Arabian sights

By | Category: Travel destinations

Dubai – which was recently confirmed as the host of the 2020 Expo – isn’t the only UAE city creating a buzz. After years in the second rank of destinations, Abu Dhabi is an emirate on the move. Kaye Holland visits the hottest new destination in the Middle East

Abu Dhabi – capital of the United Arab Emirates – may not have previously figured on your bucket list and understandably so. The city tends to fly under the radar – in part because it is shadowed by its bigger, bolder and better known sibling Dubai.

But while it is admittedly a challenge to leave Dubai – aka the ultimate tourist destination – it’s worth peeling yourself off your sun bed and motoring along the Sheikh Zayed Road (Abu Dhabi is just two short hours drive away) to see the contrast between the two  cities. Spend even the smallest time in the capital and you’ll quickly discover that it’s utterly different in character from its flashy cousin.

For while Dhabi (as locals affectionately refer to the city) boasts a climate to rival any winter sun destination you care to mention, plus the promise of luxe hotels (check out the Eastern Mangroves Hotel & Spa by Anantara and the Emirates Palace whose facade makes Buckingham Palace look like a Travel Lodge), top notch dining (I loved award winning Lebanese restaurant Li Beirut), star bars (don’t miss Ray’s and Impressions) and mega malls dedicated to the joys of consumption much like Dubai, crucially it has substance as well as style. The emirate is making a name for itself at the Gulf’s cultural hub  – all of which means that if you want a bit of bite to your beach holiday, Abu Dhabi is where it’s at.

National Day celebration

In a noisy statement of intent, Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahayan (also known as Sheikh Khalifa) – the president of Abu Dhabi – has signed up several star-chitects to oversee a plethora of prestigious projects. The lion’s share of these will be on Saadiyat Island – a mere 500m off Abu Dhabi’s east coast and half the size of Bermuda.

I learnt a lot about the plans  for Saadiyat Island at Manarat Al Saadiyat – a 15,400 sqm art and cultural centre whose aim is is to bring the vision of the island to life.

Acclaimed  architect Frank Gehry has designed the  world’s largest Guggenheim gallery – and the only one in the Arab world – which is due to open its doors in 2017. 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 due to be completed in 1915) 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 Museumby Japanese designer, 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.

Formula 1 track

But Abu Dhabi isn’t all about art. The more subdued Islamic state is also emerging as a sporting haven. Last month the emirate staged the Formula 1TM Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – the only twilight race on the F1 calendar – at the stunning Yas Marina circuit for the fifth consecutive year in front of a sell out crowd of 55,000. “The circuit and the whole Yas Marina complex are so impressive and racing from the sunshine into the twilight is quite special,” the former world champion Lewis Hamilton,  told during the Championship.

Not a fan of fast cars? No matter. Abu Dhabi is also a great destination for golfers: the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship will welcome five-time Major winner and current world number 4, Phil Mickelson, former world number one Rory McIlroy, reigning US Open title-holder Justin Rose and world number 14 Luke Donald among others from the 16-19 January. And if you’re looking to play a round yourself, there’s a whole host of world class courses – not for nothing has Abu Dhabi just been named the top Middle East golf destination by Golf Digest – including Gary Player’s Ocean Course.

Luke Donald in action

Other sporting festivals filling up the calendar include the Mubadala World Tennis Championship (Wimbledon champion Andy Murray is returning to action at this year’s tournament, which takes place from 26-28 December) and the popular  Red Bull Air Race.

Yet while Abu Dhabi has spent more than US$100 billion on developments and events,  it has managed more successfully than most to modernise itself without turning into a strip of cheerless shopping malls so beloved of red faced expats and holidaying footballers’ wives.

Corniche skyline

As such the UAE capital is significantly richer in local colour  than its bling-tastic brother (the further you go from Dubai, the richer your Arabian experience). Locals haven’t abandoned the emirate so expect to share restaurants, cafes and bars with real life Emiratis. You can tour the beguiling Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque – the largest mosque in the UAE and the eighth largest in the world – with an Emirati guide too. Located on Airport Road, the interior of the mosque is so sumptuous it could convert you to Islam. Speaking of which, the mosque tour is  a great opportunity to ask questions about Islam and the Arab world – and will remind you that even at its modern capitalist core, time honoured customs survive intact.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

All told Abu Dhabi is a curious hybrid, embracing as it does both the traditional and the modern with its mosques,  world-class museums, hip hotels and restaurants – yes reasons to indulge in a long weekend in this former fishing village soon add up… And now is a good time to go – while we are in winter coats, residents in Abu Dhabi are basking in mid 20 temperatures.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

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 take annual passenger capacity to 20million. Pack the sunnies and go and  see for yourself a city that’s on the move – even if you can’t pinpoint its exact location on a map.



Kaye flew to Dubai with Pegasus Airlines; five times weekly scheduled service from London Stansted to Dubai with fares starting at just £197 one-way including taxes and charges.  Book online




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