Fifty years ago, Abu Dhabi was not much more than empty desert punctuated only by the occasional palm tree. Bedouin tribes still roamed, sustaining themselves by harvesting dates, pearls and fish. Then oil was discovered and everything changed. Ten years later, the United Arab Emirates was born, forged from seven territories – called emirates – including Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Contrary to what many still think, Abu Dhabi is actually the capital city of the UAE, not Dubai. In fact, mentioning that other city is a surefire way to upset the natives, such is the competitive nature between the two emirates.
Dubai was constructed at an unprecedented rate never before seen anywhere in the world. So awesome was the expansion that the emirate’s economy couldn’t sustain it. Abu Dhabi on the other hand, is being built at a substantially slower pace. Consequently, the city is not as developed as its Emirati adversary.
Wandering the streets there is little to suggest that Abu Dhabi is the richest city on Earth. It actually looks quite shabby, with many tower block exteriors exhibiting aging concrete and browning mirrored glass. But, most of the oil is here and so this is where the money is. So much so, that it recently had to come to the financial rescue of its rapidly expanding emirate neighbour. Add all this up and you have an almost adolescent-like rivalry.
The city of Abu Dhabi itself is an archipelago; it’s made up of a series of islands interconnected by fast-flowing eight and ten-lane freeways. There is no city centre as such, but the moment you drive onto Abu Dhabi Island the more familiar sights of a Middle East metropolis become visible. Most tourists and many residents gather along the public beach along the corniche at weekends. Located at the northwest end of the island, this popular stretch of sand has recently undergone a much-needed face-lift, as the only alternative is to pay some frankly extortionate fees for the privilege of using a private beach area belonging to one of the many hotel complexes.