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Abu Dhabi: Out Of The Desert

Jun 1, 2013
2013 / June 2013

It rose from the desert, a settlement of Bedouins that became the capital of the United Arab Emirates, the largest of the seven-member monarchies — a thriving, modern city with sculpted skyscrapers soaring to the clouds; a major center for multiple international businesses; the home base of Etihad Airways, its national airline; and the region’s leading cultural haven. It is the city of Abu Dhabi within the emirate of Abu Dhabi, and its spectacular growth and success were possible because of two vital forces: the discovery of oil beneath the sand and a leader wise enough to know how best to use it.

The Bani Yas tribe of Bedouins first settled on the island now the site of the city of Abu Dhabi on the Arabian Gulf in the mid-1700s, followed by the tribe’s ruling family, Al-Nahyan. Until the mid-1900s, camel herding in the desert and fishing and pearling near the Arabian Gulf were the region’s major industries. But pearling faded, and the family’s strong leader died; under the following weaker leaders, the family Al-Nahyan’s power and prosperity faltered as well.

Then oil was discovered in 1958 and within four years began to be exported. In 1966, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the youngest of the former sheikh’s four sons, took over the command from his brother. Once again, the family had a strong leader.

It was Sheikh Zayed who brought the seven monarchies together as the United Arab Emirates on Dec. 2, 1971. He became the U.A.E.’s first president and was re-elected every five years until his death in 2004. He saw that the emirate’s oil revenues were used to raise the living standard of its citizens. And although the emirate is one of the world’s major oil producers and this oil is the source of its great wealth, he made a concerted effort to diversify Abu Dhabi’s economy, expanding it especially in the fields of financial services, culture and tourism. His son, Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, now the emirate’s leader, continued his father’s vision, keeping Abu Dhabi perpetually busy and growing. And as it has grown, so has the need for more workers. Today, of the emirate’s total population of 2.1 million, nearly 80 percent are foreigners working in Abu Dhabi. Many are highly skilled people drawn to this tolerant, tax-free, low-crime place.

The emirate’s latest drive to the future began this past March when it opened the new Abu Dhabi Convention Bureau. Its purpose is to attract business events and become one of the world’s major destinations for meetings. “We will provide free assistance and support to convention and exhibition planners, to corporations and associations so they can hold conferences, major business events, meetings and congresses here,” said His Excellency Jasem Al Darmaki, deputy director general of the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority.

Certainly, Abu Dhabi has the hotel space, with many of the most prominent hotel brands already in place and others in the planning. It has the recreational facilities in its beaches and golf courses. It attracts major sporting events, among them Formula 1 racing, and cultural events including visiting ballet, opera and theater companies. And for those looking for the exotic and unusual, there are camel racing and camel beauty contests.

In short, Abu Dhabi accomplished so much in so little time. Hamed Al Khoory, senior manager of partnerships and revenue development asset management at Tourist Development & Investment Co., likes to compare this remarkable transition to the life of his grandmother. “She was born in a tent in the desert, moved to a mud hut, later to a house without electricity or indoor plumbing and, finally, to a totally modern home with every convenience — all in one lifetime.”

The emirate of Abu Dhabi is a great expanse that covers more than 80 percent of the whole of the United Arab Emirates. It borders Oman on one side and Saudi Arabia on another and includes 250 miles of coastline along the Arabian Gulf, 200 islands and long stretches of enviable beaches. For all its size, though, less than half is inhabited, with much of it desert.

The city of Abu Dhabi lies on a T-shaped island barely 775 feet from the mainland and joined to it by three bridges. It is a city of extraordinary architecture and well-kept parks and gardens, a five-mile pristine waterfront along the Corniche and a set of suburbs on the mainland itself. It is a city still growing, a city at the beginning of the 21st century already looking forward to the 22nd.


Representative, U.A.E. Embassy Trade & Commercial Office, Washington, D.C.


The overall infrastructure and industrialization process is driven by our economic diversification strategy. This currently involves eight areas: cultural tourism, aviation, manufacturing, media, health care, petrochemicals, financial services and renewable energy. International businesses that focus on any of these areas will always be welcome.


It depends on the type of investment and the place. Free zones and industrial clusters, for example, offer incentives that are lucrative for investors. A free zone is a designated area that eliminates traditional trade barriers and minimizes bureaucratic regulations. One of these areas is the development of a highly skilled, productive labor force for a knowledge-based economy. For example, Mubadala [a government-owned development company] made investments in advanced technology in the aviation and microchip manufacturing industries, and students have already been sent for training to these companies. The Masdar Institute of Science and Technology offers postgraduate degrees on a part-time basis. Branches of universities, such as New York University, have established campuses in Abu Dhabi offering postgraduate courses. Tawazun, another state-owned enterprise, is helping develop the defense manufacturing sector and, by means of the U.A.E.’s Industrial Participation Program, allows U.S. companies to co-invest with U.A.E. firms.


I believe every country was affected to some extent. Abu Dhabi was no exception. The effect came in declining real estate values, in delaying projects and in various investment vehicles. But only temporarily.


Our outlook is positive. Our gross domestic product is strong, and we are looking at increasing non-oil exports through the development of our manufacturing capabilities. We do not anticipate any downside to our economic growth.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque © Slava296 | Dreamstime.com

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque © Slava296 | Dreamstime.com

Things to Do in Abu Dhabi

For all the emirate’s march to the future with dramatic new buildings, the most compelling site in Abu Dhabi is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Gleaming, pure white; the length of three football fields; and with 82 domes, 1,000 columns and four minarets, it is the largest mosque in the U.A.E. and the eighth-largest in the world. It was begun in 1996 and, using materials from 26 countries, was completed nine years later. The floor of the main prayer room, which can accommodate 10,000 worshippers, is covered with the world’s largest one-piece carpet. In the courtyard, there is space for another 22,000 worshippers. It was Sheikh Zayed’s wish that the mosque be positioned so that people entering Abu Dhabi would see it, and it would be a way to introduce non-Muslims to Islam. This is where he is buried.

While it can build one of the world’s most impressive mosques, a people who not long ago lived in tents in the desert have not filled museums with centuries of paintings and statuary. But museums are coming to Abu Dhabi, sensational museums designed by world-famous architects and set in the new Cultural District of Saadiyat Island. Louvre Abu Dhabi, designed by Jean Nouvel — who said it will be “an island on a vast floating dome” — will open in 2015. The Zayed National Museum, dedicated to Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the country, is designed by Foster + Partners in partnership with the British Museum; inspired by the sheikh’s love of falconry, it will feature steel falcon feathers rising nearly 400 feet. It is scheduled to open in 2016. And Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, designed by Frank Gehry as the largest Guggenheim in the world, will open in 2017. A performing arts center designed by Zaha Hadid will soon follow. Large-scale models of the museums-to-be are on display at Manarat Al Saadiyat arts center, whose name appropriately means “place of enlightenment.”

When I first heard about Abu Dhabi’s falcon hospital, I was not interested in visiting. I knew nothing about falcons and had never given them a thought. But that was before a friend told me about the importance of falconry to the Arab man and before I noticed it was a symbol on the planes of Etihad Airways and a symbol, too, on United Arab Emirates currency. I would give it a chance.

The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital opened in 1999 under the direction of Dr. Margit Gabriele Müller, a German veterinary surgeon, as the first of its kind in the world. Today, it is considered the world’s foremost falcon institution, treating more than 6,000 falcons a year. Entering the hospital, the first thing I saw was a half-dozen men, most wearing the traditional long, white kandoora and gutra (headdress), with their falcons waiting to see the doctor. “They’re pets,” I said to Dr. Müller. “No,” she said, “they’re treated more like their children.” During a tour, she pointed out a drawer of feathers to replace lost ones; we watched a falcon get his talons trimmed, walked past photos of Sheikh Zayed with his falcons and saw what could be considered an assisted living space for elderly falcons. Most surprising was learning every falcon has its own passport and that falcons can travel without a cage in the cabin of any Gulf airplane. The tour ended (as it will for any visitor), with my holding a falcon on my gloved hand. No wonder a tour of the falcon hospital has become a major tourist attraction.

For the visitor with a free weekend, Sir Bani Yas Island offers a different view of the emirate. Drive about 155 miles from Abu Dhabi City on excellent roads, take a boat to the island, stay at the enchanting Desert Islands Resort & Spa, once belonging to Sheikh Zayed, and feel the otherness of this Gulf emirate. Take part in its many sports, from kayaking and diving and mountain biking to nature walks, archery and horseback riding. And because almost half the island is a wildlife sanctuary, take a guided game drive.

Emirates Palace © Daniël Leppens | Dreamstime.com

Emirates Palace © Daniël Leppens | Dreamstime.com

Back in Abu Dhabi City, the Emirates Palace is not strictly a tourist site. It is a hotel, but it is like no hotel I have ever seen before. This is where high-ranking dignitaries stay in suites awash in gold and silver and marble. Opened in 2005, owned by the government and managed by Kempinski, its public spaces feature a grand center with marble floor and patterned dome many stories high. Like Abu Dhabi’s other hotels, it has a number of restaurants and bars, and they are exceptionally busy. The reason? Because Abu Dhabi is a Muslim country, the only places that can have a liquor license are restaurants and bars within a hotel. Thus, anyone who wants a drink heads for the nearest hotel.

Abu Dhabi: Just the Facts

Time Zone: GMT +4
Phone Code: Country code: 971 City code: 2
Currency: U.A.E. dirham
Entry/Exit Requirements: A passport valid for at least six months is required to enter the United Arab Emirates. U.S. travelers can get a free-of-charge entry visa upon arrival at Abu Dhabi International Airport. For stays longer than 30 days, all travelers must obtain a visa before arrival.
Official Language: Arabic; English is widely spoken. Most street signs are in Arabic with English below.
Key Industries: Oil/petroleum, financial services, construction

Abu Dhabi Info to Go

Flights arrive at Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH). While 53 airlines use this airport, most international passengers arrive on Etihad Airways. The airport is 23 miles from downtown Abu Dhabi. The least expensive transport to and from the airport is by bus (about $1.50). A taxi costs about $20, a limousine about $40.

Where to Stay in Abu Dhabi

Desert Islands Resort & Spa by Anantara Set on an Arabian Gulf island, the resort offers 64 guestrooms, all with a garden or sea view, and a myriad of sports; about 150 miles from Abu Dhabi City. Al Ruwais, Sir Bani Yas Island $$$$

Jumeirah at Etihad Towers Curved like a gigantic comma, this ultra-modern hotel rises 63 stories and has 382 sleekly designed guestrooms and suites. It also offers 12 restaurants, lounges and bars. West Corniche, Abu Dhabi City $$$

The St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort This resort within the city has a private beach on the Arabian Gulf and 377 guestrooms, all with terraces. It is 10 minutes to downtown and 20 minutes to the airport. Saadiyat Island $$$$

Restaurants in Abu Dhabi

Amwaj Amwaj specializes in Arabic tapas, delicious small plates such as fattoush and cheese fatayer. Larger courses include grilled tandoori chicken and prawns with roasted garlic. Desert Islands Resort, Sir Bani Yas Island $$

Li Beirut Li Beirut was voted Abu Dhabi’s best restaurant for Middle Eastern cuisine in 2012. Enjoy its foie gras kebbah, char-grilled whole Sultan Ibrahim mullet and its signature lamb dishes. Jumeirah at Etihad Towers, West Corniche, Abu Dhabi City $$$

Mezlai Mezlai presents itself as the key to Emirati cuisine, offering such local specialties as jasheed, boiled shark. Finish with a “camelchino” (cappuccino made with camel’s milk). Emirates Palace Hotel, West Corniche, Abu Dhabi City $$$$


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