I’ve always had a bit of a fascination for the Middle East. I put it down to a combination of having read the Arabian Nights tales as a child and the sense of antiquity one gets from that part of the world. In a peaceful world, I’d love to visit Baghdad and Jordan (for Petra, obvs) is also on my list but as a relatively last minute holiday decision, I chose the United Arab Emirates instead.
The UAE are to antiquity what football chants are to music, but I like them nonetheless. The last time I visited, I went to the emirates of Ajman and its more famous neighbour Dubai so this time I went to Abu Dhabi. While Abu Dhabi is the capital city, Dubai is the financial centre and the place where people from Essex go on holiday.
About Abu Dhabi
For those who can’t be bothered to consult a map, the UAE consists of seven emirates bordered by Saudi Arabia and Oman. Each emirate is ruled by an emir and one of the seven gets to rule the whole of the UAE too. Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan was the first president – until 1971, the British administered the region (this was a surprise to me too) – and much of the UAE’s relative liberal-ness comes from his rule. It’s still very much a Muslim country, but attitudes towards its western residents are slightly more relaxed than in other Arab countries. For example, in most of the UAE, apart from Sharjah which is dry, you can drink freely in hotels and restaurants. I wouldn’t recommend getting lagered up in the street (dying to see how football fans get on in nearby Qatar in 2022) but you won’t be slung into prison for enjoying a beer by the pool. Women can walk around in normal clothes without any problems but like nearly anywhere in the world with the possible exception of LA, it’s probably not advisable to strut the streets in a bikini.
Upon entering Abu Dhabi (via one of the longest immigration queues at an airport I’ve ever seen), I quickly realised I was going to have to leave any feminist principles I may have at the border. Everyone is perfectly polite, but it’s very clear that everyone from Emiratis to Indian waiters considers my husband to be in charge. If I ask a question, they address the answer to him. It’s irritating and there’s literally no way I’d tolerate it at home but it’s not my job to change the culture of an entire country so I decided to ignore it with aplomb instead. Sorry, but there you go.
The UAE has a huge number of expats. According to Wiki, they make up 91% of the population. Unfortunately, not all of them are treated very well. Conditions for migrant workers can be appalling – this report from the Guardian highlights squalid accommodation, confiscation of passports and low wages. The UAE is possibly the modern-day equivalent to ancient Egpyt – money no object and millions of destitute workers toiling behind the scenes.
The roads are straight and pothole-free, lined with billboard posters showing smiling emirs giving the thumbs up to stuff. The preference for cars appears to be Mercedes and Range Rovers, the more options fitted the better. Our hotel was in a cluster of skyscrapers overlooking a series of sandy islands on the Corniche, which is the main road that runs along the waterfront. It’s all beautifully manicured and there is no litter at all. When one is used to dual carriageways decorated with crisp packets and bottles of piss, it’s certainly a refreshing change.
The Grand Mosque
So, things to do. We had already heard about the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and decided to visit (the tour is free). It’s so beautiful that I nearly couldn’t stop taking pictures of it. The only thing which stopped me was darkness and my inability to take decent night shots. Female visitors should note that they will need to wear a headscarf, long skirt or trousers and cover their arms. There’s a big sign outside showing what you can and can’t wear (skinny jeans are out) so take note of it. The Grand Mosque is the place that Rihanna was asked to leave following an unauthorised photo shoot last year, fact fans. Commissioned by the eponymous first president, Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, it’s also the largest mosque in the UAE and the eighth largest mosque in the world, able to hold up to 40,000 people. True to his liberalish tendencies, the late sheikh aimed to unite the world by using artists and materials from all over the globe. And boy, it’s impressive. White marble and gold leaf sparkle, while intricate floral tiles wind across the floor. It’s just achingly gorgeous, from its four elegant minarets to its highly coloured gigantic chandeliers. We did a guided tour which is fairly limited – you get to stand in the courtyard and the main prayer hall and that’s about it. It’s also home to the world’s largest carpet (60,570 square feet) and you have to take your shoes off to go into the main prayer hall so you’ll get to feel it under your feet.
The mosque is bordered by gardens and pools – the latter which I accidentally discovered while taking pictures project a bluish light onto the walls as dusk falls and I was so pleased with myself that I immediately took about 37 more pictures. We’d wanted to visit the library which we’d been told was open but when we wandered down there, a security guard shooed us away. It’s hard to get across how opulent the mosque is – the 96 columns in the main prayer hall are decorated with mother-of-pearl. The 1096 columns outside are decorated with over 20,000 marble panels inlaid with semi-precious stones including amethyst, lapis lazuli, red agate, abalone shell and more mother of pearl.
Mounted on the wall is a prayer clock which shows the sunrise and sunset times and the five daily call to prayer times. I didn’t really know a whole lot about this before, but apparently the times vary and it’s broadcast out to all the smaller mosques in Abu Dhabi. We heard the call to prayer while we were there and it’s haunting in a way I didn’t expect.
Yas Formula 1 Circuit
We decided to give Ferrari World a miss after hearing reports that it was basically just a big car-themed amusement park and not really our bag but we did visit the F1 track at Yas Island. After a brief attempt at selling us a driving experience, the tour guide took us on a bus tour of the main bits of the track. Again, it’s clear that no expense was spared in the building of it. It’s all very shiny and state of the art and there’s a massive hotel smack in the middle of the circuit, its glass and steel canopy curving over the track. But despite being F1 fans, we were rather underwhelmed by the tour without being able to say exactly why. Perhaps it was the lack of cars or indeed anything at all happening which made it seem a bit flat.
Unusually, we were able to go onto the track start line which was quite cool and not something you’d get to do every day. When I watch this year’s race at Yas, I’ll be able to yelp ‘I was there!’ as Vettel et al storm away from the grid. We were also allowed to walk around on the corner underneath the hotel and get some decent photos disproving the claims of F1 drivers that they never run over the kerb. Part of the tour included a visit to the north grandstand which even this time of year was swelteringly hot. It did however have a fantastic view of a hairpin corner which according to the FIA website, should be taken in second gear at 70mph before accelerating to 260mph.
Don’t get me wrong, if you have any interest in motorsport and get the chance to take a look at the track then you should do it. It’s not expensive (AED 120 – about £20) but you will need to book.
If you lack a Formula 1 car – and let’s face it, most of us do – you can opt to run, cycle or walk the circuit every Tuesday between 6pm and 9pm. Wednesday evenings are reserved for women and according to the tour guide, all male employees are banned for the evening.
Getting around in the UAE is best done by taxi, especially if you don’t really plan to take any longer trips. They’re cheap and plentiful – a 30 minute ride to the mosque, for example, cost about AED 45 (£7.50). We didn’t see too much traffic but I remember some hideous jams in Dubai. There is a bus service which was launched in 2008 and I’m told costs AED 2-4.
Apparently, the UAE has changed significantly in quite a short space of time. My uncle, who was in the Navy about 40 years ago recalled it as ‘a series of dusty towns and not much else’ was surprised when I sent him pictures of skyscrapers and neon lights. It’s amazing what people can do with unlimited dosh and a blank sheet of infrastructure in a relatively short time period. TfL take note.
So, if you’re looking for some sunshine in the dismal post-Christmas period then the UAE is a decent choice. With around seven hours flight time from Heathrow it’s half the distance to south east Asia so you can easily do a week there without recovery time for jetlag. Abu Dhabi is a lot quieter than Dubai and it’s also less pricey. Personally, I prefer it.