Stopping over in Abu Dhabi
We found an inexpensive flight from Istanbul to South Africa via Abu Dhabi. Etihad Airlines offers a free stop over so we decided to take advantage and hang out in the Middle East for a few days. We had a vague notion of what life would be like in this desert playground, but it was even more bizarre than we imagined.
Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates, a small oil-rich nation on the Arabian Peninsula in the Persian Gulf. As recently as the 1950’s the Emirati population was living on a small strip of sand on the Persian Gulf subsisting on a diet of fish and dates and diving for pearls. While hauntingly beautiful, the surrounding landscape is extremely harsh with summer temperatures reaching over 120˚F (50˚C) and only 5 days of rain a year.
Then they found oil, a lot of oil. The relatively small population and relatively large oil reserves have turned this desert country into a society of millionaires. The influx of money combined with the leaders’ vision has built a sprawling sea-side metropolis full of five star amenities and every superlative imaginable.
Every Abu Dhabi citizen is worth about $17 million and each Emirati receives allowances for buying houses, cars, paying for education, etc. Consumerism is strong and not even then is the sky is the limit. People parade around town in Bentleys and Vipers, they wear Rolex and Ray Bans and they dine on cakes that have been coated in gold dust. What would your city look like if everyone was this rich?
But the Emirati make up about 20% of the population. The labor and business of the city is run by foreigners. Many educated expats (a college degree is criteria for residency) come to Abu Dhabi in search of a large paycheck. With employers covering living expenses and tax-free pay, many people see a few years in Abu Dhabi as a great way to get out of debt or build up some savings.
The majority of the country, however, is run by workers from South and Southeast Asia. These workers also come to Abu Dhabi in search of higher pay, but racial and class-line segregation is strong and living conditions for many of the countries construction workers are extremely poor.
For an interesting read on Abu Dhabi’s neighbor, Dubai, see this article.
Abu Dhabi also has one of the worst per-capita carbon footprints in the world. Water comes entirely from desalination and large swaths of the city are landscaped with thirsty lawns. Residents and visitors generally don’t pay for water or electricity usage with the costs being covered by their employers and despite the well-known fact that the tap water is safe to drink, everyone drinks bottled water. The grocery stores are stocked with familiar foods and fresh produce from all over the world. If there is something you want chances are you can get it in Abu Dhabi.
To attract more tourism, the government has embarked on huge projects to make the biggest and best of everything. Neighboring Dubai boasts the tallest building in the world, which houses the highest observation deck in the world and the highest mosque in the world. Dubai also has the world largest dancing fountain about 900ft long shooting water 500ft into the air.
Abu Dhabi is relatively new to the superlative tourist industry, but is catching up to Dubai with ease. During our time there we went to check out the 3rd largest mosque in the world. When construction started it was going to be the largest in the world but has since been out done. Not to worry though, it still has the largest dome in a mosque, biggest crystal chandelier in a mosque, and the biggest hand woven rug in the world weighing in at 35 tons.
While you’re there you won’t miss the tallest flag pole in the world (123m) centered in the Emirates Heritage Village. There you can get a feel for nomadic desert life before the influx of oil money before heading over to the Marina Mall for some indoor skiing (slated to open soon). Basically if you can dream it they can build it.
While much of the atmosphere is that of an adult playground it pays to be cautious. Abu Dhabi is a fascinating dichotomy of lavish Western consumerism and conservative Arabic governance. For the most part foreigners are free to enjoy the playground but respect for local culture is of the utmost importance and a small step out of line can easily land you in jail.
Our friends in Abu Dhabi told us the story of a guy who farted on an escalator in front of two Emirati women. They took offence and the poor man was sentenced to three years in prison. I guess the “one who smelt it dealt it” theory wasn’t enough to hold up in court.
Jokes aside, it becomes very clear that on Emirati soil it pays to play by Emirati rules. In addition to natural bodily functions, obscene gestures, offensive language and public displays of affection can also be met with strict consequences including deportation and jail time.
In spite of, and perhaps because of, these aspects, Abu Dhabi is a fascinating place to check out. The sheer artificiality of the place is mind-blowing. Nothing sums it up better than this picture. Here we see a typical Abu Dhabi sunset taken from inside the Emirates Heritage Village (built on landfill). You can see the Abu Dhabi skyline in the background, a traditional fishing boat on the beach to the left and no less than three jet skiers, a parasailer and a giant yacht cruising around in the sunset.