Abu Dhabi is something of a mirage rising out of the dusty desert of the United Arab Emirates. A city of glittering gold and shimmering glass, it is everything you want it to be and more – an epic contrast of the barren and the beautiful, the privileged and the poor, the noble and nomadic. Nestled in the Arabian Gulf, the modern site of this grand city began as a source of fresh water – of paramount importance to the Bedouin tribes of Bani Yas, descendants of whom are the current rulers of the nation today. Originally trading in pearls, an abundance of which were found in the azure waters of the gulf, this settlement came to be of vast importance to the British in colonial times. They used its location to protect their trade routes to India from pirates. It later rose from the sands of the desert with the discovery of oil in the 1960s, turning what was once a small port into a bustling, international metropolis.
A good ‘taster’ of the Middle East, Abu Dhabi has enough sheikdom and sand dunes to fire the inquisitive, yet still retains enough of a cosmopolitan union of Islam and the Western world to please any traveller. You may be surprised by the city’s greenery, but you will soon discover that, with over 400 kilometres of coastline and 2000 parks, the city is known for its lush shrubbery in what is normally a very beige landscape.
Traditions and customs abound in the United Arab Emirates and it pays to be respectful of Islamic culture: a modest dress code, friendly manner and mindful tone will serve you well here, but that’s not to say you won’t find plenty of fun. There is simply so much to do, and the city is easily laid out for convenience. The signature Corniche Road runs directly along the coastline and opens up to a number of beautiful cafes where one can stop and admire the view with a fortifying coffee or relax and soak up some of the heart-warming sunshine on the immaculate beaches. The scale of the entertainment in Abu Dhabi is unrivalled anywhere else in the world. It’s like the Las Vegas of the Middle East… without the drinking and gambling, of course.
The jewel of Abu Dhabi’s Heritage crown has to be the imposing Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. A national icon, it offers tours for all cultures, backgrounds and religions, but this is a place of worship, so you must adhere to Islamic guidelines. It is, frankly, jaw-dropping in size at 22,412 square metres and fits a staggering 40,960 worshippers. Consider this: there are 82 domes of white marble and over 1000 columns featuring any number of semi-precious gems and stones, including mother of pearl, amethyst and lapis lazuli. And it’s not just the exterior that impresses; the carpet was handcrafted by over 1100 artisans in the famed carpet region of Mashhad in Iran, and has been valued at over US$8 million!
The chandelier in the prayer hall is the largest of its kind in the world. The Mosque’s construction used materials and designs from numerous countries around the world and the result is intended to promote peace, tolerance and understanding. The scale and beauty of this place is genuinely awe-inspiring. If you are looking for an oasis away from the everyday hubbub of the Western world, then the refreshing, vast and contrast-heavy Abu Dhabi is for you – one of the most barren environments on earth unveiling a veritable playground for all things glitzy and grand.
If the arts aren’t enough for you, head to Yas Island, home of the Formula One Grand Prix track, yacht club, marina and Ferrari World. Don’t miss a trip to the Central Market; a vast shopping arena that rivals New York’s 5th Avenue – meanwhile, the Souk is the best spot for buying up all of your souvenirs and trinkets.
Abu Dhabi offers more than just your typical tourist attractions of shops, beaches and fine dining; it is a world-class cultural destination. Only minutes from the city centre, Saadiyat Island is set to become the art haunt of the Middle East, as it will house a New York University campus, a Guggenheim, and even a Louvre!
Words: Emily Parker