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