Cultural Desert

By | Category: Travel destinations, Travel tips & opinions

Heading to the UAE in the aftermath of the country’s National Day (December 2)? For the discerning traveller, the country’s capital, Abu Dhabi – which has managed to modernise itself while retaining its traditional charm – is where it’s at

Don’t confuse Abu Dhabi with its showy neighbour, Dubai. If the latter lures in the masses, Abu Dhabi attracts a different kind of clientele. Case in point? While the ‘city of gold’ extends a welcome as warm as the weather to Big Brother contestants, footballers and their wives (the Rooneys holidayed there earlier this year), the capital has played host to Hollywood heavyweights Will Smith and Jamie Foxx, music maestros Justin Timberlake, Elton John and Bon Jovi – all of whom picked Abu Dhabi over Dubai as a venue for their epic concerts – and more refined sports stars such as golfing greats Colin Montgomerie and Gary Player.

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Player in particular, is clearly enamoured with the emirate. Not content with having designed a course on Saadiyaat Island – just one of the numerous islands offshore that are being redeveloped – the 72 year old South African who won 163 titles over five decades, has waxed lyrical about the more subdued Islamic state telling The National (the Abu Dhabi based English language newspaper) that he had “fallen in love with Abu Dhabi. They are doing things in a more pristine way. All their planning is good.”

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For while the more conservative city may boast many of the same draws as Dubai (read guaranteed sunshine, a sparkling sea, sand whiter than a dentist’s chair plus hip hotels, top notch dining, chic bars and modern shopping malls crammed with delights), crucially the capital also wants to be regarded as an international cultural hub. In a bid to achieve this aim, several ‘star-chitects’ have been signed up to oversee a plethora of prestigious projects. From 2012, Saadiyat Island – a mere 500m off Abu Dhabi’s east coast and half the size of Bermuda – will house the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi contemporary arts museum. Designed by acclaimed architect Frank Gehry at a cost of between US$200m and US$400m, this is the world’s largest Guggenheim and the only one in the Arab world. Other meaningful coups include the first ever branch of the world famous Parisian art museum, The Louvre (designed by award winning French architect Jean Nouvel) and a Sheikh Zayed National Museum – designed by Norman Foster and devoted to Abu Dhabi’s history and heritage, as well as the legacy of the much revered late ruler of the UAE after whom the museum is named. There’s also a Maritime Museum by Japan’s Tadao Ando on the way, which will reflect the rich maritime history of the Gulf, and a Performing Arts Centre designed by Zaha Hadid. The Iraqi-British architect became the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize – aka architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize – back in 2004.

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Factor in the Formula 1 race – the first one took place in 2009 over on Yas Island – combined with Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority’s bid to usher in 2.7 million tourists per year by 2012, and there’s no doubting that this former fishing village is a city that is certainly going places. As James Hogan, chief executive of Abu Dhabi based airline, Etihad Airways, puts it: “Abu Dhabi is going to be one of the premier international cities.”
All of which means that if you want to ensure full holiday bragging rights, there has never been a better time to visit Abu Dhabi. Furthermore, getting there is about to become even easier; top of the list of new projects is the US$6.8 billion redevelopment of the existing Abu Dhabi International Airport which will have a handling capacity of 40 million passengers a year – 12 million more than current figures – by 2030. Explore, enjoy and see for yourself the city that in the words of Gary Player “the whole world will know about”, even if they can’t pinpoint its exact location on the map.

For the low-down on where to eat, sleep, shop and play in Abu Dhabi, be sure to log on to the CD Traveller website on Monday December 6.

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