increasingly from all over the world — and to find itself fast catching up with its more ostentatious neighbour Dubai. Abu Dhabi takes pride in being known as the city of superlatives, claiming both the most expensive mosque (the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque) and most expensive hotel (the Emirates Palace) in the world. Among other distinctions, it also claims the world’s largest theme park, Ferrari World, and fastest rollercoaster, the Formula Rossa.
The Abu Dhabi emirate is situated on a flat and rocky area of the mainland, plus more than 200 closely-packed islands just off the coast, with the city centre being located on one of these islands. For those taking holidays in Abu Dhabi, this island is the main place to stay. It is largely criss-crossed with wide tree-lined boulevards, and bordered by the Corniche, the two-mile-long sea front, studded with beautiful palm-fringed beaches.
Connected to the main island by the Khalifa Bridge is Saadiyat Island, which currently resembles a massive building site, but is set to become the region’s arts and culture metropolis. The institutions under construction include a branch of the Guggenheim, an outpost of the Louvre, and a natural history museum, all designed by world-famous architects, including Norman Foster.
Holidays in Abu Dhabi aren’t really about spending all day every day reclining on the beach, but the coastal areas provide some of the special and unique activities which you might not find elsewhere. You can be taken on a cruise on a traditional pearling boat or a sailing catamaran, or given a speedboat tour of the coastline — or you can even charter your own boat to explore the outer islands. It’s fascinating to visit the restored Al Bateen Shipyard on Al Bateen Island, which is one of the oldest inhabited areas of the city, and is a place where you can learn about the area’s extraordinary maritime heritage.
The desert too offers endless fascination — Abu Dhabi is situated on the edge of one of the world’s great desert seas, the Rub’ al Khali. Just a few of the possible activities include dune-bashing, off-road safaris, camel riding, falconry, and even sand-skiing. In the cooler months, many tour companies provide evening drive-and-dine trips out into the dunes, giving you the chance to feast under the brilliant stars.
Of course, a lot of people go to Abu Dhabi specifically for the shopping, and the Abu Dhabi Mall is truly impressive, worth visiting for its breathtaking architecture as well as its department stores and luxury boutiques. However, the place to enjoy the real essence of the city is its bustling traditional souks, the best time being late afternoon, just before sunset. There is literally nothing you cannot get here, from every type of foodstuff, to jewellery, craftwork, carpets, electronic goods and clothes.
Holidays in Abu Dhabi are a long way from the conventional two weeks in a deck chair. You need to get to grips with the juxtaposition of the ultra-new and modernistic alongside centuries of ancient tradition, as well as a culturally conservative society with restrictions on dress, smoking and alcohol. However, out of these contrasts come a set of experiences which you will find nowhere else on earth.