Gulf Star

In the midst of Abu Dhabi’s ris­ing sky­line lurk tan­ta­liz­ing traces of the city’s tra­di­tional cul­ture

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In the midst of Abu Dhabi’s ris­ing sky­line lurk tan­ta­liz­ing traces of the city’s tra­di­tional cul­ture

Cra­dled on the eastern tip of the Ara­bian Penin­sula, about half-way along the 400-mile shore­line of the fed­er­a­tion known as the United Arab Emi­rates, lies Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s cap­i­tal and sec­ond-largest city. Abu Dhabi, to­gether with Doha, its neigh­bor to the west, and Dubai to the east, form a tri­umvi­rate of Gulf cities de­ter­mined to lever­age the pro­ceeds from their abun­dant oil and nat­u­ral gas re­sources to build economies that are bet­ter bal­anced and less prone to the va­garies and whims of the in­ter­na­tional en­ergy mar­kets.

In 2009, the govern­ment of Abu Dhabi launched its Abu Dhabi Eco­nomic Vi­sion 2030 – a long-term pro­ject that aims to trans­form and di­ver­sify the na­tion’s econ­omy, shift­ing it away from“re­liance on the oil sec­tor,”and mov­ing to­wards more “knowl­edge-based”in­dus­tries.

Pre­vi­ously the cap­i­tal’s flashy neigh­bor, Dubai, had claimed much of the spot­light. How­ever in the past few years Abu Dhabi has raised its global pro­file – and has done so spec­tac­u­larly with an im­pres­sive ar­ray of im­pres­sive projects aimed at both busi­ness and leisure sec­tors.

Cap­i­tal Cen­tre is a new com­mer­cial dis­trict un­der de­vel­op­ment next to the Abu Dhabi National Ex­hi­bi­tion Cen­tre (AD­NEC), the Ara­bian Gulf’s largest ex­hi­bi­tion fa­cil­ity, and the now-iconic Cap­i­tal Gate (aka, the Lean­ing Tower of Abu Dhabi). When it’s com­plete, Cap­i­tal Cen­tre will have 23 tow­ers, as well as mixed-use de­vel­op­ments and a ma­rina. In­ter­na­tional Tower, the big­gest in the com­plex, opened in 2011, and the re­main­ing build­ings are open­ing in sev­eral phases. Ho­tels in Cap­i­tal Cen­tre in­clude the Pre­mier Inn and two Rotana properties – Cap­i­tal Cen­tre Rotana and Cen­tro Cap­i­tal Cen­tre.

Air of Suc­cess

The city it­self is mostly con­fined to a roughly T-shaped is­land joined by a string of bridges to nearby is­lands and to the main­land where one finds sub­urbs with names like Mad­i­nat Khal­ifa, Al Shamkha and Al Mafraq sprawled out. But this is more than just a typ­i­cal wa­ter­front city cen­ter ringed by neigh­bor­hoods. Abu Dhabi is quickly be­com­ing a world class des­ti­na­tion, with at­trac­tions rang­ing from the Ara­bian Wildlife Park to the Abu Dhabi Golf Club, with meet­ing fa­cil­i­ties at venues such as Abu Dhabi Univer­sity and even Abu Dhabi Fal­con Hos­pi­tal.

For ex­am­ple, vis­i­tors to theYas ho­tel – lo­cated onYas Is­land, home to the For­mula One cir­cuit – might be treated to a drive on the track, a round of golf on the is­land’s cham­pi­onship course or a day at Fer­rari World, the world’s largest in­door theme park with the fastest out­door roller­coaster. Fer­rari World also has meet­ing space and is avail­able for events and in­cen­tives.

Then there’s the rapidly-de­vel­op­ing Saadiyat Is­land, a five-minute drive from

down­town Abu Dhabi. An eco­log­i­cally pro­tected man­grove area, the 10-squaremile is­land of­fers beaches, la­goons, wet­lands and, even­tu­ally, a cul­tural dis­trict hous­ing mu­se­ums such as the Guggen­heim – due to open in 2014 – and the Lou­vre, which has an open­ing date that’s been pushed back as late as 2015.

Of course, one can­not con­tem­plate the cityscape of Abu Dhabi with­out not­ing the up­surge of new ho­tels, many of them four- and five-star properties, jostling for at­ten­tion along the sky­line (see side­bar). With so many new rooms com­ing on­line so quickly, the fun­da­men­tal law of sup­ply and de­mand might im­ply a drop in rates. How­ever ob­servers point out that, un­like Dubai, very few new ho­tels have opened in Abu Dhabi over the past sev­eral years, so there is strong de­mand for the en­try of new brands, fa­cil­i­ties, restau­rants and bars.

Mean­while, the surge of in­ter­est in the UAE cap­i­tal is be­ing com­ple­mented with ex­pand­ing air ac­ces­si­bil­ity, re­in­forc­ing its propo­si­tion as a des­ti­na­tion for global busi­ness. Abu Dhabi’s strength as an avi­a­tion hub has been fu­eled by the suc­cess of Eti­had Air­ways, which ac­counted for 71 per­cent of the mar­ket share in 2012, ac­cord­ing to OAG data. The growth led to on­go­ing ex­pan­sion at Abu Dhabi In­ter­na­tional Air­port, which be­gan in 2006, long be­fore the 2030 Eco­nomic Vi­sion.

The first pro­ject, com­pleted in 2009, was the cre­ation of Ter­mi­nal 3 – Eti­had’s ded­i­cated ter­mi­nal – that was de­signed to han­dle five mil­lion pas­sen­gers per year. At that stage, the to­tal ca­pac­ity across all

of the air­port’s ter­mi­nals amounted to 12 mil­lion pas­sen­gers. In the same year, the air­port com­pleted the con­struc­tion of the 13,500-foot North Run­way to fa­cil­i­tate in­creased air­craft move­ment.

In 2011, Abu Dhabi Air­port Com­pany (ADAC) com­pleted a re­fur­bish­ment pro­ject of Ter­mi­nal 1, part of a plan to con­stantly en­sure that all three ter­mi­nals stay ahead of the tech curve. Be­yond th­ese de­vel­op­ments, ADAC is work­ing on de­vel­op­ing a 7.5 mil­lion-square-foot Mid­field Ter­mi­nal Com­plex (MTC) that will even­tu­ally in­crease pas­sen­ger ca­pac­ity to 47 mil­lion pas­sen­gers per year.

In the mean­time, while the MTC ex­pan­sion pro­gresses, the air­port will con­tinue to roll out smaller ca­pac­ity en­hance­ment projects to in­crease ca­pac­ity sig­nif­i­cantly to 17 mil­lion by 2017, such as ad­di­tional Air­bus A380-ca­pa­ble gates and stands, a new ho­tel linked to Ter­mi­nal 3, and a new pas­sen­ger ar­rival hall.

A Back­ward Glance

It can be dif­fi­cult to get a han­dle on Abu Dhabi’s his­tory, so rapid is the pace of change, but a good place to start is the Abu Dhabi Her­itage Vil­lage. On the break­wa­ter, the ad­mit­tedly newly-built vil­lage gives a taste of what tra­di­tional life was like un­til only a few decades ago. There are court­yard houses, wind tow­ers and an ex­am­ple of the an­cient ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem which was used in the Emi­rate’s oases. In dif­fer­ent work­shops, crafts­men and women demon­strate tra­di­tional skills, and you can also pe­ruse in­ter­est­ing dis­plays of coins, Qu­rans, gar­ments, weaponry, div­ing equip­ment and jewelry. The vil­lage is open daily 8:30 AM – 5:00 PM. Ad­mis­sion is free.

For more in­sight into the past and fu­ture of the city, a visit to the Emi­rates Palace is

es­sen­tial.You’d be for­given for think­ing it was a bona fide palace – the breath­tak­ingly huge ho­tel has 302 rooms and 92 suites. Man­aged by Kempin­ski, it’s an Arabesque citadel of lux­ury, boast­ing 1,002 Swarovs­kicrys­tal chan­de­liers and a grand atrium. But it’s much more than a ho­tel.

There is a per­ma­nent dis­play of stun­ning his­tor­i­cal ar­ti­facts be­hind un­ob­tru­sive glass cab­i­nets. The cul­tural mu­seum doc­u­ments the new de­vel­op­ments tak­ing place in Abu Dhabi since the dis­cov­ery of oil in 1958. Abu Dhabi has 9 per­cent of the world’s proven oil re­serves and 5 per­cent of its gas. The UAE is well aware that th­ese will even­tu­ally run out, and to help plug the gap, plans are un­der way to make Abu Dhabi the re­gion’s cul­tural cen­ter. It’s easy to get lost as you wan­der through the great mar­ble halls, gap­ing at the high painted ceil­ings – even the toi­lets are worth a visit for their un­apolo­getic golden grandeur.

Abu Dhabi’s most fa­mous street stretches all the way from the Sher­a­ton Abu Dhabi Re­sort and Tow­ers to the Hil­ton Cor­niche Res­i­dence. At al­most 4 miles long, the Cor­niche has been con­sid­er­ably “greened”over the past few years with its fair share of at­trac­tive walk­ways, cy­cle paths and new parks. Best seen in the early evening when the heat be­gins to dis­si­pate, it is a pleas­ant place to take a stroll and soak up the pic­turesque views and am­bi­ence. Along the way you can also spot dis­tinc­tive land­marks, such as el­e­gant white mosques, the 200-year-old Maqta Bridge Fort and the famed Clock Tower.

The pris­tine Cor­niche beach­front has been awarded Blue Flag sta­tus - the in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized eco-label for beaches and mari­nas that guar­an­tees clean and safe wa­ter for swim­ming. Op­po­site the Cor­niche is Lulu Is­land, built from re­claimed land in 1988. There are plans for de­vel­op­ment on this is­land too.

The splen­did Sheikh Zayed bin Sul­tan Al Nahyan Mosque, known lo­cally as the Grand Mosque, is a stun­ning land­mark near Al Maq­taa. At 237,000 square feet it is the third-largest mosque in the world, and can ac­com­mo­date up to 40,000 wor­ship­pers. It also houses the mau­soleum of HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sul­tan Al Nahyan, the UAE’s first pres­i­dent and founder. The mosque is grand in ev­ery sense – look out for a large, ex­quis­ite chan­de­lier in the prayer halls and a 60,000 square-foot Per­sian rug. Built of Ital­ian mar­ble, the mosque boasts grand minarets, and domes and col­umns adorned with thou­sands of semi-pre­cious stones. Open to all na­tion­al­i­ties 9:00 –11:30 AM Sun-Thurs, but re­mem­ber to dress ap­pro­pri­ately.

Built in the late 18th cen­tury as the of­fi­cial palace of the rul­ing fam­ily, the Qasr Al-Hosn is one of the old­est build­ings in Abu Dhabi. Lo­cally it’s known as the Old Fort and has a beau­ti­ful court­yard with in­tri­cately de­signed de­tails. Lo­cated within its grounds is the Cul­tural Foun­da­tion, which high­lights the her­itage of the emi­rate and con­tains the National Li­brary, home to many rare manuscripts. The foun­da­tion hosts recitals, cul­tural shows, film screen­ings and arts fes­ti­vals through­out the year. It also in­cludes an ex­hi­bi­tion hall, an au­di­to­rium and an am­phithe­atre. Open Sun-Thurs 8:00 AM - 10:00 PM (Fri­day 5:00 PM - 8:00 PM and Satur­day 9:00 AM - 9:00 PM).

By now, you may be ready for a bit of mod­ern re­tail ther­apy. Make your way to the Abu Dhabi Mall in the Tourist Club Area, one of the emi­rate’s largest shop­ping venues, sell­ing top in­ter­na­tional brands. The glitzy mall is home to more than 220 stores (Ken­neth Cole, Mas­simo Dutti, Tommy Hilfiger,Vir­gin Mega­s­tore and The Body Shop, to name but a few), as well as a mul­ti­plex and scores of cafés. If you are in the mood for some tra­di­tional shop­ping and hag­gling, the Ira­nian Souq, a short dis­tance from the mall, is a great op­tion.

Abu Dhabi re­mains a des­ti­na­tion in the mak­ing, and an im­pres­sive sky­line is but one piece of a much larger puz­zle to pro­mote and grow the Emi­rate – it’s not as if the city doesn’t al­ready have plenty go­ing for it, what with plen­ti­ful man­groves a stone’s throw away from state-of-theart busi­ness of­fices, mu­se­ums, pris­tine beaches, golf cour­ses, a Fer­rari theme park and For­mula 1 race­track. BT

Op­po­site page: Camels and han­dler in the desert Above: Abu Dhabi sky­line

Be­low: Abu Dhabi in­dus­trial ship port Above: Sheikh Zayed bin Sul­tan Al Nahyan Mosque and Fer­rari theme park and For­mula 1 race­track.

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