In June 2018 I was sent on possibly my most posh work trip yet: Abu Dhabi. I had never visited the United Arab Emirates before, and it was a little bit last minute (I was replacing another colleague), so I had no idea what to expect and I had done no research.
Somehow, I got to fly there business class, directly from another work trip in Johannesburg, South Africa. There is a fair bit I can write about that experience to start off with! For one, I would always take the money over the cost of that ticket, if I had a choice. I would have walked from Joburg to Abu Dhabi if that could have just gone to my bank account. But you won’t hear me complain. I was flying overnight from one work trip to another and was actually able to properly sleep. I cannot tell you how much of a difference that makes to working effectively. I never knew, until that day. It was just fantastic. I got this little fancy toiletry kit, and an incredible dinner menu, and it was just altogether amazing. I wish my job was like this every trip. (Except, see point # 1 of course.)
I arrived in this incredible business class lounge where I was able to have breakfast before a driver picked me up to take me to the dazzling hotel that work had chosen. It had a swimming pool and a private beach. I am sorry, I do not know about you, but to me that is just ridiculous. How did I end up there? It was also 6am on a Saturday when I got there (who knows what time-zone…) so I spent three hours working on my laptop in the reception area. A business class flight and sparkly hotel can really motivate you to do your job properly… even on the weekend.
At 9am I began my mission of finding something fun to do for the day. There were not many last-minute options available, and, as I said, I had just turned up in this new city in a new country without having planned anything, so I just went with what was available. This was a half day desert tour the one day, followed by a half day cultural tour the next day. I cannot remember the cost exactly, but I found it affordable enough. I am thinking somewhere in the region of 80 dollars combined (private driver, including food). So sure, lets’ go!
I did not realise a desert tour was what is known as a ‘desert safari‘, which in the UAE means going up and down sand dunes in a car. I apologise, it is easy to Google and learn about in hindsight, but it was all a surprise to me at the time. I instantly questioned what impact this might have on the environment, because I am from a country where you do not touch the dunes under any circumstances. But there I was, stuck in a rollercoaster car experience. I should note that I am prone to travel sickness (to a degree that I have prescription tablets for it) so… eek. I can however also report back that it was fun, and beautiful. Abu Dhabi has proper movie-style, smooth, fine sand dunes, and the landscape was just incredible. Next time though, I would much prefer to walk.
P.S. according to my online dictionary, ‘safari’ means ‘an expedition to observe animals in their natural habitat’. However, we encountered no animals at all so that is just plain mislabeling. It does however look like the other option was perhaps exploring the desert via camel. These are the only animals we encountered some on our trip. But… their condition was absolutely appalling. I include a nice photo here, but what you cannot see is that they were all chained, shackled and skinny. I considered calling animal protection, but realised I did not know what services were available in UAE and how they would respond to what looked like a common issue plus the livelihood for some people. If anyone knows more about these ‘desert safaris’, and camel treatment, please let me know. I did nothing at the time because I was just overwhelmed and unfamiliar with the situation, but writing this up now… I want to make sure you read this as a warning and not as an advertisement.
Okay, another day, another chance. I had one morning left before work prep started, and whilst my colleagues were arriving from the airport and resting up I went off to explore what historical sites Abu Dhabi had to offer. First, up was the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (where Sheikh Zayed is buried). Now, this is not actually a historical site, as it was only completed in 2007. However, I can see the potential. The mixture of modern an traditional architecture is unbelievably impressive (‘a structure that would unite the cultural diversity of the Islamic world with the historical and modern values of architecture and art’). It uses patterns and styles from countries around the world, and it is open for non-Muslims to visit (outside prayer times of course). Make sure you are covered appropriately! I was wearing a long black skirt from Jordan that I have worn to many mosques before, but the fabric was not considered opaque enough so I had to add an extra layer in the end anyway.
It holds a few records at the moment, like largest loom carpet, I believe a very large chandelier… and it is currently the third biggest mosque in the world. It has escalators! Of course there is another side to this as well: it may well be considered a bit unnecessarily big. The project took millions of dollars and a decade to complete taking up a huge chunk of space… while not everyone in the UAE benefits from resources being spent in that way. I searched the internet a little for any article with criticism of the project but could not find any. Maybe because of limits on internet freedom in the UAE? With that said, it is one of the most beautiful mosques I have ever visited, and certainly the most beautiful modern mosque, so I can recommend a visit. It was one of the highlights of my trip to Abu Dhabi.
From the mosque we drove down to the ‘cultural village‘. My expectations were tempered by the previous day, but I could have adjusted them down a bit further. Nothing was real. The place as a whole was small, and located in the middle of the city (i.e. not a real village). There were some tourist souvenir shops, and then some fake ruins. The only interesting part was a small museum with some artefacts (pottery, coins) and old manuscripts, some of which may have been the real deal (maybe). There was very little information. Some descriptive signs were missing, and those that were there just had names/labels rather than details on the history of the region. Not worth visiting, do not go here if you are a historian.
Since there was a little time left over, the driver also insisted on showing us the Emirates Palace Hotel. What, a hotel? Well, that was not so odd by itself to me. I have been on a tour of the Pera Palace hotel in Istanbul. It has historical significance (mainly, Agatha Christie!). Of course, the Emirates Hotel is just a posh hotel though. What an interesting and bizarre experience. We were sightseeing what… rich guests going about their day? I thought maybe it was a palace at one stage, which was then turned into a hotel? No, it is one of the most expensive hotel projects in the world, ever. Royalty does stay there though, of course. 2020 update: most notably, Juan Carlos, former king of Spain, recently took refuge there.
Happily, work also arranged for a small trip for us! On our last evening in Abu Dhabi we were taken to the newly opened Abu Dhabi Louvre. I have been to the Louvre in Paris several times, so I am in a good position to compare – and I can definitely recommend this museum. It genuinely was like a smaller version of the Louvre. In Paris, you need several intense days of museum exploration to see and understand the whole collection, while in Abu Dhabi one day will do it (we only had one evening though so I was not able to properly study everything!). It is an actual collaboration between the French and UAE governments, not just a ‘using the name’ situation (although they did pay loads extra to specifically be able to do just that, I heard).
It had the classics Van Gogh, Mondriaan, Tinguely… and also some of my favourite ancient artefacts. One of the things that to me stands out the most about the Paris Louvre, of course, is its excellent Palmyra collection… and, lo and behold, some of it now exists in Abu Dhabi too. The architecture of the newly built museum is also very interesting, built on/in the water, with huge cuneiform engraved walls in the outside courtyard. I got to visit for free, but I would certainly buy my own ticket next time.
So that was my whirlwind experience of Abu Dhabi. I was not in the UAE long enough to drive out to any interesting archaeological sites (are there any? there must be!) and I have not had a chance to visit the much-instagrammed city of Dubai. It was a totally different world, and perhaps not a totally real world? I would love a chance to see more some day… especially the bits further from the bright lights of the city, and the bits that do not have 5 stars.