21 October 2010

From excess to success

19 October 2010: 0800 and our driver has arrived for a day trip to Abu Dhabi, the capital city of the UAE, and probably the wealthiest city in the world. Also the setting for Sex and the City 2. However, emirati authorities did not allow filming to take place in the UAE, so the film's espoused setting of Abu Dhabi actually took place in Morocco.

But in all other senses, Abu Dhabi represents success, rather than the excess of Dubai. There are tall buildings, but only enough for reasonable business purposes. There are large and splendid hotels, such as the Emirates Palace Hotel. While this hotel doesn't have the same "feel" as the rather more extravagant establishments in Dubai, it does exist for very practical business purposes, such as large business conferences. And lunch there was quite exceptional.

The standout attraction in Abu Dhabi is the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque, named after Sheikh Zayed bin SultanAl Nahyan, the founder and first president of the UAE, who is also buried there.

After driving from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, a trip of around 130 km from our hotel, we picked up my friend Dawne from her slightly more "humble" Hilton hotel and headed out to the mosque. Men can go as they are on the tour, women must be in abayas to go in - these are provided free of charge, so no problems there.

Immediately I regret having left my sunnies somewhere back in my hotel room. The building is vast, mostly white, there's lots of marble, and the sun shines most of every day in the UAE.

But once inside and out of the glare, this is truly an inspirational and stunningly beautiful building.

It's hard to keep the facts straight, but the sheer volume of materials used in the building - which is something like five football fields in size, and can accommodate up to 40,000 worshippers - was truly staggering.

The carpet in the main prayer hall was constructed in one piece. No joins. One can only imagine the logistics of not only manufacturing the carpet (in Iran) and then transporting and laying it successfully. Apparently the carpet weighed around 45 tonnes when manufactured, but after being trimmed around the edges to fit into the mosque, it was a much "leaner" 37 tonnes, or thereabouts.

More photos of the mosque in my Picasa album.

Abu Dhabi has great development plans for the future, including museums backed by Guggenheim and the Louvre located on a newly reclaimed Saadiyat Island - the island of happiness. We visited an exhibition displaying models of the new buildings and their waterfront locations. Imagine taking your boat out for a spin, and pulling into the forecourt of the Louvre-backed museum. Or a maritime museum built over, under and around the water. Or a performing arts centre that looks something like a sting-ray (or some primitive amoeba life-form). And two ten-lane causeways, joining the island with the mainland. I'm beginning to understand something about the power of imagination (and of course, the importance of money to turn dreams into reality!)

So maybe, just maybe, Abu Dhabi is a little jealous of the limelight achieved by it's brasher neighbour. And when it spends its billions on showpiece architecture and planning - it will do it brilliantly. Put this city on your "must visit" list in the next 5-10 years.

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