For this trip to Europe, our airline was Etihad whose HQ and global hub is Abu Dhabi (pop. 2.5M), a constitutional monarchy and capital of the United Arab Emirates (pop. 4.1M), and so, on the way home and not having been there before, we decided to extend our transit stop there to 4 days. The UAE are on the southern coast of the Arabian Gulf (the Iranians call it the Persian Gulf) with borders to Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Oman. Abu Dhabi city itself is on an island.
We knew it would be hot, but we were pretty unprepared for 47C during the day dropping only to a minimum of 33C or so at night. This is really a hot place! Someone said to us that the temperatures don't vary much from day to day in summer, but the humidity does. We noticed that - the heat becomes really insufferable when the humidity goes up, and our camera fogged up so much we couldn't use it for an hour or more! The skies are blue, but a dust haze is palpable, although it seems to vary through the day. We know it's dust - everything which isn't dusted is covered in a reddish dust. According to statistics, August is the hottest month (lucky us!) and it rains 10 days a year, a total of 50mm. Only once in 10 years does it rain in August.
Our Hilton hotel on the Corniche, which runs about 6km along the Arabian Gulf, was delightfully air-conditioned, thank goodness. Some things we wanted to see are only a kilometer away, but we found it necessary to catch a taxi for even that meagre distance. Fabulous footpaths, but very few pedestrians at this time of year! Clare joked that even the short walk to the pool is almost unbearable. The mohitos she had at the pool bar would have made it worthwhile, though.
Our transport in Abu Dhabi. Not the Lamborghini, the taxi behind it! Our driver Mohamed is at the door.
The Hilton is one of Abu Dhabi's oldest which means it commands an excellent location on the beach, but it is now dwarfed by much newer glass and steel skyscrapers on either side, the St. Regis hotel to the left and all 84 stories of the ADNOC (Abu Dhabi National Oil Company) tower on the right. But we were very comfortable here, the interior is fully modern, and the service we received was exceptionally good.
Ancient civilisations lived on the present territory of Abu Dhabi, but until the discovery of oil (1930's) and its first successful exploitation (1960's) Abu Dhabi was a village of fishermen, including for pearls. Thanks to oil, Abu Dhabi's per capita GDP is the highest in the world, and the people now catching fish here are Bangladeshi expats. Expats comprise three quarters of the population, only one quarter are UAE citizens.
We were in Dubai some 8 years ago for a 4 day stop over, so it is irresistable to make comparisons. Dubai is a bigger city, but has little oil - their wealth is from trade and tourism. Abu Dhabi knows all about tourism though - its very establishment of Etihad as a global airline using here is a hub is a brilliant way of encouraging visitors to stay, as we did. Dubai was in winter, so it was much more pleasant getting around than it is here now. This is definitely the off-season for tourism.
Nevertheless, it's apparent that the Arabic culture is much the same as in Dubai, as an outsider would expect. We remain impressed by the stunning traditional pure white robes worn by the Arabic men, and the often beaded black chador and/or hijab of the women. It's amazing how elegant both genders can look in these getups. We almost never have seen Arab men and women together, not even in shopping malls, and they tend to sit in different parts of restaurants and cafes. That said, in Abu Dhabi, the citizens seem to be totally comfortable and tolerant of the rather different cultural norms and hence behaviour of visitors such as ourselves.
Mike would take his morning walk as soon as it was daylight, in the vain hope of escaping the heat. Walking is interesting, with the Marina Mall nearby and the Corniche running past the hotel. The only people out and about that early are construction workers, gardeners, cleaners, garbage men and the omnipresent security guards. Along the Corniche, there is a 1km stretch of public beach. The beach is free to use, although some parts (for 'Families" and 'Singles') cost AED10 (about $3) and have limited access and better security. At 7am, the lifeguards are on duty, spaced about 150m apart and copious security staff (we suspect employed by Serco) patrol on foot and by bike. These officials outnumbered beachgoers about 10:1.
Swimming in the Gulf waters is, we suspect, a winter activity. It's just too hot to be on the beach here in summer, and the water itself is so warm that it is not at all refreshing. Our hotel has a private beach somewhat west of the public beach. Signs warn of jellyfish but the lifeguard told us not to worry. The patrolled area is marked by floats and ropes. You would be foolish to swim outside that area - the jet skis would be much more dangerous than the stingers!
But we preferred the hotel pool anyway. It is refrigerated to a bearable temperature, which explains why it is pretty full of overheated guests and 'Health Club Members' seeking relief from the stupifying heat. The pool bar was a very comfortable place to hang out. Not everyone thinks it's too hot. In the hottest part of the day, our hotel pool is well populated with Europeans catching every sun's ray they can.
The only place we set out to visit in Abu Dhabi was the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the 4th largest in Islam after Mecca, Medina and Rabat (Morocco). This magnificent building is not far from the airport, and is very visitor friendly. On non-holy days and outside prayer times, it hosts hundreds of visitors and welcomes photographs. Security is very strict, if a little chaotic. Clothing police are everwhere to ensure that everyone is suitably dressed, mainly modest clothing, no shoes and women must have their heads fully covered.
The building itself is magnificent. In the courtyards and external areas, the white marble (from Italy, we are told) is so bright as to inspire headaches. The interior is awe-inspiring, from the engraved walls with 100 names of Allah, through the 'largest carpet in the world' to the fantastic Swarovski crystal chandeliers. No amount of superlatives can adequately describe this interior!
The approach to visiting the Mosque by Asian tour groups was amazing. The females were fully covered in identical chadors, the men in white robes. These 'uniforms' were no doubt part of their tour package, and the tourists delighted in their selfies taken in this holy place.
One hot and dusty highlight of Abu Dhabi is the Heritage Village, effectively a museum dedicated to the times before oil! This place reminded us of the also excellent Dubai museum. We think the Heritage Village is probably under-funded - it's in a fabulous spot but needs to be greatly enhanced. Tremendously interesting photos of Abu Dhabi before 1950 need much better lighting and labelling. Part of the Village is a re-creation of a desert environment complete with dwellings - boy, was it hot on the sand and in these primitive houses!
Visible from our hotel window is the Emirates Palace, reputedly the most expensive hotel in the world, and certainly very grand. We could see that it, too, has its own private beach with no-one on it.
By our observation, Abu Dhabi is undergoing a construction boom. Its wealth is derived from oil, but it is visibly preparing itself for a world less reliant on oil. We suspect it is taking a lead from Dubai next door and transforming itself into a banking and trade centre and a theme park for tourists. Despite the prospect of the world's fastest roller-coaster we were not tempted, in this weather, to go camel riding, sand dune driving or visit Ferrari World on Yas Island. Waterworld may have been more appealing, but we still did not go there.
Abu Dhabi is a great place. It is clean (but dusty), everything seems to run in an orderly fashion, traffic is heavy but disiplined, it seems to be safe in the streets, and most people we bump into are polite and seem to be friendly. Great shopping, a pleasant seaside and fabulous fun-park attractions make it a good destination for a holiday, but not, we submit, in summer.