Abu Dhabi: Desert drive

1 Oct 2006 by Business Traveller Asia Pacific
A graceful Corniche; a blindingly cloudless sky; boats bobbing in a pretty marina. We could be in the south of France, except that when we emerge from the arctic-cold of our hotel, it feels like stepping into a furnace. We are in Abu Dhabi, the neat and ultra- wealthy capital of the United Arab Emirates which, until lately, has preferred to stay out of the limelight dominated by bling-obsessed Dubai. But not anymore. As if it has suddenly tapped into another oil deposit – the emirate produces 10 per cent of the world's known reserves – the government and private sector machinery has unleashed a flow of announcements of mega-scale developments during these past months. Unlike Dubai, Abu Dhabi, meaning "father of the gazelle", has no need to create an artificial island in the mould of Dubai's over-the-top Palm Jumeirah (future home of 30 hotels) or the World (which, when completed will resemble the flattened map of the planet). It already has an abundance of natural islands – in fact, about 200 of them, in various sizes, mostly sandy and uninhabited. The island of Saadiyat, to the east of the Corniche, is already a popular weekend getaway and is destined for a building boom. Meaning "island of happiness" in Arabic, the 27sqkm area will be developed in three phases by 2018. It is half the size of Bermuda, and will be the Middle East's largest single natural island development. No less ambitious than the Palm, Saadiyat will have six distinct districts delivering a variety of environments, connected by a palm-lined arterial freeway. Attractions will include 19km of white sandy beaches, two golf courses, 29 hotels with over 7,000 rooms, including the requisite iconic seven-star property (as if the existing jaw-dropping Emirates Palace weren't enough), three marinas with berthing for 1,000 vessels, over 8,000 private villas, more resorts, over 38,000 apartments and eight architectural landmarks set together on "a string of pearls" , housing museums, a concert hall, an art gallery and major performance venues. In another public relations splash, the Abu Dhabi government and the New York-based Guggenheim Foundation signed an agreement to establish the only Guggenheim museum in the region which, at 30,000sqm, will be the largest Guggenheim. It will have maverick architect Frank Gehry at the design helm (also responsible for the delightfully topsy-turvy Museo Guggenheim Bilbao) and will take five years to build. This predilection for the arts doesn't come as a surprise to long-term resident Tania Blaha, who is in charge of international marketing for the fledgling Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA), whose subsidiary Abu Dhabi Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC) is spearheading the Saadiyat project. Blaha, from Salzburg, came here on holiday some years ago, liked what she saw and stayed. She says: "The Abu Dhabi government has always placed great store by education, culture and the environment. They've always been dedicated to those aspects. That's why they've gone slowly when it comes to development." The scramble to diversify revenue streams may be more apparent among its neighbours (notably Dubai), and while the oil is not going to run out any time soon for Abu Dhabi, its leaders are taking no chances. It's clear from many of the initiatives that much has been learned from Dubai, and while there is an element of copying what worked, there are also important differences. The far-sightedness that guided the reign of the late ruler Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (a huge billboard along the Corniche, near the Emirates Palace, shows him smiling benignly at motorists) continues to inform that of his son, the present sovereign Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Given its contrasting natural attractions – arid desert with spectacular sand dunes, rugged mountains, lush oases and pristine islands – unique Bedouin culture and cosmopolitan infrastructure (the 100-hectare Emirates Palace is a destination in itself), tourism is one race horse the emirate is betting on to win the high-stakes race for long-term survival. Part of that plan will be to attract the high-spending meetings and incentives market, the kind of traveller profile so prized by boutique nations like Abu Dhabi. Ali Al Hosni, marketing director of the two-year-old tourism authority, says: "Our tourism is being developed in a sophisticated and harmonious way so as not to detract from the emirate's make-up. This means that development is refined and upmarket, so visitors receive a personal, unhurried and uncrowded experience." To up its corporate appeal, Abu Dhabi officials commissioned a state-of-the-art exhibition complex, which will be partially finished by December in time to host the IDEX defence exhibition and conference. The focal feature of the development is an iconic soaring tower curving above the centre and looking out to sea, a bold design statement reflecting the city's hub aspirations. And what could embody Abu Dhabi's soaring ambitions more than a smart new flag carrier? After investing in Gulf Air since 1974, the country pulled up its stakes there and launched Etihad (meaning "unity") Airways in November 2003 and hasn't looked back since. It now flies to 35 international destinations, a number that will grow to 36 in October when it links Abu Dhabi to New York. According to Charles Phelps-Penry, Etihad regional manager, Asia-Pacific, the future will most likely also include Shanghai, Singapore, Sydney and Kuala Lumpur. With all those budding routes, Etihad doesn't intend to run short of aircraft. Recently, an Airbus A380 with the Etihad livery touched down at Abu Dhabi International Airport as part of a heat-testing exercise. This coincided with the presence of a new A340-500 featuring the innovative Diamond Zone suite. Etihad is expecting four A380s, part of an US$8 billion order placed in 2004. The airline's expansion has one obvious consequence. "It's putting a lot of pressure on the airport," Phelps-Penry admits. Since opening in 1982, Abu Dhabi International has experienced intense growth; the last eight years alone have seen passenger numbers increase from two million to 5.6 million in 2005. While the departure of Gulf Air, which used the terminal as its hub, may have resulted in lost traffic, Etihad is quickly making up for any shortfall by the new additions to its network. Trying to anticipate and cater for rising passenger numbers, as well as create a safe and comfortable environment, has kept the Department of Civil Aviation on its toes. The process involves three stages. The first was opening Terminal 1A (an extension to Terminal 1) and Terminal 2, two temporary areas which increased capacity to seven million. The second is the ongoing construction of Terminal 3 (with a capacity of three million), which is also temporary. The final stage will result in a brand-new airport building. A 300-bedroom airport hotel is also under construction. So much for the future, but in the present the duty-free outlets are doing well, with travellers raiding the luxury goods section in particular. Abu Dhabi Duty Free managing director Mohamed Mounib attributes the popularity of such goods to the fact that "we have been adding new high-end products to various ranges and carrying out specific promotional activity to suit our passengers' needs". For cigar connoisseurs, there is the World of Cigars featuring a walk-in humidor carrying a line of fine Cuban cigars from Cohiba to Monte Cristo. In addition to the regular lucky draws for luxury vehicles, a chance to win a Harley-Davidson motorcycle has been added. Abu Dhabi's strategy to invest its considerable wealth in sustainable and enriching development draws praise from expats like Etihad's Phelps-Penry, who have chosen to be part of its future. He says: "Abu Dhabi will certainly be changed out of all recognition, but it will always remain green. The Sheikh and the government are committed to that."

Also in the pipeline

A 400-room deluxe hotel on an 74,244sqm area along Saadiyat beachfront earmarked by the Abu Dhabi National Hotels as a flagship project. The international operator has still to be named. The AED1 billion (US$272.3 million) Golf Gardens Project, built on the existing Abu Dhabi Golf Club, site of the annual European PGA, will include 389 villas and townhouses. Emirates Pearl hotel and serviced apartment, a joint venture between TDIC and Atlas Group. This includes 352 rooms and 104 units. Al Raha Beach, a former pearl diving site turned into a virtual city spread over 500ha.
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