The United Arab Emirates capital is emerging from the shadow of its bling big sister, Dubai. Jonathan Wilks finds out why this once sleepy city is set to become the Middle East’s new hip hangout
Abu Dhabi is a city in transition. You can see it as soon as you leave the international airport, driving along the Airport Road with the emerging Khalifa City developments rising from the desert beyond the palm trees. Before hitting the main island that supports most of the city, you pass through areas that step further and further back through time, ultimately arriving at the Al Hosn Fort area where the Al Nahyan family first settled near the Arabian Gulf.
From a distance, the shoreline of the nearby Corniche looks like a gleaming, modern conurbation, but up close you’ll see that it’s a mix of random architecture, some of it as hip and happening as it gets, other parts as dusty and decrepit as the back streets of Kathmandu.
Abu Dhabi has an equally eclectic mix of residents. With a mere 10 per cent originating from the UAE, approximately 60 per cent from the Indian subcontinent, and the rest an amalgam of South-East Asians and Westerners, Abu Dhabi is a hub of transient activity. Nothing and nobody rests; it’s all change from one year to the next.
There’s excitement in town as outposts of two of the art world’s greatest museums – the Louvre and the Guggenheim – are scheduled for completion within the next two years. These arrivals have sparked the imagination of the region’s creatives and the local art community is beginning to bud. While Abu Dhabi’s art scene is nowhere near as expansive as Dubai’s, there are some great galleries here. Start with the Salwa Zeidan Gallery (Khaleej Al Arabi St; +971 2 666 9656), run by the eponymous Lebanese collector, and specialising in up-and-coming Emirati artists.
For larger exhibitions, try Gallery One (Emirates Palace Hotel; +971 2 690 9000) or Manarat Al Saadiyat (Saadiyat Island; www.saadiyat.ae/en). The latter is widely viewed as the most exciting thing to have happened to the local art scene in years.
Food & drink
The kind of food that you’ll find in the Gulf is similar to Lebanese cuisine, so expect lots of delicious dips such as houmous and baba ganoush as well as tabbouleh, falafel and mouthwatering grilled lamb on skewers. The cultural mishmash naturally spills over into the city’s choice of restaurants, with the vast majority of budget outlets specialising in dishes from the subcontinent as well as Middle Eastern fare.
If it’s decent nosebag you’re after, try Lebanese Corner (Defence Road; +971 2 645 6338). Legendary among Abu Dhabi expats, the Lebanese menu is packed with arayes, falafel and shawarmas, and the place is teeming with devotees, so make sure you get there early.
At the other end of the scale, Ushna (Souk Qaryat Al Beri; +971 2 558 1769) dishes up Indian cuisine with pizzazz, and the city’s well-to-do diners lap it up. For a real splurge, Hakkasan (Emirates Palace Hotel; +971 2 690 9000) is currently where it’s at. The Arabian sister of the high-end celeb-pleasing London Chinese restaurant is just as popular here, with top-notch cuisine and a lengthy bar where wannabes (the city is full of them) line up to have their profile caught and reflected in the blue light spilling on to the back wall.
While nightclubs exist in the city, Abu Dhabi famously maintains a stately, mature ambience, leaving what it considers to be the more trashy night-time frolics to its rowdy neighbour. This attitude is reflected in sophisticated events such as the Abu Dhabi Classics series (www.abudhabiclassics.com), which runs annually from September to May and brings in big hitters such as Simon Rattle, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Bolshoi Ballet.
The famous F1 Grand Prix weekend heralds an annual cavalcade of international acts, both hip and heritage. To celebrate this year’s race on November 14, F1 ticket holders were treated to mega concerts by Prince, Linkin Park and Kanye West; free concerts on the beach from Sophie Ellis Bextor and Sean Paul kept the masses happy.
Shopping & style
Until the last decade, anyone in need of a new outfit jumped in their car and drove 90 minutes to Dubai. These days the city has an abundance of mega-malls, all of which seek to outdo one another by securing the coolest contracts. Marina Mall leads the pack in terms of high street choice, though we prefer Hamdan Centre (Hamdan Street; +971 2 632 8555) if you’re in the mood to haggle over fake Rolexes, or the Iranian Souk (Mina Port) if you’re looking for more traditional trinkets or Persian rugs.
For a truly Dhabi experience, make sure you drop by the Emirates Palace Hotel (Ras Al Akhbar; +971 2 690 9000), where – at considerable cost – a vending machine in the foyer spits out nuggets of solid gold.
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
The imposing domed structure that sits on the banks of Maqtaa Creek is one of the first things you see when you enter the city. Completed in 2009, its construction was ordered by the late Sheikh Zayed (founder of the UAE).
Covering 7,119 square metres, the mosque is home to the largest hand-woven Persian carpet in the world, and the world’s largest chandelier, weighing between eight and nine tonnes.
It has 1,096 exterior columns and 96 columns in its main prayer hall. These are embedded with more than 20,000 marble panels encrusted with semi-precious stones.
What’s that sound?
Sheikh Zayed’s mausoleum is next to the mosque. Attendants man the site 24 hours a day, continuously reciting verses from the Qu’ran.
British Airways fly direct from London Heathrow, while bmi, and Etihad Airways and Flybe all fly direct from Heathrow and Manchester. These and other airlines also operate indirect flights from other major UK airports. Direct flights starts from approximately £600, indirect from £400.
Beach Rotana Abu Dhabi Hotel & Towers
The Beach Rotana Abu Dhabi Hotel & Towers is connected to Abu Dhabi Mall, so fashionistas won’t have to walk far in their Manolo Blahniks. It’s wonderfully elegant inside, with a plush lobby and rooms that are spacious and stylish. The premium suites have luxe bathrooms with Jacuzzis and ain showers.
The sleek black Fairmont Bab Al Bahr makes a serious design statement with its striking interior. Rooms have LCD TVs and lavish bathrooms and there’s a fitness centre, swimming pool and a private beach. Marco Pierre White has put his stamp on the place with two eateries: Marco Pierre White’s Steakhouse & Grill and Frankie’s, a collaboration with jockey Frankie Dettori. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, head to the Chocolate Gallery for carefully crafted treats.
Fairmont Bab Al BahrBetween Maqtaa and Mussafah Bridges (+97 1 2 654 3333). Doubles from UAEDhs999 (approximately £168).
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