The Odd Place That Is Abu Dhabi

Published: October 19th 2009EDIT THIS ENTRY


The international airport outside of Abu Dhabi is, in itself, the perfect metaphor for that city. When I first arrived and my travel weary self emerged into that sparkling edifice - a shimmering technicolour place that somehow resembles both a flowering lotus and a Turkish bath - I remember thinking that I would need to dedicate some serious time to explore the building upon my departure. After all, this was the United Arab Emirates; a country renowned for it’s dizzying excesses of architectural one-upmanship. However, as I now sit in the self same airport one week later, I am saddened to report that the airport has nothing left to offer; there is that one sparkling opening ceremony when you arrive, but there is scarcely even a second room to explore! Quite literally, this is a one room departure lounge, and I don’t mean that in the way that most airports are only one gigantic, unending, forever morphing room, for the Abu Dhabi airport is one circular room that is about forty yards across. Granted, it is a pretty nice room.

It is with profound sadness that I must report to you that Abu Dhabi is in every way the same as this airport: it holds much promise from the outset, but as soon as you peer even remotely close to anything you soon realise that there really isn’t anything there to see. This is by far the most boring place I have ever been. . . and I’ve been to some pretty boring places. So why then should you bother to read on? Well, I do have some stories to tell, but none of the good ones are about Abu Dhabi.

First of all, I’d like to apologise for my notable absence on this site over the recent months. No, I have not become completely , boring and interesting things have happened between my last journal and now, but I think that a travel journal is hardly the place for stories of the settled life of work and weekends. You can all write your own journals to get those kicks. Suffice to say that I have been living rather sedately in Seattle, USA, surviving my second ill-planned winter (the first being winter trekking in Nepal, thanks for that good idea Ben) and generally getting on with the making-money-for-more-travel routine. What brings me to this airport in Abu Dhabi is work: I came here to commission a mooring system on a barge (more on that exciting topic later! I know you can’t wait to learn all about running line tensiometers and their use in fixed point mooring systems. . . just kidding).

So What’s So Bad About Abu Dhabi?

Ok, that heading was meant to incite, sorry about that, but cheap tricks seem to be my literary bread and butter. Let me start by pointing out that Abu Dhabi doesn’t seem to have any Arabs in it; for a country of United Arab Emirates you might be forgiven for expecting the place to be populated by Arabs. Now, I did see some Arabs about the place, coming and going, sitting in restaurants and the like, but by far and large most of the people here are Indian. So, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that there is a bridge directly connecting south-western India with Abu Dhabi. It would be an impressive bridge, vastly overdone, and probably only half-completed, but will one day be pretty damn impressive. My hotel was staffed by a collection of Indians, Chinese and Filipinos; the drivers that took me to
Hotel ViewHotel ViewHotel View

No exactly glamorous, but certainly not dull.
and from work were Indian or Egyptian, the security guard who tried to start a conversation with me and used the word “Kharalik” whenever he wanted to add a question mark to a sentence was also Egyptian (“Kharalik first time Abu Dhabi?”. “Kharalik how much camera?”, “Kharalik Arabic?” - this was quite hard to decipher at first) - and the staff in every store were also foreigners. At first it seemed that anyone working in menial or lower class jobs was a foreigner which makes sense in a country as rich as this. I’ve seen it elsewhere, it isn’t uncommon. However, once I delved deeper into things here I found that not even the higher-ups were locals. I only met four Arabs working for the National Petroleum Construction Company (where I was working) and they all turned out to be Lebanese. I have not seen a single local working the entire time I have been here.

Fair enough though, if I belonged to a country where the average citizen was worth $17 million, then I wouldn’t work either. However, when I looked out of my penthouse window and realised that 90% of my country’s population were foreign visitors I would start to get worried. I mean, that is one hell of a proletariat there.

I am sure that I am exaggerating this severely as I can only claim to have seen a very small segment of society. After all, I am not even close to mixing in the rich-people’s leagues. The locals are out there and there are plenty of them. What caught my eye though, or more precisely, what didn’t catch my eye, was that the Arab population is almost invisible here. They live internally, perpetually between cars and highrise buildings. There is little or no life on the streets outside of the traffic jams which means that there is little to do on the streets except sit in traffic jams. When I walk about the streets here I feel as though there is nothing going on.

This brings me back to where I began as this city looks as though it should have a lot going on. From the brightly lit, six lane highway thrusting straight into the heart of the city you can see that a lot is going on here. Buildings are popping up faster than people could possibly hope to fill them
Perfectly Out of Place RaceplanePerfectly Out of Place RaceplanePerfectly Out of Place Raceplane

The red bull air race was being held in Abu Dhabi a couple of days after I was there. I got to see a lot of the setup down at the beach, and met some of the Redbull staff at my hotel, but sadly this was as close as I got to seeing the planes flying.
(instead of finishing one building and moving on to the next, the developers here prefer to build entirely new islands with 27 individually styled soaring buildings all at once, it is quite a remarkable sight), roads are being torn up and replaced all over the shop, and cars are packed bumper-to-bumper at odd hours of the day. Given all of this, I expected to find a city buzzing with life as the thriving and rapidly expanding populace struggles to fit themselves in. I am still wondering who is going to occupy all of the new buildings that are going up. If there was such a demand for office and apartment space, should there not be an excess of people littering the streets waiting for their home to be finished? Where are these people? Certainly not living out in the countryside for there is no countryside; there are just more developments of ludicrous dimension stretching as far as you could care to explore. Any low income housing in between appears only to be filled with migrant Indian workers who live barracks style near their workplaces.

So where are the people? I heard that the national pastime of the UAE was
The PalaceThe PalaceThe Palace

Unfortunately I didn have much time for sightseeing, so most of my photos were taken from the car on the way to work. Nevertheless, there at the end of the road is the entrance to the brand new, and startlingly massive, palace.
shopping so I headed to one of the venerable malls hoping to be dazzled by the spectacle of a world class haven of extortionate capitalism. This was actually part of my quest to find something half decent to eat, but I will get to that shortly. However, just like everywhere else in the world, nothing spreads people out more effectively than a mall. You could have 10,000 milling around in a mall and it would still feel less crowded than a half-empty football stadium thanks to thinning abilities of identikit chain stores. In addition, the Abu Dhabi mall looked just like every other mall in the world; there were no stunning features to make it bigger, bolder, or more interesting than anywhere else I’ve been. They didn’t even have a chandelier. Quite literally, there was nothing in that place that I couldn’t find within a five minute walk of my apartment in Seattle, including a “Seattle’s Best Coffee” shop.

If the streets are devoid of people then the parking sure wouldn’t suggest it. Thanks to a bad combination of poor planning, constant construction and unpoliced traffic laws, the streets of Abu Dhabi are bedlam at the best of times.
Better View of the MosqueBetter View of the MosqueBetter View of the Mosque

I wish I could have found some more time to explore, but this will have to suffice for now.
Side streets become carparks, especially so if there isn’t room for it, and driving around my hotel was made easier through lots of practice at Tetris. The people here truly have a knack for fitting as many cars as it is possible to do so in the space provided whilst still leaving just barely enough room for a single file of cars to weave through the ensuing mayhem. This is all well and good on a one way street, but see how that turns out when cars are coming both ways (the answer is poorly, and noisily).

The parking can get so out of hand here that I managed to find a car parked in the middle lane of four, where all sides of the street were fenced off by construction sites, the nearest footpath about twenty meters away, somewhere in the middle of an intersection. The driver probably figured it was easier than parallel parking.

So, people obviously live in the city or at the very least they like to come and hang out here, so where are they?

People Must Eat. . . One Thinks

Some say that the path to a man’s heart lies through his stomach, but that’s true (sorry, can’t resist the odd movie reference). In addition to this, I like to think that the quickest path to a city’s heart lies through the food of its everyman. It is in the dumpling houses of Beijing that you can see a high profile businessman eating his traditional breakfast next to a construction worker, in a culturally malformed subway sandwich you find the Cambodian man’s desire to be western, and in the cheap take-out cafes of Ulaan Baatar you can very quickly see what may become of the traditional rural life of your average Mongolian. Everywhere I have been, I have always found that the food says something about the country, for good or bad, and it is a great way to tap into the local life. Also, being the hideously overweight food fiend that I am, I’m never averse to hunting out the weird and wonderful things to eat. However, in a city where there aren’t any local people in evidence, where exactly am I supposed to eat with the locals?

This was the dilemma that very quickly beset me in Abu Dhabi. After an encounter with my hotel’s restaurant, which had the benefit of free meals (paid for by the company) and the dis-benefit of the most horrid concoctions of buffet style terror imaginable, I decided to seek out a proper meal somewhere on the streets, however, I managed to walk for about an hour without seeing anything that even remotely resembled local food! Sure, there was food about, but I hadn’t flown halfway around the world to eat at Taco Bell or KFC (yes, I understand the reason for my flying was work, not food, but you get the point). The closest things I found to Arabic food within that hour were a string of places with the inspecific title of “Refreshments”, which, upon looking through the windows, appeared to mean fresh juice and hamburgers. Seeing as I live in the country that gave the world the concept of minced up meat leftovers in bread, I thought that I ought to be able to find something better.

Alas, that was all I saw. Presumably I was in the wrong neighbourhood, but Abu Dhabi, or at least the “city” part thereof, is only a few kilometers square anyway so there can’t be too many neighbourhoods to choose from.

Eventually I came across a part of town that at least appeared to have restaurants that weren’t confined to the upper floors of hotels. As things happened, this area was immediately in front of my hotel, just my luck. There I found two Chinese restaurants, a collection of Indian or Indian-themed kitchens and one Iranian restaurant that seemed exclusively take-out. At least Iran was in the right part of the world. . . but surely there must be UAE food, whatever that is.

That night I ended up getting Indian out of sheer exhaustion, after all, I’m never one to turn down a curry. I swore that the next night I would search further, ask for directions, and maybe, if I was lucky, I’d find a local restaurant filled with locals. When that night came around I followed a tip from my driver (the word chauffeur seems out of place as I was usually picked up in a four wheel drive) and headed directly to the Abu Dhabi Mall. According to my source, every kind of food, and good food at that, could be found within the mall’s venerable food court. As I’ve already mentioned though, the mall was nothing more than I could find back home and the choice between tacos and Chinese buffet was nothing short of unbearable.

So, with little hope left for the city I walked out of the mall and randomly followed this road and that, until finally, after nearly an hour of searching I found a kebab shop. It turned out to be Lebanese which I decided was close enough for me and at least there were a couple of Arabs actually eating in the place. The food was good enough, and it appeared authentic to my untrained eye, so at least I had found one place to eat. If it really was the only non-hotel based restaurant in the city then you would expect it to be packed to its limit with patrons, but alas it was very nearly empty. Either no one actually lives in the city, or no one eats. Which one is it?

This sad trend continued for the entirety of my stay and even now I can only tell you of two Arabic restaurants in the entire city. One of them was quite a fantastic place I might add, but this is still a shocking statistic. Can you think of any other city where dinner is so hard to come by? Is this indication of a complete lack of culture? How did people survive here before the US chain restaurants moved in?

A Beach So Good You Have to Pay For It

If there was one thing I was looking forward to in Abu Dhabi above everything else, it was the warmth and the beach. Seattle has a beach, it actually has several, but you have to use the word “beach” rather liberally to actually believe that. I dipped my toes into the water there once last summer from the sand and ash mixture that is called Alki Beach (which does have a rather nice view but is far from a real beach) and nearly got Hypothermia so I was more than looking forward to the chance to get some salt water over my head on this trip.

From the moment I stepped out of the airport I felt at home. The sun had just set so it was a cool 30 degrees or so (centigrade that is). The heat pushed into me just like it does back home and it felt great. Better than that actually, it felt fantastic, I really did feel a weight lifting off from my shoulders. The next day when I went to work outside under a gloriously sunny sky when a wafting breeze was the only respite from the 35 odd degree heat I felt even more at home. I wasn’t even remotely uncomfortable; far from it, I was giddily happy to be warm again. Standing there in my thick jeans and long sleeved shirt (trying to pull of the handsome rolled-up sleeves look, but most likely failing) while the sweat slowly dripped from my legs I felt so good that I didn’t want the sun to ever set. Even going into my air-conditioned hotel room felt like a waste of my precious warm time!

So, given that is was lovely and warm, after my first day’s work I set off down the Corniche in search of the beach. I knew it existed at the other end of the foreshore, and I didn’t think it was that far, but after an hour of brisk walking I was starting to wonder if I had mistaken my geography. I was in fact correct, the beach was there, but I had misjudged the size of the island so by the time I reached the beach the sun had already dipped below the haze and the light was all but faded. Not to be disappointed I went to the beach anyway only to find that I had to pay for the privilege. Who ever thought of charging for a public beach? This wasn’t a fancy hotel or anything like that, just a strip of sand lined with palm trees, a juice stand and a Baskin Robbins, but nevertheless it cost me a few dollars to swim there.

It was very much worth it though, even though the chill nighttime breeze made the water less pleasing than I had hoped and the lack of sun meant that my Casper-tan wasn’t going to be gotten rid of so easily. I decided that I would have to come back during the day time.

Alas, thanks to the work I was contractually obliged to perform while over here I was never able to return to the beach during the daytime. As I did get to work outside for four straight days though I now am the proud owner of one of the world’s worst farmer’s tans.

The Truth Behind the Buildings

So, it doesn’t have people or food, but there is one thing that we all know Abu Dhabi does have: fantastic skyscrapers and other architecture. All we ever hear of the UAE are the obscene new projects being constructed there, from man-made islands to the world’s tallest building. And it truly is a sight when you enter Abu Dhabi as all of the buildings rear up out of the desert in front of you. However, as soon as I got close to the city I really wasn’t impressed. Sure, there are lots of skyscrapers in the city, and little else besides, but most of them are thin, short and dull. Even along the Corniche - the man-made strip of greenery and boardwalk lining the northern extremity of the island on which Abu Dhabi sits - most of the buildings are nothing extra-ordinary, especially when compared to the likes of Shanghai or Hong Kong. If it were not for their number the buildings there are for the most part un-noteworthy.

Of course, there are exceptions, particularly among the towers that are still under construction, but I was expecting a fantastic skyline soaring up from nothingness, with all of the buildings packed tightly together as they are in other vertical cities, and this simply is not the case. Just imagine if you took a textbook of standardised early 90’s buildings from around the world and placed them all together; that is the way Abu Dhabi looked to me. Now, Dubai may be an entirely different story, but in Abu Dhabi it appears that quantity beat quality in their design schools.

Ancient History in Thirty Seconds or Less

It is sometimes easy to forget how time affects a place. What I mean is quite complicated and difficult to explain, but let me try an example. As you walk around London you realise just how old the place is, everything just exudes age in one way or another. It’s a combination of thousands of small details, from obvious things like old buildings, to subtle things such as the perfectly unplanned layout of the streets. Some places simply don’t have this, such as most cities in Australia, simply because they’ve only been around a short while. And while you’re there, it stabs you in the face with obviousness, you simply can’t avoid feeling the difference. Abu Dhabi is the extreme of this second case. The city, in its recent incarnation, can only trace its history to the 19th century, and moreover, it didn’t really get moving till 1959. I find it difficult to imagine even now, but everything that you can see in Abu Dhabi is no more than 30 or 40 years old.

Not that there is anything wrong with that; it just shocked me is all. I was constantly getting caught out by this fact as I tried to explore and learn about the place. There is a beautiful mosque on the southern outskirts of the city, one of the largest in the world actually, but after asking its origin I was told that it was finished in 2007. The palace on the peninsula? Last year. The tiny sandstone mosque squeezed between two hotels a block back from the foreshore? Circa 1990. There is literally nothing to see with any sort of history or age, which for me was a great disappointment as I was keen to learn something of the history of the people who live here.

According to my sources, Abu Dhabi has been settled since 300 B.C., so what was the place like for the first 2100 years of its existence? Surely there must be some relic of this, some museum full of artifacts at the very least.

One Redeeming Feature

Alright, now that I’ve gotten all that off my chest, on with the good stuff. There was one aspect of my short junket to Abu Dhabi that redeemed the entire place. Unfortunately I have to report that this one aspect was work, but this was no ordinary job. I was working at a site where they construct oil rigs and platforms (yes, I’m aware that this makes me the enemy, but bear with), and the site itself was incredible. An oil platform is pretty incredible in its typical orientation - the concept of a floating platform which stays stationary over an oil-well a few hundred meters below it on the ocean floor through all conditions is pretty impressive - now just imagine one of them lying on its side on a worksite with all of its underwater gear visible to you. They are deceptively large. No, I take that back, they are bigger than I could ever have imagined (and I have a disturbingly outsized imagination).

Better yet, as this facility, much like all the others in the area, was operated by a venerable army of migrant Indian workers, the preferred means of transportation about the site was on the backs of a fleet of tiny motorcycles. Compared to the “won’t go near the road without a two-tonne truck” feel of the USA, riding about a dusty bowl of half finished oil behemoths on a 125cc Yamaha made me feel like I was back in Asia. Back where I wanted to be.

The installation itself was on a barge moored at the extremity of the yard which was usually accessed via a gangplank. On one morning however, the gangplank was blocked by a sixty meter tall tower which was being placed on top of the barge that day. This was frustrating at first as I was dead keen to finish up my work on board, but it soon turned into quite the thrill ride, for instead of waiting patiently for the tower to be moved, the riggers instead brought over a crane and lifted me onto the barge. There I was, afraid of heights, soaring over the top of an oil barge with a handful of friendly workers, about to be unceremoniously deposited onboard. It’s not every day that you get to say you did that.

It was the people aboard the barge that really made the trip interesting. The entire time I was there I was surrounded by inquisitive people with smiles the size their curiosity. An actual posse of electricians and welders followed my every move, jumped at my every request (even the preposterous jokes), and tried to learn everything they could. I was shocked at first when I saw the gear that was being used out there - mostly old junk from the 80’s - but I soon learned that in a place like that reliability didn’t necessarily equate to high-tech. For those men, seeing me doing my work on our new-fangled equipment must have been a refreshing change from their usual work of replacing relatively dull old parts in simple old machines. One man in particular, with the gloriously incognito name of Anil, was my shadow on board. Perfectly friendly, always happy, forever willing to help, yet unable to say more than four words in English, he made for some very interesting conversations.

There were three men about that weren’t Indian. Two were winch operators who I never saw outside of their little aluminium shelters next to their very large winched. The one at the stern was a huge Lebanese man with a penchant for smoking, swearing, and who didn’t understand how to control things with a gentle touch. The other was stick thin, softly spoken, almost painfully shy, and completely afraid to make sudden movements on the controls. I figured that if the two of them were working at the same time they’d equal a regular person, but the chances of that ever happening seemed slim. The third Arab was Antonio Banderas.

Well, ok, he was the Antonio Banderas, but he was really trying. Actually, I think he could have taught his mentor a thing or two about looking rugged and manly, but the whole suave thing was lost on him. He would move about the barge, putting himself into every job that he could (as the chief rigger this was, technically, his job), with his long hair, half-open shirt, and carefully rolled up sleeves as though he was due to be at a photo shoot later in the day. Yet he would then go and ruin the image by attacking a large piece of moving machinery with a spanner (I saw a giant loop of wire come within a foot of clocking him in the face). He would then come over to me with a smile on his face and tell me that everything was going splendidly. What an odd character.

So, in the end I must say that I had a good week. I got to spend seven days in the warmth instead of the chilly Seattle Spring, I got to swim in the ocean, I found one decent Arabic meal, I got to ride a motorbike, I met a bunch of oddly interesting people (none of them locals), and I got paid for the privilege. But still, here I am in this shallow edifice of an airport, wondering if I ever really saw this place, or if it was ever really here to be seen in the first place.


19th October 2009

Not there yet
What you have to remember is that Abu Dhabi is a work in progress - even if nobody is quite sure what the final result will be. What IS sure is that in 5 - 10 years it will be the new Dubai (minus some of the quirky charm that has managed to survive the bulldozers in Dubai). It really is just a big facade (well, they both are). But whatever you think, you have to admit its pretty amazing what can be done with desert sands and too much oil. I suppose there is a heart and soul there, but not sure where.
26th October 2009

1 to Nothing!
The way to a man's heart is through his stomach - book quote, not a movie quote . . . haha, I win, you lose, 1 to NOTHING!
4th November 2009

Sorry, the movie quote was to do with the small line "... but that's true", not the stomach part. Nevertheless, I didn't know that was a book quote anyway, I figured it was just an old saying.
17th November 2009

They eat at home!
Wow, for only 1 week you did a decent job of capturing the spirit (or sometimes lack thereof!) of this city. I've been here a year and agree with much of what you've written. However, Lebanese food IS Arabic food - it is a regional cuisine. And as for where the locals are and what they eat, the true locals, as in UAE Nationals, tend to eat at home in very large family groups. Having been to one of these dinners, I can report that this is where most meals are taken, and the dishes are typically Syrian, Egyptian, and Lebanese variations on standard Arabic favourites, along with an Indian style Biryani rice dish which reflects the long trading history across the water. Many Arabs and Africans married into UAE families or settled here originally, and just like the US or Australia, the family table is informed by migrants bringing with them their own dishes. The streets of Abu Dhabi don't really reflect the 'life' of the city. Most of that happens behind closed doors.

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