Abu Dhabi, pearl of Arabia
ABU Dhabi was a fishing and pearling village until well into the 60s. In the 80s, it was a raw, adolescent city, but by the 90s a more mature, settled metropolis, writes WOLE SHADARE.
They say paradise is a place of lush gardens, flowing water and seductive houris. The maidens must await the after-life, but greening the desert certainly has become a passion in oil-rich Abu Dhabi, capital of the Emirate of that name as well as of Abu Dhabi- Home of the Gazelle-was no more than a single mudrick fort and a cluster of palm thatch huts.
Today's city bears the unmistakable stamp of one man, the late Shiek Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founding president of the UAE.
The present ruler, Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahan, and his advisers have drawn up massive development programme, which will soon transform Zayed's Abu Dhabi beyond recognition. Duty free shopping, endless sunshine and sparkling turquoise waters aren't too hard to take more specific attractions in this Manhattan of the Middle East include the waterfront Corniche, with the Breakwater reclamation to its west, including cafes, shops and a heritage village.
Here too is the Emirates Palace Hotel, one of the world's most opulent. The Dhow Harbour, as well as several souks or produce markets, are at the northern tip of Abu Dhabi Island, which just inland from the Croniche stands Qasr Al Hosn or the Old Fort, built in 1793. Traditional boat-building skills are still fostered at the Al Bateen dhow-building yard.
Large-scale construction should soon ease. Abu Dhabi Airport, too, with its distinctive blue-and-green palm tree motif, will undergo major expansion, but most visionary of all is the transformation envisaged for the low, sandy island of Saadiyat, just 500 metres offshore.
On Saadiyat, a sprawling cultural and leisure precinct will incorporate a branch of the Louvre, to open by 2012, the world's largest Guggenheim Art Museum, a performing arts centre and two other venues, each to be designed by the world's acclaimed architects.
Not surprisingly, the 27-square kilometre Saadiyat will also acquire marinas, resorts and extensive residential estates to house 150,000 people.
The home is a lavish apartment above the main shopping strip of Abu Dhabi. The apartment reveled in views to Hamadan Street five floors below, reawakening from its torport in the cool of dusk, and a glimpse of the glittering turquoise waters of the Arabian Gulf (never call it Persian!).
Most people started work before 7:30, knocking off by early afternoon. The sound of unsynchronized electronic wails from a dozen minarets, interrupting an eerily quiet mid-afternoon to summon the faithful to prayer, will always recall Abu Dhabi to me. Across town were the vegetable market, new supplanted by an air-conditioned market hall; gone else where are the wicker trays of fresh dates, shrouded with buzzing flies.
Fresh mounds of melons and mangoes heralded summer.
Usually the Emirati Nationals remained aloof, keeps one guessing as to their private lives behind the tinted windows of those lavish villas. Across from Abu Dhabi Island stood the camel racetrack, so wide the side was barely visible.
The story of one older woman, reported in the local press, was a salutary reminder of much tougher times.
Rather worthier than the Hash House Harriers was the Natural History Society, which welcomed anybody keen to forsake the clubs and swimming pools in favour of exploring the landscape around us.
As Abu Dhabi locked up for the Moslem weekend, some natural historians set course for the hinterland.
Up the coastal highway from Abu Dhabi the older trading ports of the Pirate Coast offered a rich heritage to be discovered.
Along Dubai 's Creek, traditional Dhows still loaded cargoes from Gulf ports, Mombasa or Zanzibar down the East African coast or shipped gold bullion into Indian waters. Dual carriageways raced across the sabkha, the featureless coastal salt flats.
Gently undulating pale, washed-out sand was dotted sparingly with tufts of salt resistant herbage. After dusk, stray camels were so numerous that most people avoided driving (some major highways have now been fenced). The in land town Al Ain, a twin to the Omani town of Al Buraimi was the ancestral seat of Abu Dhabi's ruling Al Nahyan family and had been developed as a showpiece: endless wide avenues going nowhere in particular.
The mountains can be explored running north from Al Ain along the Omani border, discovering verdant green oases, crumbling mudbrick forts and starkly beautiful landscapes of windblown sand and eroded rock.
Dark metamorphic crags took on a lunar appearance as the dawn rose over the tracks of the desert grey fox and gerbil; in a great amphitheatre of limestone cliffs, rich veins of fossil shells and crustaceans protruded. Egyptian vultures soared, oblivious to the searing midday heat