Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Abu Dhabi: The wind, the sand, yourself

LIWA, United Arab Emirates — In the dunes outside Liwa, the wind conveys nothing on its back. The edge of the Rub al Khali is so dead the air transmits no sound and your voice carries no farther than inside the empty quarter of your own skull. The Bedouin called these million square miles of emptiness the Sands or al Rimal. The expansive sand and sky can make one feel insignificant. But there’s a certain serenity in that knowledge.

Only in the desert, the Bedouin told the British Arabist and adventurer Wilfred Thesiger, could a man find freedom. “It must have been this same craving for freedom which induced tribes that entered Egypt at the time of the Arab conquest to pass on through the Nile Valley into the interminable desert beyond, leaving behind them the green fields, the palm groves, the shade and running water, and all the luxury which they found in the towns they had conquered.”

Instead of escaping green fields and palm groves to head into the desert, one now goes to the desert outside Abu Dhabi to clear one’s mind, to flee the Champagne brunches in rotating restaurants atop 30-storey hotels, to escape the endless energy and hype. Before the mid-1970s, it was a five-day trip by camel caravan. Today, the road to Liwa is a paved, straight shot through nothingness, interrupted by the occasional palm-frond home, or arish, and camel farm. It’s a peek at what life in the emirate might have looked like 30 or 40 years ago before oil created this Arab El Dorado. Along the way, you pass hundreds of emaciated palm and ghaf trees, whose tendril roots search out water 30 metres below. Greening the desert was the vision of the country’s founding president, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, but like many dreams, it was a pipe dream (appropriate because oil created the wealth to plant the trees in the first place).

The city of Liwa grew from 52 Bedouin settlements that once gathered around the water wells and groves of date palms. Most of the settlers were from the Bani Yas federation and the Manasir tribe. These were old tribes, who peopled the desert in the summer and the coast in the winter. These were Maliki Sunnis who fought the scripturally doctrinaire Wahhabis, from the lands of the house of Saud to the west. Their fighting in the 1800s and 1900s led to the creation of the frontier, a line drawn in the sand, between Saudi Arabia and what would become the U.A.E. Liwa sits on the edge of that line.
The earliest permanent structures in the Liwa area were forts from which the Bani Yas protected their oases. These date to the early 19th century, though almost all of them were rebuilt in the 1980s, the tendency in the U.A.E. being to either rebuild or reproduce rather than simply maintain heritage buildings. Two that remain from the 1800s are the Hayla Tower, a single cylinder of about eight metres in height, made of clay, gypsum and sarouj sand; and Um Hosn, or Arrada, an isolated three-metre-high single tower.

A more modern structure is the Liwa Hotel, a white 1970s-style elephant perched on a rocky outcrop, the only significant hill in town. The hotel itself is fair. Staff is attentive and all smiles. There’s a pool of refreshingly cool water, and the restaurant serves the standard fare of Abu Dhabi: Lebanese or Arabic mezze and a variety of Indian dishes. At night the restaurant is a club, where a Filipina singer and her accompanist on his electronic keyboard take requests and the best-quality import is Heineken. (Tourists can drink alcohol legally in some emirates, but only in licensed hotels.) The multi-star alternative, with gorgeous views of the desert and an infinity pool, is the Qasr al-Sarab Hotel.

The Liwa Hotel is a convenient meeting point for a day or two-day excursion in the Empty Quarter. Pickup is generally toward the late afternoon, an hour or so before sunset. In a 4x4 sport-utility vehicle you’ll be taken off road into the desert on hard-packed sand tracks that fade like a mirage until you’re off-off road and rising and dipping, slipping, sliding, revving along a road only the driver knows, only the driver can see. This is not a drive you want to make on your own. U.A.E. newspapers are filled with stories of would-be dune-bashers who get lost in the sand. Knowing the movement of these slowly shifting mounds is the secret behind desert driving. Then, a sharp left and a serpentine descent and you’re in a Mars-like crater hollowed out by the wind.

Two- to three-man tents for those planning to spend the night are already set up, along with photosensitive lanterns — the sun sets quickly and determinedly in the desert — and a couple of barbecue drums: one for vegetables, another for chicken. While the fat drips and inflames the fire, and the aubergine, onion, carrots and red potatoes char, you drift away along the endless striations of cayenne-coloured sand. Up one hill to the summit of another, and yet another: a gently unfolding blanket. Two hundred feet up, you stop and turn and there is no one, no thing, no sound. You, yourself, are nothing here.

There is movement, however. Tiny grains sweep over the sand, pushed forward by an invisible force, seeming to form curlicues at your sandalled feet, then stopping, then rushing away.

Getting there: Etihad flies direct to Abu Dhabi from Toronto. Air Canada, Lufthansa, British Airways and others have one-stop flights. The difference between direct and one-stop can be as much as $800, and the time saved only about four hours.

Staying there: The Cassells Hotel Apartments costs $75 U.S. a night and the Emirates Palace Hotel, $450. There’s a lot in between, including two Sheratons and the InterContinental. Le Meridien, where I stayed for a week, is a steal at $94. There’s a Royal Meridien as well for a few dollars more.

Getting around: The city is built on a grid, but most buildings are unnumbered. Know the name of the building you seek. Cabs are ubiquitous and cheap. For longer trips, to the oases of Liwa or Al-Ain, to Dubai, or any of the other emirates, rent a car or take a bus from the central bus station.

Currency: The dirham is pegged 3.67 to the U.S. dollar.

Entertainment: Completion of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums has been delayed until 2015 at the earliest. ­Ferrari World has been open since 2010. There are several malls with varying degrees of glitz and bling: Abu Dhabi Mall, Al-Wahda, Marina, Mushrif and Khalidiyah. There are shopping plazas as well, mostly with groceries or inexpensive juice and sandwich shops. A falafel sandwich at such a shop will cost about four dirhams and tiny bakeries sell flatbread discs for one dirham.

Making yourself understood: Because 85 per cent of the population of the U.A.E. are foreign-born workers, most people speak English, to varying degrees of success.

Holidays and store closings: Friday is the Muslim holy day. Prayers at the mosque generally let out about 1 p.m., at which point stores reopen.

What to wear: Be modest. For men: no shorts. For women: no shorts, cover your shoulders and arms.

Weather: December through April has high daytime ­temperatures in the 20s with little humidity.

On the UAE’s 42nd National Day, Abu Dhabi celebrates its past, present and future

ABU DHABI // On an April day in 1958, with the days already growing warmer, the men from the oil company took a gift to the Ruler.

In his majlis at Qasr Al Hosn they handed over several small bottles, tightly stoppered and filled with a viscous, dark-brown liquid.

This was the day that Sheikh Shakhbut learnt oil had been found in Abu Dhabi, and with its discovery came the realisation that the lives of his people would soon change forever.

Outside the walls of the palace fortress, barely 2,000 inhabitants went about their daily lives. They lived mostly in arish palm-frond huts, with a few larger coral block buildings for wealthier merchants and members of the Royal Family.
For the lucky few, there were labouring jobs at the oil-exploration base on Das Island. Others scraped a living from fishing or raising livestock.

Food was often scarce, fresh water to be found only in temporary wells dug in the sand. There was a single madrasa school for boys only, but no hospital.

Once a year, a doctor made the journey from Dubai. Those who fell ill between his visits might die, as did up to one in three women during childbirth.

Sixty-five years later, we are blessed to live in a very different Abu Dhabi. Those arish houses around Qasr Al Hosn are long gone, replaced by office towers and shops that offer almost anything from anywhere in the world.
Few cities on the planet can claim to have seen the astonishing changes brought to Abu Dhabi in less than the span of a man’s life.

Here is a city that speaks to the world, whether it is at the annual Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Yas Island, or through the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Authority.

In the summer of 1966, Sheikh Zayed became Ruler of Abu Dhabi and began his grand vision for his city.
An international airport was built, with a runway capable of handling transcontinental jets. It cut down the centre of the island, reaching Hamdan Street, the centre of the growing commercial district.

In homes equipped with such luxuries as air conditioning, running water and electric lighting, Bedouin families were persuaded to adopt city life.

Mina Zayed was built to handle the flood of consumer goods demanded by a newly prosperous population. The Corniche, on land reclaimed from the sea, gave the city breathing space, along with parks and trees to soften the landscape of concrete.

By the 1980s, Abu Dhabi, now the capital of the UAE, had begun to resemble the city we see today. Its importance was underlined by the creation of the GCC in 1981, the leaders of the six member nations meeting for the first time at the city’s InterContinental Hotel.

With the passing of Sheikh Zayed in 2004, the accession of Sheikh Khalifa underlined the continuity and unity of the nation, but ushered in the next stage of the city’s development.

Expressed in the Vision 2030 plan, it describes an Abu Dhabi – still 17 years distant today – that has broken far beyond the confines of the island to become a 21st century metropolis.

Many of the ideals expressed in Vision 2030 are already becoming reality. The completion of the Emirates Palace hotel in 2005 established Abu Dhabi as a destination for the world’s most discerning travellers.
On Saadiyat Island, progress is well advanced on the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the first of three museums that will create the Cultural District, starting in 2015.

On Yas Island, the Ferrari World theme park and Yas Waterworld, which opened this year, will be joined by a huge new mall, the second-largest in the country.

These latest changes signal a fundamental shift in the city’s axis, away from the island and out to the rapidly expanding suburbs of Khalifa and Mohammed bin Zayed cities, and the planned waterfront communities of Al Raha Beach.
This is the Abu Dhabi of the future, as embodied by Masdar City, the still-expanding research institute and community that is founded on principles of environmental sustainability.

Where there was once nothing, there is now a burning aspiration to match the world’s best.
The class of 2014 will be the first to graduate from New York University Abu Dhabi. Then there is the Cleveland Clinic on Al Maryah Island, the new financial heart of the capital, and the vast new Khalifa Industrial Zone.
This National Day, a celebration of 42 years of the UAE, is an opportunity to look back at how far a small fishing village has come – and to marvel at what still lies ahead.