The future of the Emirates' capital

Oil-rich Abu Dhabi may have become an opulent oasis in the desert, but the forest of high-rise buildings that scrape its perpetual blue sky only hint at things to come.

This capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a fishing and pearling village of mud and palm-frond huts until oil was discovered here 50 years ago, may lack the millennia of colourful history and relics of Middle Eastern cities such as Cairo and Beirut.

But it aims at becoming one of the region's major cultural centres, with future projects costed in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

Oil exports are responsible for Abu Dhabi having what is believed to be the world's largest Sovereign Wealth Fund, a government-owned investment fund with assets of $US875 billion ($A1.32 trillion).

Public and private investments announced in the first three months of 2008 alone were officially estimated to cost a mind-boggling 768 billion UAE dirham ($A295 billion).

They covered tourism and hotels, transport infrastructure, real estate plus health and services for Abu Dhabi's rapidly increasing population, now around 1.5 million.

Emerati nationals comprise only about 20 per cent of residents, the others are foreign workers and businessmen.

Much of the tourism focus is on 27-square-kilometre Saadiyat Island, a future bastion of culture 500m off the east coast, where $US27 billion ($A40.67 billion) will be spent between now and 2018.

Projects include the first overseas gallery branch of the Louvre, due to open in 2012 with its own collection of art works, plus others on loan from the Louvre in Paris and other well-known French museums.

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Also coming to Saadiyat are a branch of the US Guggenheim museum and a national museum, both to open in 2013.

Among other projects will be a performing arts centre seating 6,300 - about 800 more than the Sydney Opera House - and a maritime museum to display the Persian Gulf states' rich marine history and environmental policies.

Another island to the city's east, named Yas, will be the site of Abu Dhabi's first Formula One Grand Prix, sponsored by Etihad Airways.

The first race will be held in November.

The 5.5km-long track, with grandstands for 55,000 spectators, will be part of a Ferrari-sponsored theme park where petrolheads can join a driving school sponsored by the Italian sports car company and experience the thrills of motoring at high speeds.

The park will also feature rollercoaster rides, go-karts, rally and dune-buggy tracks.

Two golf courses will also be built on Yas along with a water park, equestrian centre and top-end resorts.

In Abu Dhabi City, further high-rise hotels and business buildings will line the Corniche, the scenic main thoroughfare which runs close by what has been described as the world's best (and costliest) hotel -- the awesome, castle-like Emirates Palace, with 394 suites and rooms, built for the equivalent of $A4 billion.

(Photos: the Emirates Palace hotel)

The historic Al Bateen wharf area will see a new 400-room hotel.

Work is due to be completed late in 2009, after 11 years, on the stunning Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, the world's third largest after those at Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, and named after the visionary founding father of the UAE and its first president, the revered Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

The dazzlingly white edifice of Italian marble, accommodating more than 40,000 worshippers, opened during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan in 2007.

(Photos: Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque)

There are free tours for non-Muslims.

Built over 22,000 square metres, the mosque cost about two billion dirham ($A766 million).

The mosque also claims two records: The world's largest carpet measuring 5,627 square metres which took 1,200 Iranian weavers two years to make from 35 tonnes of wool and 15 tonnes of cotton; and the world's largest chandelier, one of seven imported from Germany measuring 15m high and 10m in diameter.

Non-Muslim female visitors are provided with a full-length black robe and/or a headscarf to wear.

Sheikh Zayed, who died aged 86 in 2004 and is buried in a chamber on the mosque's grounds, saw Abu Dhabi become today's thriving, ultra-modern land.

His son and successor Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, 60, has continued his progressive plans.

Abu Dhabi has nearly 10 per cent of the world's available oil reserves.

With Abu Dhabi's network of six or eight-lane highways, the garden city of Al Ain is little more than an hour's drive east of Abu Dhabi City, on the border with Oman.

Well worth a visit, it is a large oasis noted for its parks, historic forts and the Palace Museum in buildings where Sheikh Zayed once lived.

Nearby is Au Dhabi's tallest mountain, 1,240-metre Jebel Hafeet, near the summit of which is the Mercure Grand hotel offering a cooler escape from the desert heat and panoramic views of the Al Ain area.

About 250km to the west of Abu Dhabi City is Sir Bani Yas island, where late last year the Desert Islands Resort and Spa opened combining beachfront activities with two wildlife parks.

The island has 35 archaeological sites including a seventh-century monastery and two royal palaces.

Further resorts and attractions are planned for Sir Bani Yas, Dalma and the other six Discovery Islands in the group.

One environmental initiative which could well become a major tourist attraction is the development,of the world's first zero-carbon, zero-waste and car-free city, powered entirely by renewable energy.

Located 17km east-southeast of the Abu Dhabi city of Masdar, it is due to open in 2016.

While arrivals figures have eased due to the global economic crisis in recent months, Abu Dhabi officials remain confident of tourism's future on the back of a $US6.5 billion ($A9.79 billion) plan begun in 2005 that, with new terminals, is forecast to see 10 million passengers in 2010 compared with 6.9 million in 2007 and a predicted 30 per cent more than last year.

IF YOU GO:

Etihad Airways flies to Abu Dhabi ex-Sydney and Brisbane, with connections to Europe. Call 1800-998-995 or visit www.etihadairways.com.

Abu Dhabi Tourism can be contacted for details of accommodation and attractions on (02) 8268-5504 or website www.visitabudhabi.com.

The writer was a guest of Etihad Airways and Abu Dhabi Tourism.

AAP

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