I write this article with a smile, the kind that rises slowly, irresistibly, and unapologetically — the same one that overcame me as I drove up to the Emirates Palace; the same smile that had me glowing when I was upgraded to business class while flying Etihad Airways; and the same one that marks my satisfaction every time I review photos from my trip. Abu Dhabi, you win. I adore you, and I can honestly say that I am fascinated by your culture, politics, economy, architecture, people, and of course, shockingly exponential growth.
Quite frankly, I didn’t know much about Abu Dhabi before my arrival. All I knew was that I could at least capture great symmetry at the Grand Shiekh Zayhed Mosque — a bucket list *check.*
In my home base community, I have never met an Emirati. I knew little about Muslim culture and the Middle East outside of the war and controversy portrayed by the media. Given that media portraits of Islam are not always cohesive, I thought I would share a little bit about one of my new favorite cities in the world: Abu Dhabi.
1. Abu Dhabi is the capital of the UAE (United Arab Emirates), a country only forty-three years young.
As I drove past palm trees and palaces, it was unbelievable to fathom that fifty years ago, thesee roads were all dry desert — nothing but tents and camels. It was the leader of the Abu Dhabi region who united the seven arab nations, forming the UAE and implementing all infrastructure. President Sheikh Khalifa transformed a desert economy stimulated by agriculture into an international hub for fashion, fast cars, and fabulous people.
As Abu Dhabi remains true to its heritage, you book a desert safari tour complete with a sand dunes experience, dinner, belly dancing, a camel farm, and sand boarding (it’s like snow boarding, but on sand). I booked with Hala Tours, partner with Etihad Airways … and this happened:
Yes, the Austrian family I met looks like the face of an ad. They were very sweet and pretty much adopted me for a half a day.
2. Abu Dhabi has a competitive flair in architecture and design and holds a series of world records including:
Biggest mosque dome, largest carpet, largest mosaic, and until 2012, the biggest chandelier in the world at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
The first Gold ATM at the most expensive hotel in the world: Emirates Palace (until 2011).
But yes, it dispenses gold, and you can purchase a cameluccino with gold specs.
The first flying apartment: “The Residence by Etihad” is a premium 3-bedroom luxury cabin complete with a butler on a Boeing A380. Etihad Airways is a five time winner of the ‘World’s Leading Airline’ at the World Travel Awards, and is the national airline of the UAE.
Most leaning building in the world: Capital Gate Building at 18 degrees.
Highest bridge on Earth: Abu Dhabi’s Gate Towers.
The fastest roller-coaster within the largest theme park on Earth: The Formula Rossa at Ferrari World
3. Utopia? No poverty, no homeless, no problems with health care or unemployment.
Given very strict laws and culture, you’ll never get cat-called walking in Abu Dhabi. The streets are cleaner than authoritarian Singapore. I felt incredibly safe throughout my stay.
4. Abu Dhabi is a diverse, international epicenter with an expat to Emirati ratio of 9 to 1.
Happy people are friendlier people, and I felt at ease with everyone I met throughout my stay. People come from all over the world to Abu Dhabi not just to visit, but to stay. My tour guides were from Belgium and India, the hotel ambassador from Bucharest, my driver from the Philippines, and fellow tourists were from Austria. Only 16.5% of residence are Emiratis, meaning that over 80% of residence are international expats.
5. It’s a tax-free zone attracting business travelers from around the world ideal for shopping and perfect for stop-overs.
Geographically located between Europe and Asia, Abu Dhabi has become a hot spot for international business. Other than the CIF (Cost, Insurance, and Freight) and a duty rate lower than those of most countries, the UAE does not impose a sales tax, custom fees, or other taxes. This is extremely attractive to individuals and global corporations. The shortage of taxes also deems Abu Dhabi (and Dubai) prime for luxury shopping.
” The UAE is the United States’ single largest export market in the Middle East, with more than $22 billion in exports in 2012 – the fourth straight year the UAE has held this distinction.” UAE Embassy- U.S. Relations
Furthermore, Abu Dhabi is the perfect stop-over location. I was traveling from Los Angeles to Bangkok and was able to to see so much of Abu Dhabi in just a few days! It also conveniently offers U.S. Customs at the Abu Dhabi airport so you can skip the line at LAX (or your respective U.S. airport) after your sixteen hour flight. If you are on a short trip, I suggest traveling business class to get full meals and a bed to sleep in throughout your flight. Otherwise, save with an economy ticket and invest it in an Abu Dhabi stopover to see the most fascinating city in the world for two to five days.
Beware: you just might not leave. After all, it’s an expat epicenter.
TOLERANCE: Afterthoughts on Islam and Abu Dhabi politics and culture.
I don’t typically include commentary on the religious or political sociology of the destinations I visit. You would think I was silly if I threw in crime rates speaking of Los Angeles and New York or mentioned how the U.S. has managed to start a few wars. However, Arabic culture has faced severe media backlash, particularly in relation to Islamic extremists. Ironically, the UAE is not only a strong U.S. ally in global free trade and investment, but also in the fight against terrorism which includes “combating extremist movements such as Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Taliban and Al Shebaab.” UAE Embassy- U.S. Relations
While the UAE has managed to implement infrastructure and an economy in less than fifty years, changing traditional tribal mindsets isn’t going to happen over night. The UAE does have laws the make women unequal, and Islam, the official religion of the country, heavily influences their governance. I am not making excuses for anyone, but it is my hopes that through travel and real-life human interaction, that we can slowly re-shape individuals’ perspectives of foreign cultures.
Remember, it is criminals – whether individuals or groups – not countries or religions that commit crimes and acts of terror. Just as it is individuals and groups that create peace.
Many thanks to my friends at CheapOair for suggesting my Abu Dhabi adventure. You really know how to maximize an experience in a very short period of time! I flew with the national airline of the UAE: Etihad Airways, and stayed at the Emirates Palace (photo journals coming soon).
For more information about planning your trip to Abu Dhabi, consult directly with Abu Dhabi Tourism, North America. www.visitabudabi.ae
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Disclosure: Please note that some partnerships include affiliate links. I use all of the companies listed and am more than happy to inform you about them — because they’re awesome! If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask! Cheers, Steph