You can’t see the whole city from the air, but as the plane sails in over the sea I squint through the window and catch glimpses of a million golden lights shimmering in the night haze. In the distance, red beacons flit on and off atop the great glass super-towers, marking the boundaries of a new skyline on the flat desert terrain. It is sixty years since Edward Henderson first set foot on Abu Dhabi’s soil, and thirty-five since my own parents arrived. I wonder what they would have made of this ocean of lights. Would any of the three recognise the old Abu Dhabi in the sprawling metropolis below me? The small fishing community they knew has grown into a city.
As I step down onto the Tarmac, people rush past me onto the shuttle bus. I walk slowly, feeling the first puff of desert warmth on my face and bare arms. Then it’s a step up, and we’re off to the climate-controlled cool in which people live here.
Inside the spherical terminal building there are people everywhere. My heels tap across the sparkling marble floors as I head for the immigration hall. Frankincense wafts behind two women in flowing black abayas, the scent of old Arabia. A robed woman in a wheelchair sits in the doorway of the female-only prayer room and Filipino attendants, with buckets and huge grey mops, wash the floors. Men in immaculate white robes and headdresses, the kandura and ghutra, slide past. The women are as mysterious as night, floating past in black capes and decorated shaylah headscarves. They look untouchable, like idealised human forms, not quite real. Haven’t they always said here, “Say what you like, but dress as others do?” I feel grimy and under-attired as I slink into the “Other Passports” line and wait my turn.
We are a motley lot. Three exhausted Filipinas, a weary French couple, a Lebanese family with a hyperactive child, and a couple of lone businessmen in short-sleeved shirts stretched over thickening middles. An officer patrols the line. He has round eyes and a neatly trimmed beard—like a plump version of George Michael. His green uniform is pristine, stiff with epaulettes and buttons. For a moment, as he waits to send people to the desk, he looks as though he is about to cry. He calls me over with a flick of his finger. “Where you coming from?”
“London,” I say, with a quiver in my voice.
“Why you come here?”
“I used to live here. I want to see how much has changed.”
He arches his eyebrows. “When you were living here?” He makes it sound like an accusation.
“The seventies. I came when I was a small child and I’ve not been here since the millennium.”
He howls like a dog. “Whoo-hoo.” The sound echoes off the marble and people in other queues turn to look. “Many long time. Long time.”
He sings, “Abu Dhabi very big now. Very cool. You will not know anything from then. All is change.” He directs me to the booth on his right and mutters in Arabic to the immigration officer.
Sitting in his glass booth, in a freshly laundered kandura, the man tilts back in his chair and chuckles quietly. Then he begins to list the many improvements that have been made to the city, as if I had come to him for advice. “So many islands. Lulu Island, you can go there. Emirates Palace, very nice. Corniche, very nice hotels.”
He thumps the stamp on my passport and secures the immigration card inside. “Insha’ Allah. Go. Enjoy our new city.” He beams.
It was my brother Bill who first got me thinking about Abu Dhabi again. I was sitting on a commuter train going into London when he called from a small town in the Australian outback with an unlikely piece of news. “Get this,” he crowed. “They’re building a bloody Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi. Someone’s got his wallet out and been shopping.”
An offshoot of New York’s great temple of art? Surely not. When I last saw it, Abu Dhabi was a small town with a few medium-sized mosques, corner groceries, chaotically stocked shopping centres overrun with takeaways, like Maroush, Shakey’s Pizza, Snoopy’s, Hardee’s and Tata, fast-food franchises that never quite delivered the fast-food experience as you expected it. It certainly didn’t do high culture.
“Believe!” Bill laughed. “They’re going for it. They’ve done a deal with the French for the Louvre, too, and they’re about to get a Sorbonne. It’s like a franchise business. They might even be trying for a Tate. They’re going to build on Saadiyat.”
My heart twinged. Saadiyat was a place of coral sand and tufty beach grasses where we had camped regularly. The coast off Abu Dhabi was flecked with islets—Saadiyat, Reem, Bahrani and endless uncharted little drifts that had risen from the ultramarine seas. We used to go out on the boat most Fridays, following the fishermen, my father in shorts at the helm, my mother’s hair and scarves flying behind her in the coastal winds. The intense light bleached the skyline and the sea glinted silver. The fishermen, in wooden dhows, sanbuks and small jalboots, with outboards strapped to the back, would wave as they passed, as if we were friends. We waved back, part of the same salty fraternity. Idyllic.
Bill was rattling through the plans. Two giant ten-lane bridges were to link Saadiyat to the mainland, fast-tracking people to and from the airport and the city. There were to be culture domes and arts centres, even a museum created in honour of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, the founding father of the United Arab Emirates. “You’ve got to hand it to them.” Bill sighed. “The leaders have a vision and they’re making it reality.”
“You know how conservative they are. What are they going to put on the walls? There won’t be any nudes. It’ll be all landscapes, fruit bowls and abstracts.”
“They’ll make it work. They’ll do whatever it takes so long as they screw Dubai and the rest of them into the ground. Actually, I’ve read they’re already planning a huge Picasso retrospective.”
“Umm. His nudes are almost abstracts—but, still, they can’t just buy in art.”
“Twenty-seven billion dollars says they can,” he says.
“A reasonably compelling sum.”
This was a change of direction for Abu Dhabi. Even with the possibility of heavily censored content, the arrival of institutions like the Guggenheim signified a huge shift in intention. Until now, culture had never been a priority; there was the odd high-grade BBC TV import, The Bold and the Beautiful daytime soap from the US, Alan Ayckbourn plays at the Intercontinental Hotel, and occasional shows by bands that had fallen on hard times at home but whose members needed to pay their children’s school fees. I had seen them all—Aswad, Duran Duran, the Gary Glitter Gang Show. Glitter’s arrival, pre-scandal, had set the town buzzing with anticipation. As part of the team who organised the concert, at the Marina Club, a members’ beach resort, I remember a grumpy, overweight curmudgeon slouched in his dressing room, complaining about the heat and lack of VIP facilities, then demanding oxygen and a breathing mask.
Now, it seemed, there was to be a huge and expensive attempt to corral high culture and draw it into the mainstream. The question, of course, was whether Abu Dhabi’s Culture District could ever become a new Left Bank.
“Funny to think it’s all going to be on Saadiyat,” Bill said, almost in a whisper.
The background hiss on the line bloomed to fill the space between us. I knew that something had happened to him out there—he had once started to tell me but had stopped himself, saying it wasn’t the right time. I’d almost forgotten about it. Now it seemed wrong to press him, but I wondered if he was about to confess.
I had come to the capital of the UAE with my parents in 1974. I was three, the same age as the country. My father had taken a posting to manage Spinneys, a British-owned catering company. Set up in 1948 in Beirut, it had branched into fulfilling the growing needs of oil prospectors in the Gulf. As soon as reserves were confirmed and revenues began to flow, Spinneys had opened a large, air-conditioned supermarket in Abu Dhabi. Reassuringly expensive, seemingly modelled on Fortnum & Mason, it guaranteed the swelling population of expatriates a regular supply of Frank Cooper’s marmalade, Gentleman’s Relish, Bath Olivers and Worcestershire sauce.
By 1975 change was well under way. The seaside village of a thousand, living in the old barasti huts, made from palm fronds, was gone. Between the tyre tracks that crisscrossed the sand, asphalt roads were knitting together to form a well-planned seaside town. With them came new mosques, springing up to serve the tens of thousands settling there, all bound together by a common interest in oil.
The desert still had the upper hand. Everything was shrouded in the fine dust that blew invisibly on the breeze and sand piled up in every doorway. But Abu Dhabi finally had its own currency, the UAE dirham, having ditched the rupee and the Bahraini dinar. It also had an infant bureaucracy, housed in disorderly new ministries, managed by men learning how to administrate a nation state while building businesses on the side. An almost palpable sense of chaos and opportunity hung about the place. It was like California’s Sierra Nevada in the days of the gold rush.
My mother was stunned at the disarray that greeted her. A Surrey girl, she had married my father at the age of twenty-two and left England for Kerala, in India, then Kenya. Already used to living with unpredictability, she found herself dumbfounded by the chaos of such an unformed society. She reeled at the inhospitable terrain: her letters home tell of a town barely begun, of endless miles of fawn and white sand stretching in all directions to the horizon. The buildings were the same colour, there was not a green leaf to be seen and the roads, such as they were, trailed into dust at every turn. She dared not think about the people or where she would find friends. At first the locals had seemed remote and mysterious. My father, who had come out months before her, had warned her that the Arab was “an unknown quantity and the place an enigma”. When she arrived with Bill and me, he was there to meet her from the small terminal building at Abu Dhabi’s fledgling airport. As we drove down the single-lane road from the airport to the tip of the island, my father had reminded her not to expect too much. He had turned onto the sandy flat that led to the sea, and pulled up in front of a Portakabin on the beach. “It’s all there was, darling,” he explained apologetically. She concluded that it would be best to take life day by day and make the most of whatever kindnesses came her way. At least the sea offered relief from the sand. Writing home that first morning, as my brother and I slept, she told her parents she had come to nothing at “Sand-on-Sea”.
My father had taken the job in Abu Dhabi in preference to one in war-torn Sri Lanka. Alive though it was with potential, it was still considered a hardship posting. After several months of cultural immersion in London, during which the most important thing he learned was that understanding Arab taste and habit would be best achieved by watchful patience when he got there, he had set to work pulling into shape the ragbag team of British, Indians, Pakistanis, Palestinians, Syrians and Arabs. Several enthusiastic staff showed their affection for their new boss by flinging their arms around him every time he appeared at the office door. The British were the most troublesome—he hadn’t worked with any before, other than his old boss in Cochin—but he felt comfortable enough with everyone else to make it work. London expected nothing less than a bonded brotherhood of locals and foreigners, following the efficient, well-ordered creed of profit and loss.
My earliest memories are of a disheveled, dusty place as enchanting and mutable as the dunes surrounding it. Despite heat so blinding I would occasionally faint, I became captivated by the commotion of the souks, enjoying the attention of shopholders offering sweets, fruit and, sometimes, small pieces of silver. I loved hearing the shuffling squeak of sandals across sand, seeing the vast panoramas of my new world, and the absence of colour: everything was bright and white. Too young to know it then, I understand now that I was drawn to the thoughtfulness of Arab ways. They yearned to make those around them happy—to squeeze my cheeks until they ached—with a passion that was more than just the desire to please. Once they had taken to you, it was for ever.
One of my most vivid early memories is of a drive through the interior during a trip round the Arabian peninsula in the mid-1970s. Our convoy stopped in the palm groves leading to one of the outlying villages of the Buraimi oasis, the fertile area in the east of the Emirate close to Al Ain. Through a light mist I saw men in grey and white robes with thick curved knives in their hands, ringed by mounds of wool and thick white fat. Rivulets of bright red blood ran down the slope away from the village.
My father raised his arms in greeting. The men ran towards us. “Alhamdulillah, salaam alaikum, Eid Mubarak. Thanks be to Allah. Peace be upon you. May you enjoy this blessed occasion.” Soon every last villager had trailed over to where the Land Rovers were parked. Slowly they came forward, whispering to each other, ushering us towards the village. It was Eid al Fitr—the end of Ramadan—and we, my father told me, were an auspicious arrival. We ate with them. A few had jackets over their kandura. Some were barefoot, while others wore sandals. Their headdresses were tightly wound round their skulls and they looked like the desert brigands I had seen in books. They sat us on thick, woven rugs and gave us tea poured from a Thermos flask. My mother offered them 7 Up from one of the coolers in the car. The slaughtered sheep were roasted on stone-packed fires and a few hours later we ate. The meat was tender. It came with rice and soft dates.
These are earthy memories, impressions of a place where nothing ever happened quite as you imagined it would. The crumbled coral, coppery dust and the kind, yet secretive people merged into an unshakeable feeling. There remains in me a physical sense of having been in that desert place. Though the town was growing up around us, the wilderness was at the edge, never more than a moment away. Outside the town of Abu Dhabi the land was timeless, constantly shifting, covering civilisations, bringing peace and small trials. We left no trace. A sense of our smallness left its mark on us.
For several years I attended a small English-speaking school, the Al Khubairat, not far from where we lived. At ten I was sent back to England, to boarding-school, and my parents were posted to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Indonesia. After this hiatus they returned to Abu Dhabi, as many expatriates did, for another decade in the sun. By the time I was at university, I was visiting two or three times a year. After graduation I avoided the recession-bound UK, with its negative equity and grunge-rock obsession, for clear skies, fun and the promise of my first job. I became the subscriptions officer at the Marina Club; I was supposed to recruit new members and run promotions, part of a mixed-nationality team—British, Palestinian, Dutch, Swedish, Filipino and Indian. I saw my role as an opportunity to stage events and shows. Getting publicity wasn’t easy and it was difficult to find potential new recruits. But when you’re young persistence comes easily, and although the job was frothy and my achievements few, my boss told me my prospects were good: I could rise up the ranks of the parent company. Yet I knew I wouldn’t stay. Issues of injustices within this tight-knit, business-minded society attracted indifference. The enormous underclass of migrant labour cushioned life for the wealthy. The labour laws, if they were observed, were draconian, leaving workers without much in the way of rights, and dependent upon the good character of employers. “I’ll tell you what’s so great about Abu Dhabi,” a workmate had once said to me. “I had a set of lined curtains made and hung inside forty-eight hours. I could have had my carpet laid the same day too.” Chilled by such disregard for others, I knew I had to leave. The easy life in the Gulf’s shiny capital overwhelmed me.
I chose instead the damp, sunless uncertainty of London and a typing course. Friends told me I was a fool, but in 1993 Abu Dhabi was wrapped up in its own comfort. It had no time to turn a critical eye on itself. Besides, I had seen people with good intentions sink into easy routine, losing their drive, passion and values. One old-timer, who had done extremely well out of Abu Dhabi, referred to it as the Velvet Rut. “And that,” she warned me, “is the hardest rut to escape.”
It wasn’t that I hadn’t enjoyed myself there—far from it. I had spent some of the happiest moments of my life in Abu Dhabi, but, susceptible to the idea of real equality, I always ended up feeling guilty for taking advantage of a system in which people were valued differently, by race as well as profession. The hierarchy was unspoken but ritually observed and enshrined in law. No one attempted to challenge the status quo. No one broke from one stratum to another. Most of us were only guests in someone else’s country. There could be no gentle criticism or the suggestion that there might be room for change. More than that, censure of the system, and by association the leadership, was illegal. Prison or deportation faced those who spoke out. Either that, or they were discredited. I understood that people might do better than they would at home, in Peshawar or Goa, but I couldn’t rid myself of the awkward sense that I was at liberty while others lived in bondage: they were granted leave every two years to visit their families and forced to surrender their passports to their masters in between.
These were the choices that faced every resident. To stay on would have meant adopting local codes and standards or, at least, refraining from flouting them. From the outside this was a city whose purpose was defined by the creation of wealth and the appearance of success. I knew life would be lived on the surface. There were rich people, and powerful people, but no one outside the ruling classes was celebrated for being an individual, a maverick or a visionary. And yet, when I escaped to London, which was also filled with communities from around the world, I missed Abu Dhabi. The ease had bewitched a part of me. I found myself returning to visit family and friends several times a year. It was only after my parents had retired and left for good that I stopped going.
The intervening years have brought more change than seems possible, even for a city as fast-moving as Abu Dhabi. Unlike Dubai, built on the glitzy, headline-grabbing industries of property, tourism and financial services, each at the whim of international public opinion, Abu Dhabi has quietly grown rich on a more workaday mix of oil, gas, construction, utilities, manufacturing and the processing of chemicals, wood, fibreglass and plastics. It isn’t glamorous but robust commercial focus has allowed it to attain great wealth without most people having the slightest idea about where it is even located. Many residents say it is a city that changes its character every few years and now, with the attention being given to tourism and art, it seems to be preparing to shed another skin. I wonder if, in a region that is still vulnerable and unstable, it is leading the way in the creation of an open, artistic, tolerant Islamic state.
I’d read the odd report, and occasionally had emails from friends inviting me to stay if I was passing, but nothing suggested that fundamental change was afoot. Now I wondered if the little backwater I had known three decades ago might be about to come of age. When I was growing up, no one had ever heard of it—it hadn’t been half as rich or ambitious—but now it seemed to be casting off its traditionally insular ways to throw itself onto the world stage and into the limelight.
And why not? The Abu Dhabi I had known was home to decisive, if cautious, people, with a down-to-earth faith that singled them out from others in the Middle East, and a persistent, fatalistic nature born of travelling the sands. It was not a culture of intellectual standing, perhaps, but neither was it dogged by the weight of expectation, as other, older, centres in the region were. It had no history of being coveted by one civilisation after another. Left alone, the people had their own traditions and superstitions that dated from a time before Islam when they had worshipped the moon and the stars.
As for the rest of the Gulf, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was strait-jacketed by conservatism and still out of reach to non-Muslims, except by personal invitation. Oman, on the poorer, more beautiful south of the Arabian peninsula, was concerned with recasting itself as a holiday haven. Qatar and Bahrain were not making the grand cultural plans Abu Dhabi had in mind. And Dubai, the nineties and early noughties It-girl of the region, was floundering: its property boom had gone bust, and its orgy of consumerism had begun to irk even some Westerners, who wondered how a twenty-four-hour party city could reconcile its mile-long shopping malls, seven-star hotels and indoor snow parks with its Islamic roots. Abu Dhabi was preparing not simply to join the wider cultural fray but to dominate it. It had a plan, a big one.
I began to see references everywhere—in the newspapers, on TV, on the Internet, Frank Gehry proclaiming his vision for the desert city by the sea, and Fortune magazine pronouncing it the world’s richest city. The ruling al Nahyan family was rumoured to be worth $500 billion. Such riches made Russian energy oligarchs look like the comfortable poor.
It seemed the Culture District wasn’t the half of it: the city was on the brink of total transfiguration, from provincial oil town to global centre, bringing the world a Hong Kong for the Middle East. And it was happening. The first wave of museum openings, the Guggenheim and the Abu Dhabi Louvre, was due in 2013.
But all the talk of culture and sport—the Formula One decider was scheduled for 2009—was still bound up with the bottom line. Money, reputation and who was making how much looked to be of primary importance to Abu Dhabi, on paper at any rate. Even the Cultural District on Saadiyat Island was being developed by a tourist organisation. Was it about ushering in an era of cultural openness or merely getting into the culture business? I would go back and find out for myself. I dug out a few old numbers and started making arrangements. The people I had known when I was growing up would tell me what was happening, whether there was new artistic and media freedom, and I would talk to the men and women driving the engine of change to discover whether in fact this was just another attempt to promote the good name of Abu Dhabi to the world.
Given that Abu Dhabi is a closed monarchy, the motivation of its leaders is not always clear. In 2004 the current ruler, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan, succeeded his father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, as leader of both the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and president of the UAE. With his ambitious half-brother, Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, crown prince and deputy supreme commander of the UAE armed forces, he is piloting Abu Dhabi towards a new and defining era. Whether these dynastic guardians of the nation are setting themselves up as twenty-first-century benefactors or simply attempting to preserve their own position, they lead a complicated arrangement of bodies and councils that balances the administration of a modern state with service to tribal groups. In Abu Dhabi the Executive Council, a local cabinet led by the crown prince, controls the ministries and departments, from transport and finance to culture and heritage. Khalifa has a diwan, or court, of his own and this, holding the highest office in the Emirates, is counterbalanced by various ancillary assemblies. They include Mohammed’s diwan, the National Consultative Council, made up of members of Abu Dhabi’s prominent families and directly connected to Khalifa’s diwan, the Supreme Petroleum Council, also headed by Khalifa, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, the Municipal Council and the Defence Authority. These bodies are interwoven with the same people, members of the ruling family and other leading clans, with decisions always dependent on a final monarchical vote, or veto. As president of the UAE, Khalifa chooses his prime minister—traditionally the ruler of Dubai—and cabinet, while the forty-strong Federal National Council is only an advisory body to the government. In 2006 twenty of the FNC representatives were voted in after the UAE’s first elections. Of the 800,000-strong Emirati population the eligible electorate stood at 6,689, each one chosen by the rulers of the Emirates. The remaining twenty, weighted in favour of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, were also appointed by the rulers. It may be a benign system but it is no less absolute.
I had been sent Plan Abu Dhabi 2030: Urban Structure Framework Plan. This blueprint document, produced by the Executive Council, set out a quarter-century of coordinated development for the city and its surrounding areas: physically Abu Dhabi should grow into a city that is exemplary within the Arab region and the world. The book states, “This urban plan provides a strong and comprehensive foundation for the development of the city of Abu Dhabi, in a strategic and co-ordinated way. It will ensure that future generations will continue to enjoy and be inspired by ongoing access to the desert, sea and natural assets that are integral to our national identity, while building a global capital with its own rich cultural heritage.”
It looks like a telephone directory, with page after page of detail on what, when and how the city will transform itself, from building heights and land use across the metropolitan domain to transport schemes and achieving social equilibrium. The government is bankrolling change on a scale never before seen in human history. The timetable is precise. Step by step, Abu Dhabi is to become a terminus for culture and business, a centre for bankers, interior designers and artists, filmmakers and musicians leading the way in new technologies and sustainable living. Built on Arab community values, every aspect, from population, culture, economy, environment and leisure to education, has been plotted like a child’s join-the-dots puzzle. There are even plans for a string of satellite cities along the newly built offshore islets, linking green quarters and public spaces, cultural precincts, aerial walkways and highways, tunnels and trams. In other schemes people talk of sky cities, high-rise needles with cloud systems generated from silver-nitrate mist, and Star Wars-like spherical cities in the desert. These are the new ideals for living and by 2030 the rulers of Abu Dhabi want 3.5 million people to be enjoying them.
A triumph of ambition over common sense? It reminded me of the Third Reich’s plan for the Welthauptstadt Germania, the marble-clad vision of Berlin that would have sunk the city into the marshy ground it stood on, had it ever been built. More benignly, perhaps, it resembles the United States’ establishment of a new permanent capital on the Potomac river (the thirty-second location suggested and the only one grudgingly agreed on by northern and southern states) in its bid to mark the nation’s arrival.
While the Caterpillars and ballast freighters broke ground on home soil, Abu Dhabi had also begun its expansion outwards, buying up strategic assets around the world to ensure its people are protected when the oil runs dry. Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan, another of Khalifa’s half-brothers, was emerging into the public eye as a model investor. Media coverage showed advisers coming to buy Manchester City Football Club for a couple of hundred million, and the tabloids were splashed with chirpy headlines: “Abu Dhabi Doo,” “Trillion-dollar Wealth of New Manchester City Owner,” and “How I Learned to Love Sheikh Mansour.” He invested the considerably higher sum of £3.5 billion in Barclays Bank for a huge stake in its equity. Elsewhere Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth funds have bought into foreign businesses and institutions. The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, with solvency close to $1,000 billion, has taken slices in Citigroup, the Chrysler Building and a constantly expanding property portfolio across London, Paris, Milan, New York and Los Angeles. With more than $1 trillion now invested abroad Abu Dhabi, known for its reluctance to reveal details of its wealth, has shown strategic intent: by plugging holes in the Western economies, it is writing Abu Dhabi into the big picture.
Sheikh Mansour has pulled back the curtain on the private wealth of the royals. The purchase of his stake in Barclays gave the public a first glimpse of the relationship between the ruling family and their money. It has shaken the tradition of understatement, a characteristic of Islamic humility and the Abu Dhabian tradition of circumspection. On the world stage, with the media free to comment as they please, journalists and bloggers are debating what the buy-in meant. There were certain to be strings attached. It was the Abu Dhabian way. Business meant deeds done and favours returned, no questions asked.
Everything always used to run on wasta, the influence one had over others, and baksheesh, the backhanders that made the system flow with willingness and goodwill. My parents received gifts regularly from staff returning after bi-annual leave to Egypt, Syria, Jordan, India and Sri Lanka. They appreciated there had to be a little give-and-take—on the advice of a colleague my father had taken an expensive gold Rolex, bought by the company, to a sheikh with whom they were seeking to curry favour. My mother was lavished with free produce and never a fil accepted in payment. Where the general oiling of the wheels and outright bribery and blackmail began and ended, no one was ever sure. Indebtedness was the custom. Could urban planners and big foreign-investment deals ever really unpick such old habits?
What was certain was that Abu Dhabi’s ambition would put pressure on its cosy provincial ways. It was not whether the urban planning of 2030 was achievable but whether the government was ready to permit its society the kind of freedoms necessary to allow artistic culture to flourish. It was all very well buying up cultural equity but what did the government intend to do with it? It seemed a risky undertaking for such a small country, without experience of or passion for the arts, marked by well-known limitations on free speech, religious conservatism and social prudence. Creative expression had never attracted much attention. It was not easy to imagine a Renoir, a Tracey Emin or even a Dickens, all chroniclers of social truth, carving out a career in Abu Dhabi. The highest-profile artists were those who painted straightforward portraits of the royal family, prize falcons and horses.
As for the rest of the world, what kind of values could it expect Abu Dhabi to bring with it? Were the ways of the desert coming west, or was a new hybrid personality reflecting a multicultural city?
I leave Customs with my bland grey wheelie suitcase. Diminutive Asian men scurry around, nodding, eager to pull it along for me. “Taxi, madam. Take bag, madam.”
“Hotel. Only best places.”
I’d forgotten how people trail others here, women trailing men, servants trailing their masters, the young trailing the experienced. With the Indians trailing me, it’s like being back in the old souk.
A taxi veers across the road and screams to a halt in front of me. The door flings open and a Pakistani man, in salwar khameez, jumps out, lifts my case into the open boot and guides me towards the door in one fluid movement.
“Marhaba, downtown, please,” I say, struggling to recall the peculiar blend of English, Arabic and Urdu that is essential for getting around town, “Near the Corniche. An apartment, yani. I will show you.” I reach for the seat buckle and he shoots onto the wide, straight highway of neon that runs into the city.
He grins at me in the rear-view mirror with huge yellow tombstone teeth. His eyes are wide and shining. Unusually long, his hair has been stained red and curls over his Nehru collar. “Yes, yes. We go town now. We go there. Ha-ha. First time in Abu Dhabi?” he shouts, over a tape of frenzied devotional music.
“I used to live here.”
“I am Irfan.” He looks round at me while I gaze straight ahead. “I show you the city. I give you my card. You need taxi, you call me.”
“Thanks. Your taxi smells nice.” It reeks of some sea-breezish scent.
He giggles loudly, high-pitched, like a girl. “Yes, yes. You want to try it?”
“No, I’m fine. Thank you.”
“Please, look, look. I have many perfumes. I don’t know why. I love perfume.” He pulls four glass bottles from the glove compartment and hands one to me. “Try one, try one.” Perfume fills the car. I will him to keep his eyes on the road.
It is hard to see the scrub beyond the spheres of light as we bowl along. The many lanes of traffic have been fenced off and lined with evenly planted rows of palms. They used to do this to stop sand drifts from building up on the road. Porsche Cayennes, Range Rovers, Nissan Patrols and blacked-out Mercedes weave erratically between each other like giant slalom skiers. Foolhardy beige-and-white taxis hunt each other down with their horns. Almost every vehicle is immaculate, glinting, predatory beneath the streetlights. Against the palms this gully of asphalt takes on a futuristic air—it’s like hurtling into someone else’s science-fiction vision.
As we cross the Maqta Bridge to Abu Dhabi Island, Irfan points at the immense floodlit white marble and gold exterior of Sheikh Zayed’s mosque, a new structure that I have heard is one of the world’s largest. “You are Muslim?”
“Ah, it is very beautiful mosque. Holy place. Zayed buried there.” Irfan nods to me. “Inside.” Sheikh Zayed, who ruled Abu Dhabi from 1966 until 2004, wanted to create a stadium of faith for his God. It took ten years and 2 billion dirhams to build, and he died before it was completed.
“Fifty thousand men can go inside,” Irfan says. “Many, many coming for prayers. Largest Persian carpet in the world. You should go.”
“Yes, yes. Christians can go and look. Women can go and look. Everyone can see inside it. In Abu Dhabi it is OK. They want you to know about it.”
It looks like a huge wafting cloud of Paradise, millions of tonnes of marble and gold, bringing Qur’ânic wisdom to the people of the city. Countless domes and minarets rise into the night sky. The equivalent of the dramatic church spires and cathedrals built across Europe during the Renaissance—or perhaps the Vanderbilts’ Grand Central Station or the Twin Towers—this mosque is an icon for the world.
We hit the downtown traffic. Zayed may have passed away, but on the streets he is still very much alive. Images of him, revered as the father of the city, are everywhere. His people cannot quite let go, it seems, and he reigns on, credited with taking the poor, forgotten sheikhdom and caretaking its growth into a peaceful, powerful nation state. Vast awnings for property and telecoms companies hang from high-rises, radiating slogans in nonsensical English: “Add Life to Life”, “The Reflection of Nature in Your World”, “Living the Art of Life.” Images of the old Arabia, camels, coffee pots and smiling captains on dhows, wink hopefully between them. It’s difficult to tell what chasm exists between advertising and reality. The whole place is even more brightly lit close up than it was from the sky. A couple of decades ago, all this neon would have crashed the struggling power grid.
“I show you city. No extra cost. Just twenty dirhams.”
“Why not? Let’s do it,” I say.
He smiles and loops round along the eastern stretch of the Corniche. “Look, there, big development.” He flicks his fingers and gestures into the distance. The Al Raha Beach construction project has reclaimed 5 million square metres of coastline to create a beachfront suburb in the Abu Dhabi-Dubai highway.
“Big houses for super-duper rich mans. Maybe I will live there.” He cackles.
“How many are they building?”
“Many, many thousands houses.”
“We used to go to the mangroves,” I say. “They were full of shells and crabs.”
He looks at me in the mirror as if I’m mad. On a nearby billboard a man in loose white shirt and trousers balances a child on his knee with an apartment complex behind him. It’s an idea of living but not an actual life. Ahead of us traffic inches along.
“Is there an accident?”
“No, no, traffic terrible, always terrible. Many, many cars in Abu Dhabi and nowhere to park. The man has a car, the woman has a car. The man has another car and another car. His children have car too. A different car for every day. Too much. Always terrible driving. All local comes out at night. Likes to drive around. You like to go out. Many, many nightclub, all hotel have nightclub. Hilton on beach. Boom boom. Crazy-time party.” He giggles again. “But I no go here. I have no money for nightclub.”
We creep into a mosaiced underpass. I feel I should know this place but I don’t. Cranes are still moving; lifts run up and down the half-built skyscrapers as men work through the night. A pair of long-necked winches arc across the night sky. Buildings are patterned with Arab motifs, arches, latticework and turquoise glass. The lines follow the curves of the Islamic crescent moon. It makes the skyline of the late 1990s seem Lilliputian.
Sheikh Zayed had kept the pace of change under control. Before his death there had been a brake on development, a kind of natural sympathy with what was deemed appropriate. The next generation of decision-makers observe no such limits. In the four years following Zayed’s death there has been more construction than there was in the previous forty. For Khalifa and Mohammed nothing is too audacious or expensive. The country is rich enough—420,000 citizens with an average net worth of $17 million each. And a whole lot more oil money goes undisclosed. My father used to say the sudden arrival of money was like everyone in rural Cornwall winning the lottery overnight. Barely two generations on, families who scarcely scraped a living from fishing, camel-rearing, date-farming and goat-herding have become sophisticated consumers of the very finest and most expensive lifestyle the world has to offer.
“Abu Dhabi Mall, Marina Mall, many malls and shops,” Irfan sings, waving both arms indiscriminately as we stop and start in the middle lane. “Everything here. Designer perfume!”
“We’ve got malls like this at home. I’d rather go down to the souk. That’s my kind of shopping.”
“Ha! No more souk. Old souk all gone. You will see.” He sniggers. “Everything from old gone now. New centre coming.”
On the corner of Hamdan Street I finally see something I recognise: the Automatic restaurant where we used to hang out. It bears a sign that reads, “Established 1976.”
Outside, the same fake grass and cheap plastic umbrellas welcome customers. A young chef in the window shaves strips of chicken into pockets of flat Arabic bread with the sleight of hand usually reserved for magicians. He wraps up several such sandwiches, shawarma, in seconds. We turn off the main drag and creep through the back-streets. Labourers from Pakistan and Bangladesh squat silently by the roadside in overalls, eating and staring; a Filipina girl in capri pants and a T-shirt runs across the grass and trips over a coil of hosepipe; Indian shopkeepers slouch against bales of cloth inside a line of fabric stores. Oddments of English jump out from the signs: “We Have Oversize for Big and Tall People,” “Titanic Electric,” “Ready Made Garment Apparel Shop,” and “Lucky 1st Chance Love Flowers.”
My disorientation on returning brings Wilfred Thesiger to mind. The explorer spent years protecting and serving his companions in the harsh conditions of the Arabian peninsula during the 1940s and early 1950s, writing Arabian Sands as a homage to the nobility of those people who guided him across the desert. But when he returned to the Gulf in 1977 he almost died of fright at the pace of the modernisation that had consumed the place and its people. His shock soon turned to angry reproach.
Thesiger was the last of the adventurers in the old British tradition. In many ways he was a self-declared anachronism. Britain was losing its influence as the dominant world power and Thesiger, a child of empire, born at the British Legation in Addis Ababa and unapologetically privileged, represented the last of that tiny élite of British Arabists to be seduced by the romance of the desert and the wild barbarism of its people. There was quite a group—T. E. Lawrence, Wilfred and Anne Blunt, Charles Doughty—and Thesiger was the final outsider to be afforded time to live in the world of the charismatic masters of the sands. He turned his back on the advantages that followed an education at Eton and Oxford for the precarious world of the Arabian peninsula. Like T. E. Lawrence before him, Thesiger embraced the austere, disciplined way of life that the desert demanded. To someone familiar with the cold and forbidding regimen of a British boarding-school, it promised fresh terrain and superior trials. Enforced endurance befitted the man he wanted to become, and he loved the sands more for the conditions in which they forced him to live than their beauty. “The everyday hardships and danger, the ever-present hunger and thirst, the weariness of long marches: these provided the challenges of Bedu life against which I sought to match myself, and were the basis of the comradeship which united us.” The Bedu belief that satisfaction in any task was in inverse proportion to the effort required was, he said, the most strikingly beautiful expression of humanity there was. “Among no other people,” he wrote, “have I ever felt the same sense of personal inferiority.”
What he got in return were men who would become his great love, a people whose strength of character matched his. They took on Thesiger as one of their own, naming him Mubarak bin London, teaching him the codes and intimacies of the desert brotherhood, about the tribes, the lore, how to greet others with broad overarm waves and the tossing of sand into the air, how to hunt with falcons, where to spot the tracks of a hare. And while he was among them, the Rashid considered him a member of their tribe. When he spoke of Zayed’s prowess in the desert as a hunter and falconer, he did so as a Bedu. All he ever wanted was to be at one with them, to starve when they starved, to rejoice when they rejoiced, to retain their confidence in return for his own dependence.
The poignancy of Thesiger’s writings and photographs comes from his appreciation that the “barbaric splendour” of the Bedu way of life would not last more than another few years. With the Second World War at an end, prospectors from Britain, America and France courted the leaders of the desert tribes on the Arabian peninsula. Having successfully tapped reserves in Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, these oilmen were eager to search territories further south. Geologists were convinced that the thick seam running south from Iraq would yield as far down as Abu Dhabi. Indistinguishable from their diplomatic counterparts, these men were the heralds of change. When Thesiger left Arabia, from the sandy airstrip in Sharjah in the autumn of 1950, he knew he was going into exile from the place he had come to know as home.
During that ill-fated trip in 1977 he was barely able to contain his resentment. His Arabia had disappeared and he wanted it back. Blaming oil and the car for the destruction of his beautiful wilderness, his preface to a reprint of Arabian Sands was peppered with bile about the fate of the people he had believed the most virtuous on earth. The barefoot Bedu had become lazy, content to ride around in saloon cars. He wondered where the patience, wit and resourcefulness that had defined them had gone. The men had grown fat on rich food. The women were left with little to occupy themselves now that their role had been taken over by cheap labour from the Indian sub-continent. And surrounding the fallen people, a wash of fawning expatriates were drunk on their newly acquired status. Like a lover betrayed, he declaimed this new Abu Dhabi as “the final disillusionment.”
Thesiger’s bitterness arose from his childlike expectation that the Bedu would want the life he would have chosen for them. Yet he was not unconnected with their modernisation. It was after meeting Locust Control Officer O. B. Lean, who was looking for a man to collect information on locust movements and breeding grounds, that he was given the opportunity to travel through the southern part of Arabia. It was an alluring offer, and with the protection of his tribal companions he became only the third outsider to have crossed the Empty Quarter, the deserts that ballooned out from the south-west of Abu Dhabi’s territory into Oman and Saudi Arabia. It was a great irony that his data and maps were later used to help oil prospectors navigate the featureless terrain.
In my suitcase I have a small book sponsored by the oil giant BP about the final trip Thesiger made to Abu Dhabi in 1990. Few copies were printed. As an old man of eighty, in failing health, he made one last trip back with the blessing of Sheikh Zayed to attend an exhibition of his photographs.
Meticulously turned out in suit and tie, he was welcomed as a returning hero. Sheikh Zayed stepped forward to thank him for giving his people an image of themselves that would otherwise have been forgotten. To the urbanised young, the pictures were a revelation, a shocking glimpse of the gulf between their fathers’ and grandfathers’ lives and the present. The portraits of lean young Arab men—in robes, and ammunition belts with Khanjar daggers and guns wedged into them, their hair long over their shoulders, black eyes, handsome and high-cheekboned—testified to a distant, forgotten and dramatic world. They looked like mythical warriors, legends that time should have treasured, not discarded.
The book chronicles the final reunion between Thesiger and two tribesmen he had travelled with, bin Ghabaisha and bin Kabina. These once vital young men were white-haired and shrunken, content in the sunset of their lives, with children and grandchildren to carry forward their achievements. There is a snapshot of the three men standing at Birkat al Mauz, a picturesque village in the interior of Oman, like three elderly tourists at the gates of history.
In his twilight years, Thesiger conceded that change had always been inevitable. Though he chose to live in solitude and without electricity in a small house in Kenya, he accepted that life in the modern world had been a welcome advance for most Arabs. He called modern Abu Dhabi a place of dignity and beauty. Given the choice of whether to rise out of disease and extreme hardship, his treasured race had run for the prize and never looked back. Herbs or hospitals? Cars or camels? There was no contest.
Irfan floors the accelerator as we escape another set of lights. I am thrown back in my seat and his speedometer hits 120 kilometres per hour. “Mafi, mafi. Sway, sway. No, no. Slow, slow,” I shout. I’ve seen the YouTube footage of the world’s biggest car crash—two hundred vehicles mangled on the highway between Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
“Ha! You don’t want go fast? You are scared!”
I grit my teeth. “No, it’s OK, you can go fast.” This city demands surrender. You have to fall in with the unpredictable pace of things. Momentarily overwhelmed with terror and exhilaration, I feel an unexpected wave of affection for the place.