Cutting-edge Abu Dhabi an oasis of modernity

Participants of an off-road desert trek with Hala tours mug for the camera outside Abu Dhabi.

Participants of an off-road desert trek with Hala tours mug for the camera outside Abu Dhabi.

DAVE FULLER, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:30 PM ET

ABU DHABI — The capital city of the United Arab Emirates is progressing at such break-neck speed, blink and you may miss another front-page-worthy moment.

Whereas Toronto dithers forever over a simple three-stop subway tunnel, and Ontario blows $1-billion on cancelled gas plants, half a planet away in Abu Dhabi, residents adhere to the “can-do” principle: And, go out do it.

It’s not just because this sprawling, multi-island city on the Persian Gulf is swimming in oil money, either. Though it helps.

Motivations are more complex as Masdar City, a 4-million-sq.-metre, self-sustaining neighbourhood being constructed in the suburbs of Abu Dhabi will attest. The Masdar City experiment is a hopeful weapon in a world struggle against diminishing resources and global warming.

Religious and ethnic viewpoints are respected in Muslim Abu Dhabi, too, promoted visually by a stunning nine-piece, bronze sculpture downtown, spelling “t-o-l-e-r-a-n-c-e.”

Here, they don’t build walls to keep their Pakistani and Indian neighbours out, rather the UAE relies heavily on a foreign labour force to advance its 21st-century “miracle in the desert.” But there are conditions: Migrants must hold a job, can’t own property nor retire here.

See photos from this trip: Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi created its own international airline — Etihad — to facilitate nonstop travel to the city. Taking flight in 2003, Etihad serviced 12 million passengers last year.

It is mind-boggling to think only 42 years ago, the UAE consisted mostly of nomadic Bedouin tribes locked in a centuries-old time warp, crisscrossing the desert, from oasis to oasis, on camel-back; the region’s meagre economy attached to a crumbling pearl-diving industry.

Today, Abu Dhabi is one of the richest, most culturally unique cities in the world, already unmatched in architectural achievements, although big brother Dubai, a 90-minute drive down the freeway, might quibble the point.

Though Abu Dhabi offers few must-see historical sites — St. John’s, Nfld., probably has more — Glenn Williams, an Australian-born public relations executive for the city’s jaw-dropping Jumeirah at Etihad Towers, isn’t too bothered.

“This is an amazing time to be here and it’s exciting to feel a part of it,” Williams says, gazing down on Abu Dhabi’s soothing Corniche beach boardwalk from the Observation Deck on the 74th floor of one of Etihad’s five curving glass towers.

“People from all over the world are coming to Abu Dhabi to do business. It’s like a modern-day Ephesus, to give it a historical context. You sense something great is developing here. I really think we are creating the World Heritage sites of the future.”

There is no shortage of contenders, led by the massive gold, marble and jeweled Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which opened six years ago at a cost of $3 billion; and the $3.9-billion Emirates Palace Hotel, complete with private marina and four helicopter pads. The artistically fascinating Guggenheim Museum and glass oasis, Louvre 2, both on Caribbean-like Saadiyat Island, will be completed in the next few years.

There is much more to wow visitors, including circular marvel, the Adlar real estate tower; and the futuristic Yaz Island Hotel, next door to Ferrari World, home to the world’s fastest rollercoaster (246 km/h), Abu Dhabi’s Formula One track and a huge waterpark.


The pristine white sand beach at St. Regis Saadiyat, an opulent island resort in Abu Dhabi. DAVE FULLER PHOTO

Driving isn’t a challenge. While Arabic is the UAE’s official language, unofficially English rules, posted on road signs, skyscrapers and restaurant menus everywhere. It makes sense, given four-times as many ex-pats as native Emeratis live here, including 40,000 Canadians.

In 1960, Abu Dhabi counted 25,000 residents. Today, greater Abu Dhabi supports 1.6 million — a number expected to double within 15 years.

The UAE’s former ambassador to Canada, H.E. Hassan Alsuwaidi, an avid golfer, is not surprised by all the fuss.

“ We’re a safe country, we have jobs, we have nice beaches and for seven months we have very good weather,” Alsuwaidi says after surveying the St. Regis Saadiyat’s championship-calibre golf course, white sand beach and turquoise water. “We have companies locating here from all over the world; we don’t have taxes and you get good service in our hotels and restaurants.”

In other words, what’s not to like?

MYTH VS. REALITY

On arrival at the Etihad luggage carousel inside Abu Dhabi International airport, the first sign you’ll notice points toward the Duty Free where four bottles of liquor are on sale for $55 US. Who says a man can’t buy a drink in the Islamic Middle East? In fact alcoholic beverages are available at virtually every hotel bar or restaurant in Abu Dhabi. You just can’t take it outside. Let’s torch to a few more myths:

It’s unsafe: Wrong. Abu Dhabi ranks as one of the world’s safest cities. Crime is minimal, you rarely see a cop, never a gun, and, according to my cabbie, he can leave his laptop in his taxi overnight and not lose any sleep. Why? Security cameras are everywhere, eyes are scanned on arrival, so police have little trouble tracking down thieves. Get caught and you’re out. Considering most foreigners in Abu Dhabi are supporting family in poorer parts of the world, few can afford the risk or the shame.

Low pay: Wages are low compared to Canada, but good enough to entice workers from struggling European Union countries like Greece, Spain, Poland, Latvia, Bulgaria. Entrepreneurship is encouraged, no one pays taxes, all get health cards, and work-safety laws are improving.

An entitled class: No denying it. Only indigenous Emiratis hold citizenship, their sons enjoying many perqs upon marrying: A 35,000 US cash gift, free land and an interest-free $375,000 loan to build a home. Or forget the loan and move into a condo-like villa for free. University and residence bills — even when studying abroad — are paid by the UAE government.

It’s a man’s world: But that’s changing. Two-thirds of government sector jobs are now held by women, four are cabinet ministers. Women account for 70% of all university grads in the UAE and 43% of investors on the Abu Dhabi security exchange.

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When Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “Life is about the journey, not the destination,” surely he wasn’t flying economy class.

Otherwise, he’d have written: “Congratulations. Your little monster has given me a splitting headache and we’ve yet to leave the gate.”

Or, “Hey, pal! We’re up here for seven more hours! I was hoping not to spend it with your chair-back in my lap.”

The airlines hear ya! Their families fly, too. Which is why Etihad Airways invented the “Flying Nannies” program, free to all passengers on long-haul flights. It has put a lid on many a mile-high temper tantrum.

“It’s something we’ve always done, but now we’re training our flight attendants to come up with games and activities for the kids to do,” says Flying Nannies instructor Lindsay Heffey.

“If we see a child crying, we’ll ask the parent how we can assist them. Drawing competitions are very popular. We get out the paper and crayons, and then we take all their pictures to the captain and he signs them. When you see those smiles at the end of flight, it’s lovely.”

Given Etihad’s warp-speed ascension toward the top of the airline industry, along with its trio of major 2013 World Travel Awards (best airline, best first class, best cabin crew), they’ve apparently made economy more bearable too.

Etihad’s business class, with its fold down beds, four and five-course meals and sleek entertainment package is a step up; while the first class cabin, with enclosed seating capsules and a five-star restaurant chef at your disposal is designed “to make you feel like you’re flying in a private plane,” explains Nickie Aiston, head of cabin crew training.

Etihad’s corporate model is clearly working. In 2013, nearly 12 million customers were on board, underling its status as “fastest growing airline in aviation history.” The Abu Dhabi-based company only commenced passenger service in the fall of 2003.

“Every airline works on improving service and hospitality, the big difference is the way you are treated,” says Tom Clarke, a former BBC journalist, now an Etihad exec. “Our goal is to provide the best experience you’re going to get in that cabin and that’s the way it should be.”

Backed by a 5,000-strong flight crew recruited from around the world, the UAE’s national airline flies to all six inhabited continents.

NEED TO KNOW

— Etihad Airways has three nonstop flights a week from Toronto Pearson to Abu Dhabi with connections to Delhi, Mumbai, Lahore, Bangkok, Hong Kong and more. Passengers with Canadian passports do not require visas to visit the Emirates. See Etihad.com/en-ca.

— We stayed at the opulent St. Regis Abu Dhabi downtown and the St. Regis Saadiyat Island Beach and Golf Resort. Saadiyat’s white sand and turquoise ocean beach are awesome. See stregisabudhabi.com and stregissaadiyatisland.com.

— Hala Tours offers a popular Desert Sunset & BBQ outing, including off-road desert drive, camel farm visit, dune boarding, barbecue dinner and belly dancing show. See halaabudhabi.com.

— It’s a long drive between most points of interest in sprawling Abu Dhabi, so rent a car. Gas is 50-cents per litre.


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