Neither country is teeming with the sort of “authenticity” beloved of some western tourists and earnest backpackers. However, while Dubai sweeps the issue under the carpet and attempts to distract – look! Another new, really tall building! – Abu Dhabi cheerfully acknowledges that, before discovering oil 50 years ago, the country was basically a few Bedouins and some tents. As much as I enjoyed my time in Dubai, it feels like a country trying everything it can to find its character and trying too hard, to boot. The country has a certain kitsch charm (you can’t build the biggest, tallest everything and not create kitsch) but, unlike Vegas, they haven’t yet learned to embrace it. They will, I’m sure, but it’ll take a while.
Abu Dhabi, on the other hand, is doing much the same thing but with more control. Growth isn’t about the biggest or the tallest, it’s about having a plan. And Abu Dhabi, with its vision of sustainable power and extensive cultural development – it will soon be home to the sixth Guggenheim, the second Louvre, an outpost of The British Museum and additional campuses for some of the world’s leading educational establishments – clearly has one of those.
That said, it’s equally capable of ostentation, as a few nights in the marble and gold of The Emirates Palace Hotel will demonstrate. “Let me know what you think,” said a travel writer friend. “I thought it was a shopping mall with rooms.” While that certainly paints a picture of the hotel’s dimensions – if asked to find the ballroom(s) again, I wouldn’t know where to start without a guide and a trail of breadcrumbs – it’s a little unfair in terms of facilities and the grace of the staff. I’d not even met my floor’s butler but was greeted halfway down the hall with a “Good morning Mr Davey” on my (long) way to (an excellent) breakfast.
Although now five years old and, perhaps looking a little dated in places, there are no buttock-shaped indentations on their laurels: unlike the UK, in Abu Dhabi being state-owned appears to be a good thing. The marble shines, the gold – including in the famous vending machine – glistens, and everything clicks into place. Facilities are kept fresh too: this year has seen the opening of a Hakkasan and, remarkably, the UAE’s first Emirati restaurant and very good they are, too. New hotels may change the face of “seven star” luxury – and do it in the sort of style that gets design magazines in a tizz – but one suspects the Emirates Palace will remain the benchmark for years to come. Both here and Dubai remain a fine option for the sort of traveller who wants opulence, service, sunshine and to never leave the hotel. If you like a little culture with your downtime – however newly built – Abu Dhabi already has a considerable edge, and one that will only widen.