Abu Dhabi Do: LUSSO visits The Empire That’s Being Built in the Emirates
Sand. That’s about it. Abu Dhabi’s landscape is not what anyone might care to call ‘dynamic’.
And don’t expect the kind of romantic, wind-scalloped ice cream dunes that dominate the Sahara. The naturally arid island is not a looker. But that may be its greatest boon, too. The biggest and most civilised of the Emirates is also its fastest growing.
The draw is obvious. Its oil-endowed benefactors have ploughed their billions into forging a test bed, a laboratory if you will, for the 21st Century’s new world order – and I’m not talking about the Premiership stomping of their Manchester City football playing soccer team. The zenith of the planet’s celebrity architects are taking commission after commission, attempting to out do each other in an arms race of extraordinary constructions and lavish retreats. Whether as testament to its neo-Medicis or as a canny plan to reposition a land only 50 years ago renowned for its pearls and its endemic tribes, the pace shows no let up.
From my suite in the lavish Beach Rotana, a whole new section of the city, still under construction, rises up on reclaimed land, the safety lighting glittering on each skeletal floor at sunset. This, until 18 months ago, used to be the sea view. It’s still there – ‘between the land and the sky’, as Basil Fawlty notoriously put it – but nothing can be taken for granted in a country where expansion is seen as necessary and dwelling in goat-skin tents is very much something they have no intention of going back to. The hotel itself is one of several the Rotana brand operate across the Emirates. Offering an international style, with some of the gilt that characterises the region, many tastes are catered for. They even have a German restaurant bar, the Brauhaus. During our stay they were celebrating the 10 days of Fruhlingsfest, Germany’s famous Spring Festival. They definitely know how to make their European fan base feel welcome. Having the best of Swiss and German hotel management in place also doesn’t hurt.
With over nine restaurants, including the delicate Indian of Indigo and Finz, one of the most popular seafood destinations in the city, Beach Rotana’s guests will never go hungry. Japanese, Italian, American – they pull it all off perfectly. What you may develop an appetite for is genuine Arabic cuisine. Because you’ll be hard pressed to find it here or in any other hotel in the region. It’ll get a push now that in the fastest grossing movie of all time, Tony Stark offers to take his fellow Avengers for shwarma in New York. The delights of tabulleh and baba ganesh have been relegated to the street. In fact, the first time I was presented with the opportunity to sample the local fayre was on my flight home on Etihad. And damn fine it was. Authenticity goes a long way.
Especially in the Emirates, because everything here is new. What they pride themselves on is scale. When we were driven to what we believed was a museum, it actually turned out to be a site office/promotional installation for their newest major project – Saadyiat Island. $23 billion has been sunk in to 27 sq km of ‘prime’ real estate 500 metres off the coast and the scale models and CGI imaginings indicate an entirely new concept in urban construction. They’re building a new cultural epicentre from scratch. With seven distinct districts, four major art galleries (including a Gehry-designed Guggenheim and Jean Nouvel’s new Louvre, beach developments, an 18 hole golf course (designed by Gary Player), over 12 (planned) five-star hotels and its own power station, the ambition cannot be faulted. Nor the industry. With a completion deadline of 2017, most of the building work hasn’t started on the museums or most of the accommodation. But with entire villages set up, to house the armies of foreign labour required to finish it, one feels that it will rise to match the shiny renderings – whatever the cost. One begins to get the impression that emulating the Medicis is not what the Al Nayhan dynasty aspire to. They’ve whipped Fergie. Now they are looking to the Pharoahs.
Hence the largest mosque in the region, the opulent Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Modeled on the Taj Mahal and other Murghal and Moorish wonders, featuring 82 domes, enough capacity for 40,000 worshipers and the world’s largest single woven carpet, this is a temple to, well, temples. The courtyard alone, criss crossed with a floral motif, is the largest marble mosaic in the world at 180,000 square feet. If the exterior is a wonderful exercise in monochromatism – the men in white, the women obliged to wear black hijabs, all quietly moving across cool pale marble – the inside of the great hall, which holds 7,000 alone is a breathtaking exercise in holy bling. It’s like falling into the treasure chest of jewels that causes all the trouble in The Man Who Would Be King. Remember, only 11% of the population are indigenous, so foreign labour is the lifeblood of such Imperial delights. While it took 3000 workers over 12 years to finish Sheikh Zayed’s most cherished civic work (who never lived to see it completed), on the other side of town a more prosaic megabuilding indicates Abu Dhabi’s intended future.
Ferrari World is the city’s most visible construction from the air. This isn’t hard, since it’s a massive recreation of a Formula 1 front nose in the team’s scarlet livery in the middle of the desert. What at first appears to be a theme park or a super annuated video arcade is in fact nothing more than the world’s most expensive and expansive experential marketing campaign. One imagines that in a place devoted to luxury, there isn’t much to keep the (westernised) kids happy. Ferrari have provided a surreal, loud and irresistible evocation of the delights of vroom vroom. There’s some genuine classic models in the museum – all donated by local owners, naturally – and some immersive IMAX travel rides across Italy, but the real draw is the rides. This is how the brand is insinuating into its next generation of buyers. Little Ferraris for the tots on a cute electric race track, simulator rides for the teens (and dads who can’t help themselves) and, finally Formula Rossa.
If you’ve ever wondered what running out of air and hope feels like, as you thrust to 100 kph in 2 seconds, hitting 4.6 G in the process, look no further. The world’s fastest rollercoaster is designed to recreate the physical reality of a day at the office for Fernando Alonso. I hope he has a nice toilet in his motorhome. Worryingly, the goggles they make you wear indicate it will be more a Felipe Massa experience. In short, as my organs compressed, I thought I would die. So, in that regard, the designers have succeeded. Thankfully at less than two minutes, it is actually short. I suspect those with a considerably narrower self-preservation streak than I will come away with something approaching a rush and the desire to go again. I wanted to go again, but not on the ride.
Having sampled the catered delights at three of Rotana’s other 5-star Abu Dhabi properties (including the Park Rotana and the Yas Island Rotana) all of which excel themselves in hospitality and range of cuisine, and after a bracing kayak ride out to the marshes just to watch the local flamingoes treat us with insouciance, we head out along the coast north eastwards, to the smallest emirate, Ras Al Khaimah. Here the company have developed something much more congruent with the region’s landscape and history. The Cove Rotana Resort nestles on 600 metres of pristine beach in what is the most diverse of the emirates, with four types of landscapes: the fertile plains, the mountainous region, coastal areas and the desert.
A mixture of well-appointed rooms and villas are all designed in the style of Nubian adobes, creating a beautiful village on the shoreline, with water inlets traversed by cute footbridges. Golf carts zip about, ferrying those who can don’t fancy walking in the heat, or who just want to be indulgently lazy. When temperatures hit near 105F in the summer months, the wisdom of building in an indigenous aesthetic will make even more sense. In April, the pool areas and the beach are inviting through the entire day. Massages on the beaches in the linen-draped cabanas, accompanied by the sound of caressing waves, are reported, by my female companions, to be ‘magnificent’.
That night, we eat a note-perfect meal at Basilico, their Italian family dining eatery and watch the low glow of the lights against the ocean. You could be travelling in time. Or on a very luxurious Tatooine. Certainly, the towering glass and metal Deathstars of Abu Dhabi and Dubai seems far, far away.
The Empire that is being built in the Emirates certainly needs some down-to-Earth destinations, to at least give contrast to their opulence and aesthetic adventures. The Cove is certainly a good place to reconnect with the spirit of its past. Now all they need is a nice shwarma joint…