Often overshadowed by neighbouring Dubai, the largest emirate Abu Dhabi is doing plenty to get noticed, says Stuart Forster
Washed by the warm waters of the Persian Gulf, Abu Dhabi is the largest of the seven states that collectively form the United Arab Emirates, and although more than 150,000 of us visit each year, many Brits still know little about this diverse destination.
When people talk about Abu Dhabi, they’re usually referring solely to the city, the capital of the UAE, which is built on an elongated island and linked to the mainland via three road bridges. The boldly designed skyscrapers and air-conditioned shopping malls of downtown Abu Dhabi, seemingly built with no expense spared, impress both first-time and repeat visitors alike.
Much of the mainland is desert, which can be experienced during dune-bashing adventures in 4WD vehicles or on a guided camel safari. In contrast to the modern capital, the oasis city of Al Ain, the emirate’s second largest urban area, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a window onto the region’s history and tradition.
Far more tourists are aware of Dubai, 80 miles from Abu Dhabi, but that’s set to change. The Abu Dhabi authorities have drawn up a strategic plan to diversify away from the emirate’s reliance on oil, and are actively developing tourism infrastructure. Improvements are currently underway at the airport — part of a strategy to turn it into an international hub and encourage stopovers.
Saadiyat Island promises to become a global cultural attraction over the next few years, with leading architects designing a cluster of museums associated with world-renowned institutions. Meanwhile, Yas Island is developing into one of the Middle East’s leisure hotspots. It’s best known as the home of the Yas Marina Circuit, which, in November, hosted the final race of the 2014 Formula One season.
Theme parks and waterparks are helping Abu Dhabi to attract a new demographic— families — while championship-quality golf courses such as Yas Links Golf Club are drawing in British golfers seeking sunshine during the winter months.
The emirate is just a seven-hour flight from the UK and arrival figures are growing. In 2013, 162,973 UK visitors checked into Abu Dhabi’s hotels — a 16% year-on-year increase — and further growth is predicted this year. www.visitabudhabi.ae
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque: The scale and opulence of this marble-fronted mosque make it a must-see attraction — more than 40,000 people can worship here at any one time. It has a special place in the hearts of locals, not least because the 82-domed building honours Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan who played a key role in establishing the United Arab Emirates. Visitors are welcome within the prayer hall (there’s a strict dress code, though), which holds the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet and a 12-ton crystal chandelier. szgmc.ae
Corniche: This five-mile stretch is perfect for a stroll, its pedestrian paths flanked by landscaped waterfront gardens, playgrounds, cafes and restaurants. Active holidaymakers can hire a bike and ride along the dedicated cycle paths, while those in search of a more relaxing break can simply kick back on the bustling Corniche Beach, with its clear, Blue Flag-accredited waters. Just be sure to get there early and bag yourself one of the coveted beach umbrellas — they go fast.
Ferrari World: Located on Yas Island, Ferrari World is an indoor, air-conditioned theme park with 20 rides and family-friendly attractions, including state-of-the-art driving simulators and automotive memorabilia. The world’s only Ferrari-branded theme
park is also home to the world’s fastest rollercoaster, Formula Rosso, giving visitors an opportunity to experience the 4.8Gs of gravitational force that Formula One drivers feel while accelerating away from the grid to 149mph in less than five seconds. ferrariworldabudhabi.com
Yas Waterworld: The region’s biggest waterpark has been making a splash since opening in January 2013. Visitors can relax in cabanas by the poolside or explore the park’s 43 rides, slides and attractions. These range from four supervised children’s play areas to the world’s fastest hydromagnetic powered waterslide, Dawwama. If that isn’t extreme enough, adrenalin junkies can enjoy the looping waterslide, Liwa Loop, and an 1,800-foot long rollercoaster, Bandit Bomber, which gives mischief-making passengers the opportunity to drop water bombs en route.yaswaterworld.com
Manarat Al Saadiyat: This visitor centre and art gallery provides an overview of the extensive changes that have taken place in Abu Dhabi over the past six decades, and lays out the ambitious development plans for new attractions on Saadiyat Island. The UAE Pavilion, designed by Foster + Partners for the Shanghai Expo of 2010, stands outside the centre, which also hosts cultural events and regularly changing art exhibitions. saadiyatculturaldistrict.ae
In the pipeline
Louvre Abu Dhabi: Due to open in 2015, the Louvre will be the first of several new world-class cultural attractions in the emirate. The domed, waterfront building will feature permanent historical and cultural collections, plus themed temporary exhibitions curated in conjunction with France’s premier art museums, as well as an interactive section
for children. louvreabudhabi.ae
Zayed National Museum: Opening one year after the Louvre, the Zayed National Museum will tell the story of the unification of the emirates, and host exhibitions on the region’s culture and history. The British Museum is playing a role in developing the Zayed, to help position Saadiyat Island as a cultural hub that will attract foreign visitors to Abu Dhabi. zayednationalmuseum.ae
Guggenheim Abu Dhabi: In 2017, Abu Dhabi will become home to the world’s largest Guggenheim museum of contemporary and modern art. With 450,000sq ft of gallery space, the Frank Gehry-designed museum will have its own collection and also show temporary exhibitions and artworks belonging to the Guggenheim Foundation. guggenheim.org/abu-dhabi
Yas Mall: This vast new shopping centre opened in November 2014 to coincide with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. The 2,500,000sq ft mall houses more than 400 international stores and is home to the region’s largest department store, and is linked to the Ferrari World amusement park. The mall also has a 20-screen cinema, plus a family entertainment zone.
Hotels: Originally planned for this year, Hard Rock Hotel’s Abu Dhabi outpost is now not expected to open until 2017. In the meantime, W Abu Dhabi and a Four Seasons property on Al Maryah Island are both set to launch in 2015.