Abu Dhabi, a city perched on the coast of the UAE is the richest city in the world, and home to more millionaires than anywhere else on earth. Whereas in the UK the average net worth of a person is around $80,000 in Abu Dhabi it is $17million. Attracting some $1 trillion worth of international investment annually it is no surprise that this tiny emirate bases much of its wealth off it’s hydrocarbon reserves. In other words – Oil.
Just 2 hours from Dubai the bus costs 25 Dirhams per seat (£4.30) and leaves from Al Guaibab station about every 20 minutes or so. With no trains in the Emirates the only alternative is a taxi which floats between 250 and 300 Dirhams.
You can stay anywhere you like in the city thanks to it being quite small, taking only 15 minutes from one side to the other in a taxi and an excellent bus service where every journey within Abu Dhabi is just 1 Dirham and a day pass just 3 dirhams (£0.17/£0.50) Everything is replicated in English and so navigation is simple. Despite the wealth in Abu Dhabi, hotels when compared to Dubai are around 30% cheaper, yet still holding up the opulence and cleanliness of those in Dubai.
Like Dubai, Abu Dhabi is in cleanliness over drive, however, and as much as we do love Dubai it is quite a soulless and sterile place, after just a few hours in Abu Dhabi we sensed a real character, it’s very Arabian, whilst still managing to portray the western edge. Nothing like we expected it is simply a normal city with a collective of sky scrapers at the corniche facing out over the Gulf. As much as you see international companies you see local Arab diners, Lebanese takeaways and cheesy, glitzy, Las Vegas-esque illuminated shop fronts. Walking around you don’t get a sense of wealth, but a real sense of cohesion brought about immigrants from all over the world. One minute we was chatting to a Pakistani taxi driver who was telling us how he hated India, Saudi Arabia and just about everywhere. A Bangladeshi who had worked for 6 years without seeing his family, regularly sending them cash, and an Indian who couldn’t wait to see Pakistan get thrashed in the cricket by Australia, which is coming to the Emirates next week.
But by far our most ‘productive’ chat was with a couple of Sri Lankan guys. Abu Dhabi is part of the UAE and devoutly Muslim. Society is based on the principles set out in Islam and so alcohol is strictly taboo and illegal for muslims. However, recognising that it is no longer a city inhabited exclusively by the Muslim populous, the government of Abu Dhabi have somewhat relaxed the laws regarding alcohol. Synonymous with the rest of the UAE drinking or being drunk in public will have you locked up as will carrying alcohol in a public place. However there are 3 places within the city which are allowed to sell alcohol at set times to non-muslim residents of the UAE on the basis of a license system whereby alcohol is limited to set amounts per month based on salary. On the good advice of the Sri Lankan guys we set off in search of a place called Spinneys supermarket in the Khalidya area of Abu Dhabi (Near the Marina) at the rear of Spinneys is a shop which looks closed and has no windows. They only ask for an alcohol license if you are either a tourist, or not obviously a non muslim. Being tanned i tried to pass off as a resident and grabbed 4 cans of Heineken (5 Dirhams each – £0.86) and confidently went to pay. Expecting to have to fire off a blag I was pleasantly surprised when within seconds we had paid and were out of the door no questions asked.
Abu Dhabi was brutally hot and is not geared for walking at all, temperatures hit the high forties and with no wind it was unforgiving and really sapped the energy from us. The desert sun has a burning edge to it, it feels like you are walking close to a raging furnace and unlike Dubai there is very little escape in terms of places that are air conditioned. Knowing we would be losing at least a litre of water in sweat every hour, rehydration was key and without even wanting to we found ourselves craving water and shade at every opportunity. I would go as far to say that the heat was unbearable, and even though we are well used to such temperatures, the lack of a breeze, shade and the openness of where we was really did become a struggle. Our eyes were constantly stinging from the sweat, our bodies drenched and every inch of bare skin burned. It was tough, and though not as hot as last year where temperatures hit 54 degrees we were given a harsh reminder of just how hot the Middle East gets.
With the heat in mind we decided to keep the time spent outside to a minimum, ruling out any public parks, beaches and things of no real significance. There was however two places we wanted to visit, the first was the enormous Sheikh Zayed Mosque. The biggest mosque in the whole of the Emirates and one of the biggest in the world it can accommodate about 40,000 worshippers. As far as mosques goes it is probably the epitome of beauty. A vast white complex surrounded by minarets and domes made from pure white marble it is difficult to imagine how anything man made could ever be this beautiful. As far as buildings go it jumped straight into one of our favourite, most beautiful and amazing buildings we have ever had the privilege of visiting. Despite the fact we were battered by the unforgiving heat we couldn’t help but be absolutely mesmerised by not just the scale, but the absolute pristine beauty the place offered up. A relatively new mosque it is subtle in it’s surroundings of a beautifully landscaped garden, and despite the fact it is enormous it isn’t overbearing, but welcoming. The kids and I absolutely loved it, and between us it is one of our favourite religious places, more beautiful than the Taj Mahal, every bit as amazing as the Golden Temple and any visit to Abu Dhabi without sampling it’s offering is a visit wasted in our opinion.
The reason we were actually in Abu Dhabi was due to a documentary I had watched a couple of years back in the UK about a city called Masdar. It was a bewildering glimpse into a unique city, a city of the future and I promised myself If ever we should find ourselves in the area, we would visit.
Masdar city is a joint venture between many countries globally and certainly many companies around the world. The fact is oil reserves are going to run out, and when they do, in a world based on energy we have to have something in place. It is a mixture betweens mans desire for science and the future and also of a reality that things are going to change, whether we like it or not and we must be ready. Masdar city is located just outside Abu Dhabi and nearby to the airport. It’s easily reached on the bus (line 161 and 163 from Carrefour, Airport rd)
A unique, self sufficient city it creates, garners and uses its own energy. Though only small the city is largely unheard of. We were for instance the only people there, and visitors get free reign of the place. Essentially it is a living experiment that actually does home some people. All the power is from Solar energy and cars are taken beneath the ground. Like something out of the future the cars require no driver and you simply hop in, speak where you want to go and completely driver free they head off. The streets are air conditioned by use of a huge wind tunnel which collects the wind and then distributes it around the complex. The buildings are all carefully constructed to not just collect the air so to naturally cool them, but also to maximise sunlight reducing the need for energy.
Masdar is spearheading the change on how we will live and how cities will be in the future, it is home to some of the best engineers and scientists in the world. All working together with a united goal – Self sufficiency and renewable energy. Naturally it was a very futuristic place and the kids loved it. They, along with me found it excessively interesting and for them it was a glimmer of how they might end up living, and especially how their children will end up living. For me it was science at it’s best, a real playground of ideas and experiments. It is easy to forget the imminent problems regarding energy which do face us, but was great to see that somewhere, in the middle of an Arabian desert ideas are being put into place and efforts are heading forward that one day, when oil runs out man will survive. I did however see the irony of such a place in a country that bases about 95% of it’s GDP on the black stuff.
Still, Abu Dhabi for us was great and between us we agreed that the character and charisma of the city makes up for the lacking in beaches and hyper malls. All three of us preferred it to Dubai and given how much we love Dubai that really does say a lot. I guess the best way to describe it is that you would holiday in Dubai, and then come home to Abu Dhabi.