Abu Dhabi is chasing tourist pounds but has the time and space to avoid making the same mistakes as Dubai, says Mark Leftly, who hopes it learns from its neighbour
The single-humped camel lies on the right side of its round, multi-chambered stomach. The jagged incisors of the lower jaw move up and down over the upper lip as the beast slowly chews its supper. Attempting to get a decent snap on a dodgy camera phone, I move a few feet closer. Just a couple more steps. Perfect. But as I take the photo, docile dromedary turns predator. The creature rolls on to its front, glares menacingly into the camera lens, its stick-like legs poised to lift itself into a position for charging. I sprint the five metres of imitation desert back to the cement path of Abu Dhabi's UAE heritage centre. Luckily, nobody spots me fleeing from one of the most timid animals on the planet.
About 120m above the centre, the UAE flag ripples in a gentle wind. When the flagpole was erected nearly a decade ago it was the tallest in the world, although Jordan nabbed that honour two years later. Abu Dhabi was not too bothered: the emirate has never been as obsessed by construction records and architectural fantasies as super-skyscraper-laden Dubai, a 90-minute drive away along the Arabian Gulf coast. Abu Dhabi city has taken the responsibility of being the capital of an oil-rich, young country — only 40 years old — seriously, and so has shown greater conservatism and less desire to chase the tourist dollar than its obscenely flashy neighbour.
Until now, that is. Dubai's debt-fuelled spree came to an abrupt end in December 2009 when it was caught out by the global financial meltdown. Wealthy Abu Dhabi handed over $10bn to help bail out Dubai and seems to be reasserting its authority over the UAE. One way of doing this is to poach some of Dubai's visitors.
The Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority announced 17% growth in the number of guests at its hotels and apartments in February on the same month last year. The UK provides the most tourists — about 50% more Brits visit than Americans. In an attempt to woo these visitors and create new commercial districts, Abu Dhabi is getting taller. Sadly, this seems to be leading to some of the urban planning atrocities that have so blighted Dubai.
The last time I visited, in late 2008, the elegant deep-blue glass Baynunah Hilton, 42 storeys with a white orb at its peak, was the most distinctive skyline feature. Built in the 1990s, Baynunah almost counted as a historic monument. Soon, it will not even rank in the city's tallest 15 towers. Several of these new superstructures now obscure Baynunah, none more so than the Landmark, at 1,200ft. British firms are helping to build this skyscraper, which looks like it's going to be pretty ordinary bar its height.
“They're going very fast,” says a concierge at the $3bn Emirates Palace Hotel, referring to the five huge Etihad Towers that are well on their way to completion. The Emirates Palace itself was a stunning architectural feat when it opened in late 2005. Even though it spans 1,000m from wing to wing and has a 1,100-seat auditorium that recently held the Laureus World Sports Awards, the hotel was built in only three years.
It is now one of Abu Dhabi's major attractions and has even been used by Hollywood, appearing in the Jamie Foxx film The Kingdom. There are guided tours, though most visitors seem to drift in, purchase a gold-flaked espresso for 50 dirham (about £8.50), and have their pictures taken next to exhibits from the Barakat Gallery near the entrance. The glass cabinet-encased artefacts include a 1,300-year-old lampholder from Jericho, for sale at 25,000 dirham (£4,200).
The hotel is home to some of the best restaurants in town. Last year, Mezlai, which describes itself as “the first Emirati restaurant in the UAE”, opened here. Emirati food is cooked in vast quantities for flavour, and so it is not economic to sell in restaurants where much of it could go to waste. I try the lamb nachaf. The meat is slowly simmered for 18 hours with onion, turmeric and tomatoes. Delicious. And most of the dishes are reasonably priced, for the UAE, at about 90 to 160 dirham (£15-£27).
Abu Dhabi is clearly doing its best to keep its British visitors happy. I join about 50 spectators at a cricket match featuring the star-studded Lashings team, flown over from Kent. When I arrive, former England fast bowler and Lashings captain Phil DeFreitas has already slogged 10 sixes and ends up with 168 runs. Henry Blofeld, the loquacious Test Match Special commentator on BBC radio, announces over his microphone that the innings “was worth flying over from England” to see.
I get chatting to Ken and Gordon, a pair of sexagenarian Londoners. Ken's daughter moved to Abu Dhabi a decade ago and since then they have regularly visited the city and some of the 200 islands that surround it. They tell me that where a round of golf at their favourite course here once cost £50, it has now escalated to £130. Gordon is perplexed about whether there are enough visitors to justify the new shopping malls and hotels. “I went to the Marina Mall [one of the major shopping centres] and there was no one there. They keep building and building, but they don't worry that the place is empty,” he says. “It's frightening.”
There are certainly few people around during daylight hours, but the bars and malls fill up as the sun sets. Heroes, a sports bar deep within the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Hamdan street, is buzzing with Europeans and Americans of all types. It's about 10pm on a Thursday, but the place won't get going properly for a while because it is open until 4am and the live band is nowhere near the stage yet. I buy a pint of Tiger lager for about a fiver and consider that a good deal.
Abu Dhabi is selling itself on the back of some of the impressive modern sites a short drive from town, such as the Yas Island motor racing stadium and the Ferrari World theme park. The brilliantly white Sheikh Zayed Mosque, named after the late founder of the UAE, wows tourists and worshippers alike with its 57 white marble domes and four 107m minarets. But it is the traditional centre near Heroes that is most fascinating — just as the immigrant area of Bur Dubai, with £3-a-curry restaurants and carpet souks, is the liveliest part of Dubai.
I ignore Burger King and Baskin Robbins and have a late-night stop-off at the Emirates General Market. Emirati queue haphazardly, talking far louder than most Brits consider reasonable. Behind the store is Capital Gardens, where tourists are heavily outnumbered by locals. Abu Dhabi is a green city, but these lawns are particularly well manicured and there is a rather spectacular fountain where a large boulder is balanced on a thin metal column. The smoke of shisha pipes wafts over from the gardens' crammed cafe while parents push children on the many swings. The sweet smell reminds me of a previous visit, when I puffed on a pipe in the desert as part of an adventure tour. The smoking was a vital relaxant after the high-speed heavy-duty vehicles that tilt nearly 90 degrees as they twist and turn over the sand dunes.
Another fond memory is walking along the corniche, which runs for several kilometres along the seafront. The views of the true blue water, the distinctive lamps with their green-and-white bulbs, and the blue-and-beige bricked walkway are far from the glitz of Dubai. Understandably, Abu Dhabi is now trying to make the most of this coastal area and much of the beach is cut off as authorities create tourist “swimming beaches”. The corniche should be something of a beach lover's paradise when work is completed, but for now, sadly, one of Abu Dhabi's most charming features is marred by construction hoardings.
And yet, however annoying the endless building work might be, it is a reminder of why the UAE is unaffected by the protests and revolutions seen in states across the region, including Bahrain over the border.
A Moroccan resident tells me that the ruling family has been clever, that Sheikh Khalifa has worked hard to improve the country's infrastructure. “The difference between here and North Africa is that everyone is wealthy,” he says. However, graffiti in an alleyway not far from Sheikh Zayed the First Street suggest that there might be some support for the rebellions. “I love Egypt”, the middle word depicted by a heart shape, has been sprayed on a wall.
Back at the heritage centre there is a sign that shows all the varieties of fish common to the waters of the UAE, including the black-spotted rubberlip and the longnose trevally. Outside, the water is not filled by the traditional fishing boats, constructed from bound palm fronds, but by jet-skiers who swerve at acute angles and at breakneck speed.
The pursuit of impressive height, sun-hungry tourists and commerce in Dubai has led to the creation of one of the most built-up areas in the world. The sail-shaped Burj Al Arab Hotel and Dubai Marina have been spectacular successes, but many towers are already dating so badly that they are the UAE's answer to Britain's 1960s council blocks. Abu Dhabi still has time and space to be more selective in what it builds.
I certainly hope so, because, scary camels aside, there is a lot here to like.
Mark Leftly travelled to Abu Dhabi as a guest of British Airways (0844 493 0787; british airways.com), which has flights from £435 return. He stayed at the Emirates Palace Hotel (00 971 2 690 9000; emiratespalace.com) where a double room costs £202 a night.