The capital of the UAE, Abu Dhabi is the very model of a modern Gulf petro-city: thoroughly contemporary, shamelessly wealthy and decidedly staid. Abu Dhabi’s lightning change from obscure fishing village into modern city-state within the past thirty years is perhaps the most dramatic of all the stories of oil-driven transformation that dot the region, and although the city’s endless glass-fronted high-rises and multi-lane highways can seem fairly uninspiring on first acquaintance, locals take understandable pride in the city’s remarkable recent metamorphosis. For the casual visitor, modern Abu Dhabi is mainly interesting for how it contrasts with its more famous neighbour – an Arabian Washington to Dubai’s Las Vegas. Specific sights are relatively thin on the ground, and much of the pleasure of a visit lies in wandering through the city centre and along the handsome waterfront Corniche Road.
The city’s two standout attractions are the stunning Sheikh Zayed Mosque, one of the world’s largest and most extravagant places of Islamic worship, and the ultra-opulent Emirates Palace Hotel. Other attractions include the memorable new souk at the World Trade Center, and the contrastingly traditional Heritage Village, offering superb views of the Corniche Road.Read More
Though it may currently be playing second fiddle to Dubai in the global tourism stakes, Abu Dhabi is increasingly looking for ways to challenge its upstart neighbour’s pre-eminence in the region, backed by the emirate’s apparently bottomless well of petrodollars – unlike credit-crunched Dubai, many of whose most ambitious projects have now been mothballed.
At the centre of Abu Dhabi’s strategic vision is the new US$27 billion cultural district to be developed on the formerly uninhabited island of Saadiyat (“Island of Happiness”; wsaadiyat.ae), a few kilometres from the city centre. Centrepiece of the development is a planned trio of world-class new museums, each in its own landmark building designed by one of the world’s top architects, including the Louvre Abu Dhabi, housed in a huge flying-saucer-shaped edifice designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, a new Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum and a Sheikh Zayed National Museum by Foster & Partners. A further string of residential developments and tourist attractions has also been proposed, including a Gary Player golf course and a 9km beach lined with luxury hotels and marinas.
That at least was the plan, as first announced in 2006, although the three museums have so far notably failed to get built, while schedules have been repeatedly pushed back (latest estimates for opening dates are sometime in 2014–2015, although even these are beginning to seem optimistic). In addition, further promised landmark attractions – a new Maritime Museum by Japanese architect Tadao Ando and a Performing Arts Centre by Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid – now appear to be unlikely to open anytime in the foreseeable future, if at all. The development has also been rocked by repeated accusations that expat labourers working on the project have been subject to gross human-rights violations, leading to a boycott of the development by numerous international artists. Which isn’t to say that Saadiyat’s groundbreaking museums won’t finally open one day, but that until then, it’s best not to hold one’s breath.