More low-key than Dubai, Abu Dhabi is nevertheless pursuing its own reinvention as a world-class cultural destination with the relentless vigour of its neighbour, says Sophie McBain
FORTY-EIGHT HOURS is not long to get to grips with any city, not least Abu Dhabi, a conservative, feudal monarchy recast as an oil-fuelled dream factory, where the only constant is change and where illusion and reality are kept deliberately intertwined. But then again, there may be no better way to appreciate Abu Dhabi in its confused and confusing entirety than through the haze of mild jetlag and the blur of a whirlwind visit.
And so, having left London on a chilly morning, the flight landed as night fell in humid Abu Dhabi. With little light remaining for sightseeing, I was efficiently bundled into a hotel car and delivered straight to the Rocco Forte.
The hotel is the family-run chain’s first venture in the region — although developments are under way in Jeddah, Marrakech, Luxor and Cairo (where it is renovating the iconic Shepheard Hotel) — and it cannot have been easy catering to the diverse, conflicting needs of Abu Dhabi’s business population and growing tourist numbers. They have done a brilliant job, however. The rooms are accented with Middle Eastern touches, with artwork by Lebanese artist Salwa Zeidan, engravings of Adonis’s poetry, mosaics and woodcarvings — but the muted, neutral colour palate adds a more European aesthetic.
At times it requires a special combination of diplomacy and clever architecture to keep such a cosmopolitan clientele happy. The hotel has built an underground car park with individual lifts, affording the necessary privacy for local Emiratis to frequent the hotel anonymously and enjoy all manner of things that the hotel staff are too discreet to reveal.
Perhaps it is the creeping influence of government propaganda, but it quickly became apparent that both official and unofficial tour guides have agreed on two principles. The first is that no world record is too trivial to go unmentioned. As a result, we looked up in awe at the world’s most leaning building, the mosque with the greatest number of domes, and the largest solar-powered catamaran. Cringeing with embarrassment in Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the guide explained that the multi-coloured chandelier above her head was once the world’s largest — until the Qataris built a bigger one. Put aside your concerns about nuclear Iran and a Middle East arms race; the Gulf states, at least, have the world’s biggest fish to fry.
The second principle of Abu Dhabi tours is that what matters isn’t that visitors understand the present, but that they are able to imagine the future, that they can translate the gaping downtown construction sites and suburban scrublands into potential mega-malls and metro stations, luxury beach resorts and cutting-edge cultural centres. In a society built on promises, glistening new tower blocks and dusty foundations are treated with equal reverence.
In this respect, Abu Dhabi resembles Dubai as I remember it when I lived there in the late Nineties, during the happy but brief period after the opening of the first high-end resorts and hotels but before its seven-star monstrosities, gargantuan shopping centres and gridlocked traffic.
The big difference, however, is that while Dubai expanded on a whim, an oil rush and a property bubble, in Abu Dhabi there is A Plan — the unimaginatively named Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 — and so far, so good. Investors sucked in their breath in late 2011 when construction on Saadiyat Island — the Emirate’s planned cultural district, which will include a Guggenheim and a Louvre — ground to a standstill. A few days before my arrival, however, the government affirmed that it had earmarked funds for the project, and that building on the highest-profile projects would proceed, albeit with delays, providing reassurance that the government was committed to public infrastructure projects.
There has been a lot of old-world snobbery surrounding Saadiyat, or ‘Happiness’ Island: ‘Do Gulfi petro-princes really think that money can buy culture?’ the argument goes. Of course, there is something unsettling about the project. State-sponsored happiness is a peculiarly disturbing concept, and one that the Emirati ruling family is keen to push to glossy new extremes. But from an artistic point of view it’s a shrewd move; art has always depended on patronage, and when artists and curators start following money eastwards, European governments may soon regret their complacency and budget-slashing.
That said, there is not yet much to see on Saadiyat Island; the museums, galleries and arts centres designed by a constellation of ‘starchitects’ are still holes in the ground. Instead I headed quickly for the Monte Carlo Beach Club, the island’s first such club, which boasts a beautiful view of the Persian Gulf, sleek poolside décor and a hit-and-miss menu.
Illustration by Femke de Jong
THERE ARE FEW places in the world that have pushed the potential of global human capital further — here the whole country, from the road network to the financial system, is built by temporary migrants and the national culture is shared by the minority and treated with a certain superficial reverence and profound confusion by the rest. No wonder most attempts at cultural authenticity fall flat.
Even knowing all this, I couldn’t resist a final attempt at locating the Arabian heart of international Abu Dhabi, and I headed to Abdel Wahab restaurant in the hope of sampling some local delicacies. I had high expectations. Although it happened fifteen years ago, I vividly remember my younger brother returning wide-eyed from a ceremonial dinner hosted by the ruling family in Dubai. Women were not invited, so I heard second-hand how a tribesman had ripped off a huge chunk of greasy lamb and slapped it unceremoniously on my brother’s plate, while fellow tribal leaders tore the meat from the bone with their teeth, letting the juices run down their hands and chins, and how my stepfather, fearing a diplomatic incident, whispered to my shell-shocked brother to ‘eat it or I’ll kill you’.
I would have loved the chance to partake in this kind of Bedouin feast, but Abdel Wahab offered the more delicate dishes of the Levant. The food wasn’t dissimilar to what you might find in some of the better restaurants on Edgware Road, and the atmosphere wasn’t hugely different. Young men and women were sitting around sharing mezze, smoking shisha and speaking in the wonderful half-English, half-Arabic sentences favoured by Western-educated Arabs.
Abu Dhabi is not somewhere you should travel to if you’re in search of the flavours of the Middle East. It is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. But if there is one theme that binds the emirate together, that links its grimy construction sites to flashy towers, connects the dead-eyed manual labourers to the suited, suntanned yuppies and sheikhs in pristine dishdashas, it’s reinvention. If the government pulls it off, Abu Dhabi’s latest reincarnation as a cultural capital could yet be its most exciting to date.
British Airways offers daily flights to Abu Dhabi from London Heathrow. First-class fares start from £3,620 return, including taxes, fees and charges (ba.com)
Rooms at Rocco Forte Hotel Abu Dhabi start from 950AED (approximately £165), based on two people sharing a classic room with breakfast. Prices are exclusive of 10 per cent service charge and 6 percent tourism tax (roccofortehotels.com)
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