Abu Dhabi’s history remains within living memory; some inhabitants can recall the age before skyscrapers, before wealth, before oil.
The transformation of the past 50 years is almost beyond imagination. In the 1960s, indigenous Bedouin tribes lived life as they had for centuries. On the Arabian Gulf coast, they fished and collected pearls for sale to foreign traders. In the desert interior, they trekked with camels from one oasis to the next, rarely putting down roots.
Of all the changes that have taken place during Abu Dhabi’s incredible leap into the 21st century, perhaps the most fundamental has been the shift in the basic approach to life. From time immemorial, the people had been constantly on the move in search of water and food. Today, the essentials of life are brought to the people.
More than 16,000 tons of fresh produce arrive by ship and plane every day (rising to 21,000 tons during Ramadan). State-of-the-art desalination plants process seawater before piping fresh water to the city’s faucets.
Although the people have become more sedentary, they have simultaneously become more outward-looking. The best of the world’s culture and sport is imported to Abu Dhabi’s doorstep. A new cultural district will feature Abu Dhabi branches of the Louvre Museum and the Guggenheim. On manmade Yas Island, the city boasts one of the world’s most futuristic motorsport venues, the Yas Marina Circuit, which hosts the annual Abu Dhabi Formula 1 Grand Prix. On the outskirts of the city, the Sheikh Zayed Cricket Stadium currently houses the Pakistan national cricket team (displaced from their own country by security issues).
The city even imported its population. In the 1960s, Abu Dhabi was home to around 60,000 people, the majority of whom were local. By 2013, the population had risen to almost 2 million, with foreign nationals accounting for 80 percent.
On the face of it, the source of Abu Dhabi’s success is obvious: oil. Vast reserves, both offshore and under the desert sands, were initially discovered in the 1930s, though the city did not begin to reap the benefits until commercial exports began in the early 1960s.
But the shrewd political move by the local emir, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, to initiate a federation with the rulers of six neighboring emirates proved to be just as important. On independence from Britain in 1971, the United Arab Emirates came into being. As the largest and wealthiest of these seven emirates, the city of Abu Dhabi became the capital, with Sheikh Zayed as president.
While it has always dominated the U.A.E. politically, in the past two decades Abu Dhabi found itself competing for global recognition with its brash, upstart neighbor, Dubai. For a time, both emirates seemed locked in a battle to build the most glittering skyline. But lately, Abu Dhabi has deliberately repositioned itself as the New York to Dubai’s Los Angeles. Abu Dhabi serves as the commercial and cultural heart of the U.A.E., while Dubai remains more populist, with an economy centered on tourism and real estate.
Dubai had no choice. With relatively modest oil reserves, it must rely on other economic sectors. Overemphasis on real estate pushed Dubai to the brink after the global financial crash of 2008, and only intervention from Abu Dhabi averted complete economic disaster.
Abu Dhabi learned the lessons of its neighbor. Although the emirate is blessed with 95 percent of the U.A.E.’s total oil reserves and 92 percent of the gas reserves, it makes a concerted effort to plan for a future without hydrocarbons.
One of the boldest statements of intent centers on Saadiyat Island (“Happiness Island”) which until recently lay barren and neglected to the east of downtown. Now the focus of a $27 billion project to create homes for 150,000 people, it also will feature beach resorts (the St. Regis and the Park Hyatt Hotel & Villas already opened), a Gary Player-designed golf course and the cultural district featuring big-name museums and galleries designed by big-name architects.
The project at Saadiyat Island has not been without criticism. In contrast to its grandiose aspirations, it is being built by thousands of low-wage laborers from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Although working conditions undoubtedly improved since the world’s media began to take an interest, concern remains for the many workers who, due to illegal recruitment in their home countries, are effectively trapped in indentured servitude.
The furor over migrant labor proves an acute embarrassment to Abu Dhabi. In the past decade, the emirate invested heavily to raise its international standing. Highprofile ventures included the purchase of English Premier League soccer club Manchester City (whose Etihad Stadium is named after Abu Dhabi’s airline) and a seven-year deal to stage the season finale of the Formula 1 Championship at the Yas Marina Circuit.
The current attempt to fly an experimental solar-powered aircraft, Solar Impulse, around the world took off from Abu Dhabi in March, with the aim for the plane to complete the circumnavigation in 2016. The emirate is a major investor in the project.
Abu Dhabi’s active promotion of solar technology may seem at odds with its position as a major producer of hydrocarbons, but it is consistent with a longstanding commitment to renewable energy.
The clearest manifestation of that commitment is rising out of the desert beside Abu Dhabi International Airport. At an initial cost of up to $22 billion, Masdar City aims to be a world leader in clean technology as well as a showcase for sustainable living. This is science fiction made real. An automated public transport system will shuttle the 40,000 inhabitants around in driverless vehicles. Every building is designed for maximum efficiency in energy and water usage. Public spaces are designed to capture prevailing winds, providing natural air-conditioning.
Abu Dhabi’s evolution is far from complete. It remains on the cusp of radical transformation, poised between two worlds. Older inhabitants still recall the rustic past while young Emiraties look forward to a bright, new future. Visit Abu Dhabi in 2015 and you can experience past, present and future, all at the same time.
Things to Do in Abu Dhabi
A tilt of the head is all it takes to move from tradition to modernity. At Abu Dhabi’s Heritage Village, a meticulously recreated oasis town, old stone houses sit within a sandy yard. Date palms cast dappled shade. A camel walks across the foreground. But look beyond, and just across the narrow width of the former dhow harbor rises the skyline of downtown Abu Dhabi. The vista continues to evolve. With every passing month, Heritage Village becomes more anomalous; the history it preserves feels increasingly remote from the gleaming present.
The juxtaposition is even starker from within Qasr al-Hosn, the 18th-century whitewashed fort in the heart of downtown. In the shaded passageways between its formidable walls, you can imagine it in its heyday as the dominant building of a small coastal settlement. That illusion falls away when you ascend to the battlements and find a forest of glass and steel skyscrapers now overlook the fort. A permanent exhibition inside the fort chronicles its history.
Until 1966, Qasr al-Hosn served as the emir’s palace. It is remarkably modest in comparison to the $3 billion Emirates Palace hotel, opened in 2005 and host to a succession of royalty and international celebrities in “7-star” luxury. Even if you’re not staying there, it remains a must-see, especially the jaw-dropping ornate dome above the marble lobby.
One of the greatest pleasures of Abu Dhabi costs nothing. The pedestrianized Corniche runs through shaded parkland along the shore of the dhow harbor, which now boasts two pristine, manmade beaches. Jog, cycle, skate or stroll the length of the Corniche, mingling with locals and stopping for ice cream or cold drinks. Be aware: From June to August temperatures often exceed 104 degrees, and extended time outdoors can rapidly become an ordeal.
Yas Island, close to the international airport, is the city’s premier leisure venue for both kids and adults. Yas Waterworld, a huge water park with rides, slides and artificial surfing waves, provides the perfect family day out. Close by, at the Grand Prix circuit, you’ll find Ferrari World, the ultimate immersive experience for car fans of all ages. Enjoy rides that simulate the thrill of fast driving, race go-karts and drive an actual Ferrari on the Yas Marina Circuit.
For a complete change of pace, Sir Bani Yas Island, 110 miles southwest of downtown Abu Dhabi, focuses on intensive conservation efforts to restore habitats and reintroduce indigenous wildlife. The island provides a rare opportunity to see Arabian oryx, sand gazelles, cheetahs, hyenas and golden jackals in their natural setting. Purists may balk, however, at the presence of species not native to Arabia, including giraffes and emus. The island also features valuable archaeological sites, including the remains of a Christian monastery dating back to 600.
Visitors often overlook the desert hinterland of mainland Abu Dhabi, though it is not without its attractions. Dune-bashing tours run by companies such as Nuzhath Ideas offer a great way to experience the high dunes of the deep desert.
Encounter the desert’s biggest surprise after a 90-minute drive east of Abu Dhabi city. On the border with Oman lies the oasis town of Al Ain. After relentless aridity, the city presents an improbable burst of lush greenery. It is no mirage. Irrigated by the natural waters welling up from beneath the desert, Al Ain lives up to its moniker: the Garden City.
CHECKING IN WITH MUBARAK AL SHAMISI
Director, Abu Dhabi Convention Bureau, Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority
WHAT OPPORTUNITIES DOES ABU DHABI OFFER AMERICAN INVESTORS?
As the capital of the U.A.E., Abu Dhabi is poised to become one of the most important cities in the world. Our Economic Vision 2030 strategy to diversify the economy includes investment in tourism, culture, business and renewable energy solutions. Abu Dhabi is a zero-tax jurisdiction and is a strategic hub for investment because of its location.
WHAT CULTURAL DIFFERENCES SHOULD AMERICAN INVESTORS BE AWARE OF?
Abu Dhabi is a sophisticated, modern city boasting a multinational population. While the culture is firmly rooted in Arabia’s Islamic traditions — including a strong commitment to tolerance and hospitality — we strive to create a welcoming, inclusive environment where all visitors feel comfortable, regardless of the reason for being in Abu Dhabi.
HOW IMPORTANT IS THE BUSINESS SECTOR TO ABU DHABI’S TOURISM INDUSTRY?
Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority promotes business tourism to the emirate through the continued development of infrastructure and expansion of the hotel, food and activity offerings. Abu Dhabi Convention Bureau, a division of TCA Abu Dhabi, drives and supports the development and promotion of business events throughout the emirate efficiently, effectively and transparently and in partnership with all its stakeholders, aligned with the Abu Dhabi Government’s 2030 Economic Vision to deliver social and global empowerment and strategic and economic impact.
Studies commissioned by TCA Abu Dhabi and Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre suggest the economic impact from business events will increase by approximately 7 percent per annum on average until 2020, based on historic performance. We’ve also created an incredibly easy visa process and implemented preclearance at our airport to encourage business travel to our country.
WHAT ARE KEY FUTURE DEVELOPMENTS?
We’ve worked hard to develop an infrastructure that supports and nurtures a sustainable tourism industry, which includes the creation of outstanding meeting facilities, venues and services, in addition to a variety of accommodations, restaurants, activities and attractions. We look forward to the continued development of Saadiyat Island, poised to host the globe’s largest concentration of premier cultural institutions including Louvre Abu Dhabi, Zayed National Museum and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. We anticipate the opening of an increased capacity and new permanent cruise terminal at Zayed Port as well as a number of new hotels including international brands such as Four Seasons, Fairmont, Hyatt and Marriott.
Abu Dhabi is emerging as a must-visit destination for savvy travelers looking for new and unique experiences, and we received more than 123,000 U.S. visitors in 2014, a 37 percent increase from 2013. We look forward to welcoming even more U.S. travelers this year and believe all these developments will only increase interest in our beautiful emirate.
WHICH ATTRACTIONS IN ABU DHABI DO YOU RECOMMEND?
Abu Dhabi is an incredibly diverse destination. In the vibrant, cosmopolitan city of Abu Dhabi enjoy a guided tour of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, voted by TripAdvisor as the world’s fourth most popular landmark attraction, or experience falconry at Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital. For thrills, head to Yas Island for a driving experience at Yas Marina Circuit or ride the world’s fastest roller coaster at Ferrari World. Gain an understanding of Emirati culture at Al Ain, the birthplace of our ruling Al Nahyan family. The Al Gharbia region features the world’s largest sand desert. We have a number of great annual events: the Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Abu Dhabi Food Festival, Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, Abu Dhabi Art and more.
Abu Dhabi: Just the Facts
Time Zone: GMT +4
Phone Code: Country Code: 971 City code: 2
Entry/Exit Requirements: All U.S. citizens require a passport valid for at least six months beyond arrival and a confirmed round-trip airline ticket. Visas are available on arrival for stays of up to one month. If you require an extension, contact the Abu Dhabi immigration office.
Official Language: Arabic, though English is widely spoken. Other languages include Persian, Hindi and Urdu.
Key Industries: Oil and gas, financial services, tourism, real estate
Abu Dhabi Info to Go
Scheduled international flights arrive at Abu Dhabi International Airport, 19 miles east of downtown. The airport is the main hub for Etihad Airways, which runs non-stop flights to every inhabited continent. The airport offers border preclearance for flights to the United States.
Where to Stay in Abu Dhabi
Anantara Al Sahel Villa Resort Sir Bani Yas Island, 110 miles southwest of Abu Dhabi city, is a wildlife haven. This resort, with 30 luxury villas, provides the perfect base for a get-away-from-it-all Arabian safari. Sir Bani Yas Island $$$$
Jumeirah at Etihad Towers The five Etihad Towers opened in 2011. The Jumeirah Hotel offers 382 sumptuous guestrooms in Tower One, with excellent service and breathtaking views. West Corniche $$$$
Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi Located in the middle of the motor racing circuit, this is the ultimate hotel for gearheads. Be warned, though: The nightly rate rises to more than $2,000 during the Formula 1 Grand Prix (Nov. 27–29). Yas Island $$$$
Restaurants in Abu Dhabi
Frankie’s Italian Restaurant & Bar At the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr hotel, this restaurant is a joint venture between two British-Italian celebrities: jockey Frankie Dettori and Michelin-starred chef Marco Pierre White. Fairmont Bab Al Bahr, Khor Al Maqta $$$
Spice Mela Abu Dhabi boasts plenty of great Indian restaurants. This one, with its colorful décor and cuisine drawn from across the sub-continent, is among the best. Rosewood Abu Dhabi hotel, Al Maryah Island $$$
Zuma Abu Dhabi Located in the waterfront Galleria Mall, this acclaimed restaurant specializes in contemporary Japanese cuisine. With its open plan, you can watch the frenetic chefs at work. Sowwah Square, Al Maryah Island $$$$
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