I first set foot in the United Arab Emirates in 2010 for a business meeting that was paid for by the other party. That trip saw my eyes standing on stalks for 90% of my waking hours. Flying in Emirates business class was, I thought, the most luxurious flight I have ever taken, and I spent most of the the five-hour journey from Entebbe to Dubai playing with the seat and the fancy touch screen. I wasn’t until three days later when I was due to check in for the return journey that I noticed I was in first class. My, oh my! What sheer, absolute over-the-top luxury! The “seat” was in a small compartment with a door and everything, reminiscent of those gorgeous railway carriages on the Orient Express. There was a huge touch-screen TV, a (real) flower arrangement with orchids, a wee console with drawers filled with all sorts of useful items, a mini fridge bar and a “do not disturb” sign for the door. But best of all was that the seat turned itself into a bed. Yep, and a decent-sized one at that. The soft duvet was covered with a crisp, fresh, white cotton cover, there were cotton sheets with a thread count that I could not possibly guess at, and, wait for it, there were jammies, dressing gown, and slippers. I actually did put my jammies on and get into bed even though it was a day flight! Simply couldn’t waste it all.
I have been back to Dubai a few times since when the need for retail therapy overcomes me. I have now just returned from my first trip to Abu Dhabi. While my eyes no longer bulge out of their sockets at the sheer opulence of it all, I am still gobsmacked by the hugeness and décor of the place that just misses by a merest millimetre being kitsch.
Abu Dhabi’s (Father of the Gazelle) roots can be traced back to around 3,000 BC, and the place has been inhabited by Bedouin tribes ever since. But it wasn’t until the late 1800s that it began to grow in tandem with the burgeoning pearl trade.
Interestingly, the old Zayed the Great brokered a deal with the British for Abu Dhabi to be placed under British protection, a protection that lasted until 1971. When the old Sheik died in 1909, the place began a steady decline due to political instability and the collapse of the pearl trade — apparently the Japanese had a hand in that. However, there was a light on the horizon: black gold. And so it was that in 1939 that the first Petroleum Concession was granted. Sheik Zayed the Great, of the Al Nahyan ruling family, was a key player in the formation of the Union of Arab Emirates after lengthy discussions with neighbouring emirates in 1968. This Zayed then engaged the services of a Japanese architect Dr Takahashi to develop Abu Dhabi, and well, the rest is almost history. Today, the Emirate is home to 1.5 million souls (including many migrant workers from India, Pakistan, and the Philippines), and it boasts the highest GDP in the world. When I was there the Grand Prix was taking place, but you’re talking $1.000 for a day ticket!
While there is a fair diversity of things to do to pass the time, such as visiting the fruit and veg markets, the meat market (no, I didn’t), the flower market, the old souk that is now, strangely, housed in a high-rise building, and the carpet souk, the Heritage Village is well worth a visit for a glimpse into the past. But the tour that made my day was a morning visit to the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque, built, of course, by the man himself. According to visitabudhabi.ae: “This architectural work of art is one the world’s largest mosques, with a capacity for an astonishing 40,000 worshippers. It features 82 domes, over a 1,000 columns, 24 carat gold gilded chandeliers and the world’s largest hand knotted carpet. The main prayer hall is dominated by one of the world’s largest chandeliers –10 metres in diameter, 15 metres in height and weighing twelve tonnes. The mosque’s first ceremony was the funeral of its namesake, Sheikh Zayed, who is buried at the site.”
I got a pain in the neck from looking up. I’m now going to let the pictures tell the rest of the story. Conclusion: if you are in that neck of the woods, do drop in. It is a balm for soul and body on a hot desert day.