High-octane in the desert

Liz Hannan follows the money in this emerging cultural mecca where everything gets done yesterday.

FIFTY years ago, Abu Dhabi was little more than empty desert where bedouin tribes roamed, harvesting dates, pearls and fish. Then came oil. And roads. Then the United Arab Emirates was born, forged from seven emirates, including Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Then Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan became ruler of Abu Dhabi, to be succeeded, on his death, by his son, Sheik Khalifa.

As the oil flowed, the royal family decreed Abu Dhabi would use its extraordinary wealth to advance culture and learning.

And so today there is a campus of New York University and Paris Sorbonne University. And a Louvre on the way as well as a Guggenheim museum.

All this in half a century. Talk about ambitious. Talk about fast. Talk about ... Dubai?

Don't. Where Abu Dhabi is concerned, Dubai is the elephant in the room as well as the basket case up the coast.

As a conversation starter, "Why won't Abu Dhabi crash and burn like Dubai?" is ill-advised. "Because," your host will say with a strained smile, "we have 9 per cent of the world's oil and 4 per cent of its natural gas. And They Don't." Ah.

Much better to go with something like: "Aren't falcons majestic birds, but what's with those little helmets they wear?"

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Or: "Is it true that every Emirate child is born a multimillionaire?"

Or: "Could you please slow down, I don't want to die."

It is notable that in a country for whom the camel was - until relatively recently - the ultimate conveyance, speed is the drug of choice.

The freeways out of the city surge with testosterone. Mercedes, Ferraris, Maseratis and Hummers rule, driven by Emirates, young or young at heart, blessed by birth.

There was once a plan to ban cars more than 10 years old.

Ban cars! What about the drivers, who conspire to create an annual road toll bettered by only a very few nations?

Little wonder Abu Dhabi rejoiced in hosting its first formula one grand prix, which it did late last year, allowing it to indulge its two great passions. Build a car track really fast? Can do.

This national need for speed finds better expression in the giant sandhills about an hour outside Abu Dhabi.

As dusk approaches, convoys of four-wheel-drives snake deep into the desert, initiating travellers into a not-so-ancient art.

To dune-bash is to place your life in the hands of the very adrenalin junkie who seemed intent on killing you on the outbound journey. And yet here, where the burnt-orange sky dips to touch a vast carpet of sand, these young drivers are masters of their universe.

With unnerving ease they surge up giant sand waves, watchful, waiting for the very moment to snap their hands, hanging two (wheels) before dropping down the face.

Do that about 50 times and you'll be ready for ... dinner, which awaits in a bedouin campsite. Feast, stargaze, rest in the shadows of a spotlit dune.

If dune-bashing is not your cup of Turkish coffee, Al Ain might well be.

An oasis city, it lies at the base of Jebel Hafeet, the rocky, archaeologically rich outcrop that rises 1200 metres from the desert and separates the emirate from Oman.

Most travellers would make the 90-minute trip to Al Ain simply to visit its charming zoo, where 4000 animals roam in natural settings as experts work to preserve the most endangered among them.

But the return journey should not be undertaken without first stopping in at Al Jahili Fort, home to the legend of Wilfred Thesiger.

A Briton born into privilege, Thesiger was educated at Eton and Oxford before beginning a lifelong affair with Africa and the Arab world.

Dubbed Mubarak bin London, between 1945 and 1950 he twice crossed the Empty Quarters of Arabia, displaying the happy knack of finding oases moments before his camels dropped dead. He used his camera to preserve a vanishing way of life. Scores of his photographs line the cool walls of Al Jahili Fort, capturing the simplicity of the bedouin people. Some pictures show Mubarak bin London - blessed one, son of London - falconing with kings and laughing with children, their faces flushed with adoration.

If only there were still men such as Thesiger, I thought, as we entered the high-octane world of the formula one grand prix the following day.

And then there he was: baggy cotton shirt, breeches, knee-high leather boots, a satchel slung across his chest and a faraway look in his eyes, quenching a desert thirst in the oasis of a corporate hospitality suite.

Turns out it was actor Jeremy Irons, channelling his inner bedouin among sheiks, shakers and movers. Janet Jackson was there. Freddie Flintoff, too.

Build it and they will come.

Which is what they do, in their thousands, to the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque. The third-largest in Islam, its marble is pure white, its domes and minarets topped with pure gold.

All people of all faiths are welcome, invited to wander through its cool columns, drawn inexorably to the main prayer hall, home to the world's largest Persian carpet, where 6000 worshippers can gather.

Stay for a while. Find a little piece of wall to rest against and watch, or read. To do so is not to disrespect those in prayer but to experience the essence of the bedouin culture and Abu Dhabi's calling card, "Travellers welcome".

The city's other great landmark is the Emirates Palace Hotel - as grand and gilded as a $3 billion Arabian castle should be.

Its luxury restaurants, suites and lawns invite close inspection but no less than the exhibition within its walls.

Spectacular Saadiyat Island forms part of Abu Dhabi city and on it something remarkable is taking shape. The Cultural District of Saadiyat Island promises to be home to the world's single-largest collection of premier cultural institutions.

The first Louvre outside France. Tick. A Guggenheim. Tick. A national museum, performing arts centre, maritime museum. Tick, tick, tick. World-renowned architects to realise the dream. Frank Gehry. Tick. Jean Nouvel. Tick.

Build it and they will come.

As the time comes to depart, I am reminded of the words writ large in the arrivals hall of Abu Dhabi Airport.

"Welcome to the United Arab Emirates. While you were away, Abu Dhabi got one step closer to breathtaking."

Watch this space. Just don't mention Dubai.

The writer was a guest of Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority.

GETTING THERE

Etihad flies daily from Sydney to Abu Dhabi. See etihadairways.com.

WHERE TO STAY

The writer stayed at one of Abu Dhabi's newest luxury hotels, Fairmont Bab Al Bahr, which looks directly out across water to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Rooms from AED899 ($276) a night. Phone +971 2 654 3333, see fairmont.com.

Rates at the Emirates Palace range from a Coral Room for AED1980 a night to a three-bedroom Grand Palace Suite from AED44,700 a night. Phone +971 2 690 9000, see emiratespalace.com.

FURTHER INFORMATION

See abudhabitourism.ae.

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