Standing on the site of the city’s former main souk, the huge World Trade Center (previously known as the Central Market) is one of central Abu Dhabi’s most interesting recent developments. Much of the complex is concentrated in a pair of shiny cylindrical skyscrapers, the Trust Tower and Burj Mohammed bin Rashid. The latter is currently the tallest building in Abu Dhabi at 382m, named after the current ruler of Dubai, just as the tallest building in Dubai is named after the ruler of Abu Dhabi – although the latter’s Sheikh Khalifa has undoubtedly got the better of a rather unequal deal.
The centre’s main attraction, however, is its marvellous souk, designed by Foster + Partners and offering a wonderfully original postmodern take on the traditional Middle Eastern bazaar. Housed in a kind of huge three-storey wooden box, the design blends traditional Arabian motifs with modern materials to memorable effect, with the intricate latticework of the enclosing wooden superstructure (reminiscent of traditional Arabian mashrabiya windows and screens) creating a marvellous play of light and shadow within. Take time to have a look at the outside of the souk, too, where the full ingenuity, artistry and scale of the enclosing box are fully revealed.
Shops around the ground floor include several handicrafts and souvenir shops, plus dedicated honey and spice shops – most of the stuff on offer is fairly humdrum, although hunt around and you might turn up some more interesting collectibles. There are also a couple of places to eat in the central atrium and a very chintzy branch of Shakespeare & Co.
On the other side of Khalifa bin Zayed the First Street, the recently opened WTC Mall continues the architectural theme of the souk, although in a significantly watered-down and less memorable way, complete with piped muzak and naff shops.
Exiting the east side of the WTC Mall brings you directly out onto Al Ittihad (“Union”) Square, home to an arresting sequence of oversized sculptures, including a vast cannon, enormous perfume bottle and gargantuan coffeepot – an endearingly quirky contrast to the largely drab surrounding architecture.