A cultural sheikh-up in Abu Dhabi

by Jo.Fernandez

With ambitious plans unfolding, the United Arab Emirates capital of Abu Dhabi is aiming to become a major new cultural hub

Abu Dhabi, often considered Dubai’s less glamorous neighbour, is the largest of the seven emirates comprising the UAE. It is the seat of federal government and the capital. However, tell people you’re off there, and you’re likely to be met with blank stares or asked, ‘But why do you want to go there?' As if in retort, Abu Dhabi is attempting a cultural renaissance with plans to change the city’s skyline beyond belief.

Fittingly, an exhibition dedicated to Saadiyat Island, the biggest of all the projects, is on show in the Emirates Palace Hotel – our destination. In pictures, it looks as if it's built from solid gold and I imagined how rich scratching off a tiny amount would make me. Up close it is glitzy and grand and very, very gold. Except the exterior, which by day is very, very pink.

As we make our way from the aiport along the sweep of the recently revamped Corniche in one of the hotel's luxurious white BMWs in the early hours, the hotel appears to be alight, so bright are its illuminations. Tired but impressed, we marvelled at the sheer scale of the lobby.

The service, as you would expect from such a grandiose place, is impeccable, if at times a little too much. Sunning myself by the pool the next day, a waiter stopped to ask, “Madam, may I clean your sunglasses?” But this is that kind of place. The size of a small village, the Emirates Palace is all about superlatives — it has the biggest private beach in Abu Dhabi; it is a 2.5km walk around the hotel, built on a million square metres of land, suites arranged around an atrium covered by, you guessed it, one of the world’s biggest domes. It even has is own marina, football pitch and water park. Built barely two years ago by the architects behind the Venetian in Las Vegas, everything here is to the max. The new Anantara spa occupies the West Wing of the hotel, with a hammam, ice shower and Elemis treatments available even in your room.

Driving into Abu Dhabi, in the fantastically cheap taxis (you can get across town for five dirhams, about 80p), you can see the skyline going up as skyscrapers shadow the domes of traditional mosques.

Locals love to tell you what a quiet, family-orientated place this is, illustrated by the Emirates family groups all along the Corniche. Hanging out in a shisha bar, Layali Zaman, to see what all the fuss was about, one woman, puffing on a dusty-looking contraption, explained: “It’s just a really bad habit”. Choose your flavour from apple, orange, stawberry and grape — it all just smells like bubblegum. She added: “It’s quiet here; you should go to Dubai.”

Perhaps looking over its shoulder at Dubai’s tourism attempts (when oil reserves got low), Abu Dhabi’s government is turning itself into a tourist destination. In a massive statement of intent, some of the world’s leading architects are busy designing cultural buildings including a new Guggenheim and a Louvre.

Frank Gehry’s proposed Guggenheim nods to the “Gehry effect”, which has transformed cities such as Bilbao, as his buildings become tourist destinations in their own right. According to Gehry, “They’re seriously trying to establish Abu Dhabi and the UAE as a cultural centre. I don’t think there’s another Arab country that has done that as seriously.”

French architect Jean Nouvel designed the controversial Louvre, expected to open in 2012. A reported £683 million will produce 6,000 square metres for temporary exhibitions. The 30-year agreement with the French government has caused a furore in France over the vast sums oil-rich Abu Dhabi will pay over this time — £274 million just for the Louvre name alone. Critics say France’s artistic heritage is being used for crude commercial gain.

British/Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid has designed a futuristic arts centre that looks like a white reptile’s head, with an interior said to resemble the inside of a bone, to house two concert halls, two theatres and an opera venue.

All along the edges of town, cranes bear witness to the many projects. Shangri-La has opened its first property, with the group’s new CHI spa, souk and five beaches. It will be followed by the opening of the five-star luxury “eco” island resort, Al Gurm, on a mangrove resort. The F1 Grand Prix circuit will be the main feature of Yas Island along with Ferrari World. There are too many plans to mention, but one thing is clear is that Abu Dhabi claims not to want to be the next Dubai. Only time will tell.