Abu Dhabi: Jewel in the Desert

Abu Dhabi Travel Writer

While the outside may look superficial, behind the thrilling theme parks, high-end shopping malls and glitzy hotel resorts, Abu Dhabi is a city that’s still steeped in the traditions and hospitality of its Bedouin past – the perfect recipe for a family escape this winter.

Sitting beneath the stars in the desert, I watch the mesmerising silhouette of a Bedouin nomad leading a camel across the dunes. Overhead a thousand stars light up the sky, in the distance the faint orange glow of the city skyline – the only reminder that civilization does exist in this part of the world. It’s a mysterious and adventurous moment, and one that will stick with me long after I’ve gone home. What I thought was just one big playground in the desert is shaping up to be one of the most interesting destinations in the world.

 

I’m in Abu Dhabi, capital city of the United Arab Emirates. Situated at the far end of the Arabian Peninsula and bordered to the north by the sparkling blue Persian Gulf, it’s here where almost 60 years ago the city of Abu Dhabi began to emerge from the desert sands after striking huge deposits of oil off the coast and on land. Present-day Abu Dhabi is a fascinating mix of Bedouin history and luxurious modern-day comforts, and an absolute melting pot of different cultures. For four days I explore the city and its surrounds, on a mission to discover how best to relax and recharge this winter in this luxurious city.

“Thank you, camel!” says the man over the speaker as the lights come on, and our large camp of visitors burst into laughter. The camel and its Bedouin nomad have disappeared over the dunes, jolting us back into reality. I’m sitting inside of a traditional Bedouin camp in the desert, albeit one made to accommodate tourists like myself. It’s the final moments of a desert safari tour, and as the lights come on, our guides come forth to collect us, and before we know it, we’re speeding back towards Abu Dhabi at 160km per hour in our luxury jeeps. It’s another perfect snapshot of the destination, and one that never fails to feel slightly strange. One minute you’ll be discovering a surprise cultural or historical attraction, but before you know it, you’re smack bang back in the middle of all that modernity.

Back in the city, my first day starts out with a visit to the latest cultural attraction on offer, the Qasr Al Watan Palace. It’s within walking distance of my hotel, so I set out in the morning to the dismay of the line of taxis waiting outside the hotel. The Qasr Al Watan is a working palace, an opulent celebration of Islamic architecture, and an invitation to learn about the culture of the United Arab Emirates – a fitting first stop for my trip. Early in the morning it’s pleasantly quiet, and I have the entire palace almost to myself. From the outside, it gleams perfectly white in the morning sun, but it isn’t until I wander inside that I’m blown away; the great hall is a decadent show of wealth, architecture, and power. I wander through the large halls, chandeliers dangling overhead, into the smaller adjoining rooms where I find some treasures; presidential gifts from visiting dignitaries (including a full suit of samurai armour), a royal dining room, and even a room with ancient copies of the Quran.

There’s more showing off at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which immediately glides into first place on the list of most spectacular buildings I’ve ever seen. A perfect floating island of domes bordered by soaring minarets, it’s an eye catcher, and a place of superlatives: my guided tour around the complex reveals that it’s the largest mosque in the country, home to the largest carpet in the world, and has the second largest chandelier in the world. It’s like sifting through a Guinness Book of World Records in real life.

Construction of the mosque lasted for 11 years, between the years of 1996 and 2007. It sits at the eastern corner of the triangle-shaped main island in Abu Dhabi, which is a city made up of several islands off the coast of the mainland, both natural and man-made. Each island has its own purpose in the grand plans for future development of the city: this one for culture, another for leisure, that one for residences, another as a nature reserve. It’s an ambitious plan, but if any country will be able to pull it off, it’s this one.

I ponder this and more later that evening from my sunbed on the Corniche, the main city beach. With a central location and beautiful boardwalks full of restaurants and cafés, it’s easy to see why this is one of the favourite beaches in the city. There’s a dedicated area for families and kids (enter via gate 2 or 3), the sand is perfectly white and water incredibly refreshing after a day of exploring. Across the water I can see the Marina Mall, one of many shopping complexes around the city that act as spots for not only departing with your hard-earned money, but social spots to meet with friends out of the heat of the day.

The heat of the desert makes getting around Abu Dhabi unlike anywhere else in the world. In a city where for two thirds of the year it’s too hot to walk, taxis run the town. There are buses, and in an impulsive move to see what it’s like I ask the hotel concierge how to get to Yas Island on the bus. “You need to take a taxi to the central bus station, where the bus leaves from”. There’s no escaping the taxis then, so I hop inside the next available cab and get dropped at the bus station. I buy my ticket and hop on the bus, already regretting my decision but committed to finding out what it’s like. It’s hot, stuffy and bumpy, but in the one-hour long bus ride towards Yas Island, from the windows I get a good overview of the city and my first sense of how big Abu Dhabi is.

Jolting away from the city centre and its gleaming skyscrapers of silver, we first cross a bridge onto Saadiyat Island, where a few buildings materialise out of the desert haze. This is the city’s cultural island, and the future site of no less than eight museums. Already here is the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and in the works are a Guggenheim Museum (set to open in early 2020) and a Zayed National Museum, which will tell the story of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the father of the UAE and its ruler between 1966 to 2004. It’s also where you’ll find Saadiyat Beach, which is even prettier than the Corniche. Dolphins ride the waves here, and luxury hotels line the coast, each with their own kid’s club, sprawling swimming pools, and multiple restaurants. For those not staying on the island, the Saadiyat Beach Club (entrance about 90 EUR for two people) provides a taste of that luxury with its own stretch of private beach, beautiful swimming pool, and fine dining restaurants, and in the evenings has a beach party vibe.

My bus leaves Saadiyat behind, rumbling over the bridge towards Yas Island, Abu Dhabi’s home of leisure. Only 15 minutes from the airport, it’s a popular choice for vacationing families thanks to the wealth of activities on the island. There’s a Warner Bros. Movie World, water slides, rides and wave pools at the incredibly popular Yas Waterworld, and wicked-fast roller coasters at Ferrari World. At the latter you’ll find the Formula Rossa, the fastest rollercoaster in the world that accelerates to a speed of 240km/h in an explosive 4.9 seconds.

It’s also on Yas Island where you’ll find the Yas Marina Circuit, where every year at the end of November the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix takes place. It’s the final race of the season, and this year the race is happening from the 29th of November until the 1st of December. But even without tickets to the big event, the track is open to tourists who are looking for a bit of fun. Ride-along with professional drivers in your chosen vehicle are available, while kids will love the Yas Kartzone, a 1 kilometre go-karting track. In the middle of it all is the Yas Hotel Abu Dhabi, the only hotel in the world in the middle of a racing track. Non-guests can visit to check out the views of the track and dine in one of the several restaurants that overlook all the action.

Another day sees me head back to Saadiyat Island (this time in a taxi) to visit the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and an afternoon spent on a desert safari. I’m picked up from my hotel in a rumbling Toyota Landcruiser, complete with fitted roll cage inside; it’s ready to go speeding over some sand dunes in the desert. My guide, Hamza, drives us the 45-minutes out of the city into the beginnings of the desert, and after a quick stop at a rural camel farm to let the air out of the tires, we’re ready and waiting at the edge of some large sand dunes.

The radio buzzes, from it crackling a voice speaking Hindi. Hamza replies something, and then turns to me in the front seat with a sparkle in his eye. “We’re good to go - this is the favourite part of my job” he says.

He revs the engine and skids off into the sand, heading straight at the tall dune in front of us. All conversation stops as Hamza turns up the music; we’re going to be speeding across these huge sand dunes to the sounds of upbeat Arabic techno music. As we hit the first slope, I understand why – it’s a wild, adrenaline-pumping ride.

Hamza deftly flicks down into a low gear, plants his foot down on the accelerator and revs the engine as we reach the crest of the dune. We soar over the top, and for a moment we’re in free-fall before the tires slam down back into the sand, and the jeep careens down the other side. The music gets more intense as we slide sideways down the next one, Hamza slamming the steering wheel to the right, a wave of sand spilling onto the windshield from the front tire.

“Is everyone OK?!” Hamza yells, checking in the rear-view mirror at the rest of the group. Everyone gives the thumbs up, laughs, and we’re off again at a breakneck speed. As we crest the next dune, the right-hand side of the car skims the pointed ridge at the top and for a moment I fear that we might fall over the other side, but I should have known better. A swift manoeuvre of the tires sends us sailing down the dune headfirst instead. It’s an impressive feat of driving if ever there was one. For the next hour or so, he speeds us up and down the dunes as the sun sets, skidding sideways downhill and always threatening to tip over, but never losing control. We finally reach our destination for the evening, the Bedouin camp, where we feast on a nomadic-style BBQ, ride camels, and watch belly dancers and look at the starry desert sky.

We’re at the beginnings of the Rub' al Khali desert, the largest unbroken stretch of sand in the world that covers most of the southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula. This unforgiving desert spans across Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE and Yemen, some sand dunes growing as large as 200 – 300 metres tall. Virtually uninhabited and unexplored as well, it’s one of the last wild places left on Earth. There are still pockets of Bedouin nomad tribes who live amongst the dunes, travelling from oasis to oasis, living a transitory life. It’s an unforgiving place, but there was one British Explorer who found solace in these arid sands, a character named Wilfred Thesiger.

A British military officer, explorer, and writer, Thesiger spent a lot of his life travelling through the Arabian Peninsula, Africa and the Middle East. But he’s most famous for his daring adventures into the empty quarter, crossing it twice in his lifetime, in 1946 and 1947. On a mission to collect locusts from the desert for research purposes, Thesiger would go on to meet, befriend and become an advisor to the ruler of the country and father of the UAE, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan. This friendship played an important role in the development of the country after striking oil, as Thesiger would go on to advise the Sheikh on how best to develop the country. It’s largely thanks to him that the education, hospitals and roads in the UAE are some of the best in the world – these were his first recommendations for Sheikh Zayed.  

“If any wandering nomads that he met in the desert found out he wasn’t a Muslim, they would have killed him – it was a lawless time in the desert” says Anne, my guide for my last day in Abu Dhabi. “But he dressed as a nomad and spoke fluent Arabic. His nomad guides who agreed to travel with him would always tell others that they met in the desert that he was from the north, a ruse to explain away his accent” she says. “When he met Sheikh Zayed, he was surprised to find such a worldly person in the desert, who had no formal education and lived as everyone else did – as a nomad” explains Anne.

We’re in another fast-moving jeep, this one heading through the desert on a highway leading us to another city, Al Ain. Tucked away at the base of the mountainous border that separates the country from Oman and the largest inland city of the Emirates, home to UNESCO-World Heritage-listed sites, natural springs and oases, ancient forts, museums, and even a working camel market. On the one-hour journey, Anne weaves the fascinating tale of the country’s history, giving context for what I’ve seen of the city. “You can’t understand Abu Dhabi as a city without first understanding its story” she says.

The friendship of Thesiger and Sheikh Zayed evolved as the two went on trips in the desert, and the Sheikh eventually decided to visit Thesiger in London. This is where he would go on to meet with British Petroleum, asking them to re-visit Abu Dhabi in search of oil. Before World War II broke out, small deposits were found in the country, but the war effort meant that further explorations fell by the wayside. In the 1960s they returned to the country to find large deposits of oil, turning Abu Dhabi into one of the wealthiest places on Earth overnight. Sheikh Zayed consulted Thesiger on how best to use the money, stating that he wanted to help his people, share his wealth, and be open and generous to visitors. The first priorities for the country were to build schools, roads, and hospitals, and the rest is history – it’s a city built on the principles of generosity, hospitality and acceptance of different people, all at the bequest of the Sheikh Zayed. It’s why he’s considered the founding father of the UAE.

The Sheikh himself resided in Al Ain, and it’s our first stop for the day in the city, which lacks the soaring skyscrapers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum isn’t what I expected – it’s a humble (albeit large) dwelling, made up of simple furnishings and comforts on the edge of an oasis. There are no ornate decorations, no displays of wealth, only simplicity. We meander into the oasis itself, sampling fresh dates under the shade of the palm trees and learning about the fascinating irrigation system that keeps them watered, and how the early nomads of the desert used them for everything: building floors, fishing rods, rope, and more.

But it’s not all history and culture in Al Ain; there are plenty of activities here for the family. Anne points out the Al Ain Zoo, a sprawling collection of the world’s exotic animals. Safari’s take you up close and personal with the animals, and the Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre is an interactive display of life in the Abu Dhabi desert. Anne also mentions the Wadi Adventure Park, which contains huge wave pools for surfing, white water rafting down man-made rivers, kayaking, wakeboarding and ziplining. It’s so good that rafters and kayakers practicing for the Olympics use this place as a training facility.

At the dusty Al Jahili Fort, one of the oldest buildings in the city, we look over a photo exhibition showcasing some of the best shots taken by Thesiger on his desert expeditions. They tell a story of a nomadic lifestyle, in a country with little to no development. There’s an excellent photo of Sheikh Zayed as a young man, falcon resting on his arm, gazing regally at the camera. Everywhere we go there’s coffee and dates waiting for us in the entrance hall. “It’s part of the famous Arabic hospitality” says Anne.

We end the day by driving up the jagged limestone mountain, Jebel Hafeet. On the border of Oman, it provides views over the entire of Al Ain, but I’m more drawn again to the sprawling desert. It’s the end of my trip in Abu Dhabi, but I’m already planning on returning. This trip will stay with me, not least because it’s replaced my superficial illusions of the destination with a newfound wonder at this part of the world.