Extravagance, wealth and proud tradition

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Source:  www.thisisbristol.co.uk

The young Emirati man flashed me a dazzling white grin and ushered me towards his camel. “Do you want to stroke him? He won’t bite, I promise.”

Abu DhabiI weighed this up in my mind for a moment as I breathed in the musky smells of the camel market at Al Ain, a border town in eastern Abu Dhabi, and then reached forward to pat the young camel’s neck.

As I stroked his coarse hair he lolled his tongue out in pleasure, and then turned his head so I could scratch his nose.

Then, without warning, he started to nibble at my hand, gently chewing on my fingers and slobbering all over my forearm, a little look of mischief in his eyes.

When I eventually pulled my hand away, quietly delighted at such an unexpected event, the Emirati flashed me another grin and held his hand out. “Money, for the photo?” he asked.

That single moment summed up the whole of my experience of Abu Dhabi – of a country proud of its traditional heritage, but one where the coin is king.

Abu Dhabi is a curious place. By far the largest emirate of the United Arab Emirates, it is based around Abu Dhabi city.

Less than a century ago this was little more than a village, its economy based on fishing and pearl diving, the surrounding desert inhabited by nomadic tribes.

All that changed in the late 1950s, when oil was discovered.

Under the watchful eye of Abu Dhabi’s father, the revered Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the state was reborn, built from the ground up in an almost exaggerated Western mould.

Today Abu Dhabi is the richest city in the world. Money talks, and the emirate is awash with expats enjoying luxurious hotels and private beaches.

There are celebrity restaurants, golf courses in the heart of the desert, a Formula One race track and a Ferrari theme park – money oozes out of the city’s every pore.

Nowhere is this display of wanton opulence more obvious than at the Emirates Palace, which overlooks the Arabian Gulf on the western fringe of the city.

Costing £1.9 billion to build, it is the second most expensive hotel in the world.

Pillars covered with gold support domed ceilings adorned with crystal chandeliers – the largest is bigger than that of St Paul’s Cathedral – and the carpets are so delicate you feel uncomfortable walking on them.

Shakira, Tony Blair, Sir Elton John and George Michael have all stayed at the hotel, though not even they are allowed in the Royal suites on the top floor.

Coldplay played at the Emirates Palace recently, while the white sand for the mile-long beach was imported fromAlgeria and a vending machine in the foyer sells blocks of solid gold.

Whether this dazzles or disgusts is a matter of personal taste, but it is undeniably impressive.

But the hotel also embodies the curious struggle that Abu Dhabi seems to be bound by – the pull between a future of unimaginable wealth and plenty, and a desire to preserve its past and the ideals of its history.

In one wing there is an exhibition outlining plans for a new cultural district on nearby Saadiyat Island, complete with Arabian versions of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums that will be accessible by yacht.

Nearby is a huge photo of Sheikh Zayed, with a quote from him underneath: “The real wealth of a country is not its material wealth; it is its people.”

This strange dichotomy seems to pervade Abu Dhabi.

Along the waterfront of the corniche young Emiratis zoom past in speed boats against the backdrop of the Manhattan- style skyline of the city.

Just across the bay is the Abu Dhabi heritage village, a recreation of a desert oasis village.

Yet it has little more than a solitary camel and a few obviously fake buildings to imitate a souk, and the visitors seemed more interested in buying trinkets or watching jet-skiers at play.

The obviousness of Abu Dhabi’s opulence left me wondering whether it was all a big facade.

I asked myself whether it had dirt and grime and working-class people earning an honest crust, like any other city, or whether the streets were simply polished clean by the endless rubber of Rolls-Royce tyres.

I stumbled across what I was seeking in a nearby market, where hawkers sold dates from enormous silver platters, men busily sorted vegetables for sale from hessian sacks and at fish stalls, barracuda, shark and tuna were piled high.

Across a waterway from our hotel, the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr, was one of Abu Dhabi’s cultural icons, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

The mosque is perhaps the finest building in Abu Dhabi, if not the UAE. One of the largest mosques in the world, it can accommodate 40,000 worshippers but is also open to non-Muslims.

Built as the final resting place of the sheikh, the white marble building has 57 domes, extraordinary gold-plated chandeliers and the largest hand-woven carpet in the world.

Whether you are Muslim or not, there is nothing quite like hearing the midday call to prayer as it is piped across the whole of the emirate.

Despite the extravagance pervading Abu Dhabi there are still a few strong traditions.

The date palm is revered, so much so that a tree cannot be cut down, but instead must be moved.

And in memory of their years living as nomads in the desert, many Emiratis keep falcons, once indispensible hunting companions but now regarded as part of their families. The graceful birds are held in such high esteem that they can even be taken into the cabins of Etihad Airways aeroplanes.

At the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, vets treat injured falcons and visitors can learn how they are cared for, feed and stroke them and even try their hand at falconry.

A couple of hours west of Abu Dhabi city is Sir Bani Yas Island, reached by a short catamaran ride across the sparkling waters of the Arabian Gulf.

The island is largely a huge wildlife sanctuary, set up by Sheikh Zayed in the 1970s as a haven for threatened animals and flora.

Today, the reserve is home to giraffe, cheetah, rare Arabian oryx, sand gazelles and hyenas, while the rest of the island offers mountain biking and kayaking, a relaxing spa resort and the remains of a 6th-century Christian monastery, currently being excavated by a British- led team of archaeologists.

The more I saw of Abu Dhabi the more I marvelled at its complexities.

In the eastern oasis town of Al Ain is a wildlife park and resort, home to 4,000 animals, many endangered, including two white tigers. The intention of conservation was noble, but many of the animals looked lost, out of place and ill at ease, and it felt as if money had simply been thrown on the table to buy the rhinos, gorillas and lions, and that was as far as it went.

Meanwhile, in the Al Jahili Fort at Al Ain, built in 1891 to protect the city’s precious palm groves, there is a permanent exhibition to Sir Wilfred Thesiger, the British explorer who in the 1940s crossed thousands of miles of Arabian sands of the Empty Quarter. Thesiger, a friend of Sheikh Zayed’s, was revered among the nomadic Emirati. But when he returned to Abu Dhabi in 1977 after many years away, he described its development as “an Arabian nightmare, the final disillusionment”.

As I flew home, relaxing in the comfort of Air France’s business class, I pondered Thesiger’s words, wondering at what he would say if he could see Abu Dhabi now, in all its glorious complexity.

Tucking into a glass of wine, I couldn’t help wishing that someone had brought a falcon on board.

Air France operates one daily flight from Bristol to Abu Dhabi via Paris Charles de Gaulle, leaving Bristol at 6.45am and arriving in Paris at 9.20am. This leaves Paris at 1.50pm and arrives in Abu Dhabi at 11.15pm.

Tickets start at £380 return, including taxes. Long haul passengers can fly economy, business or first class, or try Air France’s new premium economy, which offers extra comfort without the expense. For more information visit the website www.airfrance.co.uk, or call 0871 663 3777.

Double rooms at the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr hotel start at about £150 a night.

More information about Abu Dhabi, including visits to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital and Sir Bani Yas Island, can be found at the websites www.abudhabitourism.ae or www.visitabudhabi.ae.

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