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Destinations · Asia · united arab emirates · Abu Dhabi · Articles ·

ABU DHABI AND DUBAI: BETWEEN AUTHENTICITY AND A MIRAGE

Author: Una Meistere0 COMMENTS

ABU DHABI AND DUBAI: BETWEEN AUTHENTICITY AND A MIRAGE

I realise that, in this age of Facebook and Instagram, it’s a bit banal to gush about sunsets, but I can’t help myself this time. Because I’d never seen such a big sun in my life. Like a giant yellow firebomb slowly slipping behind the dome of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque. It gradually coloured everything yellow: the sky, the water, the air, the mosque itself. At that moment there were no other colours in the world, just a thousand and one shades of yellow. And the hot air, now mixed with the humidity of evening, was so velvety you could almost stroke it.

Foto: ABU DHABI AND DUBAI: BETWEEN AUTHENTICITY AND A MIRAGE

I was staying in a literal ‘room with a view’. In this sense, the Shangri-La Hotel Abu Dhabi really has no competition. Only a stretch of water separates it from the mosque, and there’s something very intimate yet majestic about this view. Sunset connoisseurs can also be found down by the hotel’s infinity pool. And the surreal feeling of one thousand and one folk tales continues with the call that wakes me the following morning: ‘Abra is waiting for you!’ At first I am confused and alarmed – have I forgotten about a meeting with someone?

Foto: ABU DHABI AND DUBAI: BETWEEN AUTHENTICITY AND A MIRAGE

But it turns out that an abra is a traditional Emirati wooden boat that’s used to carry passengers across the water. At Shangri-La, such boats romantically glide along the canal running through the hotel complex and further to the slightly more affordable Traders Hotel, gastronomical destinations, and the Souk Qaryat Al Beri shopping centre. Almost like a gondola. There’s no two ways about it, the people here are virtuosos at hospitality and know how to charmingly present even the most seemingly primitive tourist attraction. I smile like a child. It’s amazing how very little is sometimes needed to switch a person into vacation mode.

Foto: ABU DHABI AND DUBAI: BETWEEN AUTHENTICITY AND A MIRAGE

I first visited Abu Dhabi nine years ago. The Sheikh Zayed Mosque had just been completed, and the area still looked like a construction site. True, the construction site is still there today, because a new district is being built near the mosque, which might eventually become the new centre of Abu Dhabi.

The mosque is located on a small hillock and measures a stunning 22,000 square metres. Built of white marble, it features four 107-metre-high minarets and 82 different sized domes. The 1048 columns outside and 96 inside are all encrusted with gemstones and semi-precious stones (lapis lazuli, red agate, amethyst, abalone shell, mother of pearl), every detail and floral motif being of the finest handwork. A floral design covers the marble floor of the mosque as well as the columns and is – unlike traditional Islamic art—inspired by real flowers. It is said that the sheikh’s passion was green gardens and that he wished to also see them here.

The mosque was initiated by the late Sheikh Zayed, and construction began in 1998. It first opened its doors only in December 2007, with the sheikh’s sons continuing the project after his death in 2004.

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The mosque’s main prayer room features seven crystal chandeliers measuring 10x10 metres and weighing nine tonnes, as well as the largest hand-woven Persian carpet in the world. Measuring 6000 square metres, the carpet was made by 1300 Iranian women, and its estimated value is over 8.5 million dollars. The carpet weighs 35 tonnes and contains 2,268,000,000 hand-tied knots. Due to the immense size of the finished carpet, it would not have been possible to transport it to Abu Dhabi. So, although the carpet was begun in the weavers’ native city of Mashhad, Iran, it was finished on site in the mosque.

The mosque has already achieved three entries in the Guinness World Records for the largest carpet, the largest crystal chandelier, and the largest dome of its kind. It is open to non-Muslim visitors, and thousands of people visit it every week, but women are, of course, required to cover their heads upon entering. No bare legs and arms allowed, either.

LIKE MANY PEOPLE, I COULDN’T CONTROL MY CURIOSITY, AND THE FIRST THING I WANTED TO DO HERE IS GET AS CLOSE AS POSSIBLE TO THE LOUVRE ABU DHABI, WHICH IS STILL UNDER CONSTRUCTION. It’s one of the most intriguing museum projects of recent years. The official opening date has not yet been announced, but there’s talk that it might finally open this December. The date has been pushed back several times due to the global financial crisis and various other reasons, and the building is still being kept hidden behind a tall construction fence. But locals say that construction is already finished and, as usual around here, the fence will only be taken down shortly before the opening ceremony, so that the Louvre can suddenly emerge like a desert mirage.

And maybe it’s better that way – instead of watching the museum materialise step by step, perhaps it’s more exciting to have it blossom all of a sudden out of thin air. The Louvre Abu Dhabi was designed by the world-famous French architect and winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize Jean Nouvel, who took inspiration for the building’s form from traditional Islamic architecture. The central element is a huge dome that is actually a complex geometric pattern made of 7850 stars of various size and arranged in eight layers. When the sun shines through the dome, the shadows create an effect similar to that of rain. If you cross one of the city’s bridges later in the evening, you can get a glimpse of the dome magically lighted up against the night sky.

The museum has already earned the nickname Louvre in the Sand. Its collection currently contains more than 600 works of art representing many different cultures and periods in history, and it is constantly being added to. It is also planning to receive 300 masterpieces on loan from various French institutions, which will rotate in several exhibitions over the course of a whole year.

Foto: ABU DHABI AND DUBAI: BETWEEN AUTHENTICITY AND A MIRAGE

The Louvre Abu Dhabi will be the first of several grandiose cultural buildings to open in the ambitious Saadiyat Island Cultural District. It will in the future be joined by the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the Performing Arts Centre designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, and the Maritime Museum designed by Tadao Ando. First to open here, however, were the Manarat Al Saadiyat visitors’ centre, which also serves as the home of the annual Abu Dhabi Art Fair, and the golden UAE Pavilion built by Foster + Partners for the Expo 2010 in Shanghai, China, which resembles sand dunes in the desert.

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But monumental cultural institutions are only one of the ingredients of the Saadiyat Island Cultural District. The area is intended to become a self-sufficient centre of modern lifestyle, with great exhibitions complemented by beautiful beaches for likewise hedonistic pleasures. Saadiyat Beach, which opened several years ago, is already one of the most popular public beaches among locals. It stretches for 400 metres along the turquoise blue water, with beach chairs, dressing cabins, and everything else needed to fully enjoy the sun. At 27 square kilometres, Saadiyat Island is a natural island (as opposed to man-made), and its indigenous inhabitants were turtles.

WHEN GAZING AT THE SKYSCRAPERS THAT FRAME THE SILHOUETTE OF ABU DHABI TODAY, IT’S QUITE DIFFICULT TO COMPREHEND THAT THE CAPITAL OF THE UNITED ARAB EMIRATES AND SECOND-LARGEST CITY IN THE COUNTRY WAS ONCE DESERT INHABITED BY NOMADIC TRIBES. Literally meaning ‘the father of the gazelle’, Abu Dhabi was formed in 1791 when Bedouins came across a freshwater spring by the Persian Gulf. Being just a small village, its economy initially depended on fishing, camels, dates, and pearls. At the beginning of the 20th century, however, the region was thrown into severe crisis by the booming Japanese cultured pearl industry, which decreased demand for natural pearls.

But the situation quickly changed in 1962, when oil was discovered here. Soon oil exports were bringing Abu Dhabi billions of dollars a year in revenue. Sheikh Zayed (1918–2004), the first president of the United Arab Emirates, played a key role in Abu Dhabi’s development. Thanks to his vision and strategically smart investments in production, infrastructure, and agriculture, Abu Dhabi experienced rapid economic growth. The sheik’s passion brought to Abu Dhabi the very best that the world had achieved so far. Still today the emirate holds to this same goal, and, despite its very rapid development, it maintains a relatively relaxed lifestyle more like that of a large village than a hectic metropolis.

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Although no one dives for pearls here anymore, and the markets are full of Chinese-made products, the authentic soul of Abu Dhabi can still be felt at the Al Mina Fish Market located in one of the large warehouses at Dhow Harbour. Here you can find practically everything the surrounding waters have to offer, from colourful parrot fish and blue-shelled crabs to pink Sultan Ibrahims. If you so wish, you can have your fish prepared right there in the market – on the grill with a bit of salt, or perhaps in a spicy Kerala-style curry.

In a nearby warehouse is Warehouse421, one of Abu Dhabi’s currently most vibrant cultural spaces, known for its wonderful exhibitions as well as its music and performance programme. In the courtyard, an old fishing boat has been transformed into a sculpture, while the authentic wooden boats that inspired it rest right across the street.

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BUT FOR A MOST UNFORGETTABLE EXPERIENCE IN ABU DHABI, ESCAPE TO A PLACE WHERE THE COMMOTION AND THROB OF THE CITY ARE JUST AN EPHEMERAL, FAR-OFF MIRAGE – THE DESERT. The Rub' al Khali, or Empty Quarter, begins on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, spreads for 650,000 square kilometres, and is the largest sand desert in the world.

There are few other places with sand dunes as magnificently tall as they are in the Liwa Desert area of the Empty Quarter, where some of the dunes reach a height of 25 metres. The sand is soft and warm – the kind you just want to sink into and let flow through your fingers. And there’s nothing else as far as the eye can see, just majestic orange sand dunes and blue sky. No trees, no bushes, only endless open space that erases all footprints as if they were just the insignificant dust of a temporary life. When the sun sets, the landscape turns reddish-yellow and the stars sparkle like mad.

One of the main attractions of the UAE and Abu Dhabi are desert safaris. The adrenaline that accompanies a slide down a sand dune in a jeep ought to be experienced at least once in a lifetime. One suggestion, however: if you wish to enjoy this experience by yourself, then reserve a private tour ahead of time. Otherwise, you may well find yourself in a group of a hundred tourists corralled into a sand enclosure who are then sent all together to a touristy Bedouin camp. The true freedom and mystery of the desert begins once you are away from the crowd, the white-clad 4x4 driver has turned off the key in the ignition and has sat down next to his four-wheeled ‘camel’, and you simply listen and merge with the silence that seems to suddenly have become so close and real that you can even reach out and touch it.

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A TRIP TO ABU DHABI IS ALSO EASILY COMBINED WITH A VISIT TO DUBAI. THE TWO CITIES ARE ONLY 105 KILOMETRES APART, OR SLIGHTLY MORE THAN AN HOUR’S DRIVE. In addition, for those who haven’t been in this area for a few years, the Dubai of today might come as something of a surprise.

Although the billionaires’ clubs, finest restaurants, biggest shopping centres, and all the other luxurious extravagances to the superlative degree are still going strong, the city is at the same time trying to bring a bit of attitude and robustness to its image. A kind of artistic spirit or unpolished zest, like that of Berlin, Barcelona, or London. Although it sounds paradoxical, having become somewhat weary of the five-star mirage, it’s almost as if this Emirati metropolis is attempting to become more ‘European’ and down-to-earth. In its own style, of course.

The locals joke that Dubai is currently obsessed with...boxes. Yes, you heard that correctly. The ‘box’ and the ‘container’ are the newest building blocks in the city’s playground. One place you can see this trend in all its glory is BoxPark, a shopping and restaurant district stretching for 1.2 kilometres along Al Wasl Road. More than 44 stores, cafés, and art galleries have found homes there in the various colourful, box-shaped buildings.

A gigantic boxy structure also serves as the basic architectural element of the Emirates’ new Rove Hotels chain of affordable hotels, which can in many ways be compared to Europe’s 25Hours Hotels. On the outside, Rove hotels look like big rectangular blocks set down in various parts of the city. But actually this hotel concept is an innovation on Dubai’s lifestyle scene: vibrant, cosmopolitan, artsy, contemporary bohemian, and also friendly in terms of price. In short, Rove hotels are intended for people who are both young in age and young at heart. Artwork by local artists adds character to the public spaces, and most of the rooms (measuring 26 m2 on average) are adjoining and therefore perfect for families with children. As befits the spirit of the times, there’s also a 24-hour gym, no check-in service, an e-concierge app, and even a 24-hour self-service laundromat.

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Even Miss Lily’s – a Jamaican restaurant that’s currently the most popular eatery in Dubai – looks like a container. Inside, the 1980s dominate, with a disco ball hanging from the ceiling, chequered blue-and-black linoleum floors, walls decorated with vinyl records, LP-shaped tables, and a neon-lighted bar. The sound system plays the best ska, reggae, and African rhythms in town, and, although Miss Lily’s is quite pocket-sized compared to most of Dubai’s restaurants, in the evenings it attracts the cream of the trendy crowd and becomes so crowded that there’s no room for a needle to fall to the floor, as we’d say at home in Latvia.

Mobile food trucks are another dynamic trend borrowed from the West. They gather for regular ‘gastronomical street-food gatherings’ in various neighbourhoods around the city, but their permanent home is at the aptly named Last Exit, on the border between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The 1500-square-metre ‘park’ is home to 12 vintage-style food trucks that, along with serving burgers, hot dogs, or falafel, also catapult nostalgic diners back to the 1950s.

But Dubai’s blatant appetite for setting world records in all areas is strong as ever, especially considering that in 2020 it will host the Expo, the world’s largest mega-exposition. And of course, Dubai’s Expo will have to surpass all previous Expos. According to locals, the sheikh has declared that all buildings currently under construction must be finished by 2020 or their sites will need to be levelled.

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A NEW RECORD-SETTER IS CURRENTLY UNDER CONSTRUCTION – A STRUCTURE THAT PROMISES TO BE ‘A NOTCH TALLER’ THAN THE BURJ KHALIFA, WHICH IS, AT 828 METRES, CURRENTLY THE TALLEST STRUCTURE IN THE WORLD AND THE SYMBOL OF DUBAI. The new structure will be an observation tower in Dubai Creek Harbour, an upcoming part of the city. It’s being designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and will look like an arrow aimed straight up at the sky. Sources of inspiration are said to include a lily flower and the minarets typical of Islamic architecture. Although the tower’s exact height has not yet been publicly revealed, some think it might stretch for a whole kilometre into the air. It will feature rotating balconies as well as various observation platforms and ‘gardens in the sky’, which bring to mind the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Also, the Dubai Eye ferris wheel is in the final stages of construction. When finished, it will be taller than the current record holder in this niche, the High Roller in Las Vegas (167 metres). The Dubai Eye will measure 210 metres tall and seat 1400 passengers in 48 capsules.

Foto: ABU DHABI AND DUBAI: BETWEEN AUTHENTICITY AND A MIRAGE

This month will witness the official opening of a much-talked-about project. The Dubai Frame is a gigantic picture frame, measuring 150 metres high and 93 metres wide, that symbolically divides Old Dubai from the new city of skyscrapers. Many find the shape of the Dubai Frame both incomprehensible and astonishing. It’s located near Stargate in Zabeel Park, and it already seems that the strange structure will become the new icon of Dubai and one of the most photographed objects in the city, alongside the Burj Khalifa, of course. The first floor of the Frame will house exhibition spaces and will include, among other things, an exposition about Dubai’s extreme visual transformation from the 1960s until the present day. The top of the ‘picture frame’ will feature observation decks, accessed by elevators running up one of the vertical sides. It is expected that two million people will visit the Frame each year.

The Museum of the Future is also set to open soon. The exposition (and architecture) promises to transport visitors to the year 2035. The name of the designer of the oval-shaped structure has yet to be disclosed, but we do know that 3D-printed components are being used in its construction. The museum will serve as a presentation space for the newest innovations and also as an incubator for ideas of the future. There’s no doubt about it – it’s hard to imagine a place more appropriate for such a museum than Dubai!

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