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Mon 2 Mar 2009 04:00 AM

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Culture club

First Class explores why Abu Dhabi is a hotspot for upmarket tourists with a penchant for both the old and the new.

First Class explores why Abu Dhabi is a hotspot for upmarket tourists with a penchant for both the old and the new.

Stand amid Dubai's vast plains of malls and hotels, and it's easy to forget you're in the desert; in the heart of the UAE. But visit neighbouring emirate Abu Dhabi, however, and you'll witness a different story.

This capital state prides itself on its heritage and the evidence is all around. The pace of the city centre is slower and the hubbub is quieter than its brasher, louder sister emirate.

It’s an old country emerging into a new one. It has the will to develop a cultural district that will connect to the rest of the world for future generations.

But this doesn't mean there's nothing to do in Abu Dhabi - far from it. In recent years, the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) has worked in conjunction with hundreds of partners to deliver its dream of capitalising on the emirate's heritage as the head of the UAE and the hub of local culture.

"Abu Dhabians have an immense respect for each other, for their land, their rulers and their traditions, This stems from a much-revered past rooted in Bedouin culture; a way of life that could not be more different to the current affluence the emirate enjoys today due to its oil wealth," says Mubarak Al Muhairi, director general, ADTA.

"We are targeting tourists who have a keen interest in heritage and culture. Abu Dhabi does not intend to become a mass market leisure dominant destination," he adds.

And it shows. In September, the emirate will play host to its first F1 Grand Prix, an occasion that is expected to attract tens of thousands of visitors over one November weekend, not to mention 800 million television viewers from around the world.

Meanwhile, its burgeoning film industry is attracting a host of Hollywood talent keen to utilise Gulf financing potential.

In September, government-owned Abu Dhabi Media Co announced it planned to spend US$1bn over five years to finance Hollywood and international films, just a month before it hosted Tinseltown stars Meg Ryan and Antonio Banderas at the second annual Middle East International Film Festival.

Fact file

• Abu Dhabi is the capital and second most populous city in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), after Dubai. It is also the seat of government of the emirate of Abu Dhabi, which is ruled by Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan - the President of the UAE.

• Approximately 860,000 people lived in Abu Dhabi as of 2007.

• One of the world's largest producers of oil, Abu Dhabi has actively attempted to diversify its economy in recent years through investments in financial services and tourism.

• Abu Dhabi's national carrier, Etihad Airways, is the fastest growing airline in the world. In August 2008, Etihad announced its 50th destination - Moscow - less than five years after it was established.

• Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi is wowing the international rally driving championship in the World Rally Championship and in 2007 he won the Middle East Rally Championship.

• Abu Dhabi now has the seven most expensive car licence plates in the world, according to the Guiness Book of Records, including the most expensive - a plate with ‘1' on it, bought in 2008 for US$14 million.

Fine art is also on the agenda - Abu Dhabi is set for the arrival of its own Guggenheim museum designed by Gehry; plus fellow architect Zaha Hadid is designing a performing arts centre, Tadao Ando a Maritime Museum and Jean Nouvel the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

"It's an old country emerging as a new country," says Gehry. "By the luck of the Gods it has the means to do something, and the will to develop a cultural district that I really believe will connect [the city] to the rest of the world for future generations."

The museums, which will showcase a collection of modern and regional art,will come together to create a cultural district on the US$22.7bn Saadiyat Island, off the coast of the capital city.

The first phase of the development, which will include the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Sheikh Zayed National museums, is due for completion by 2014.

In addition to putting the emirate and the rest of the country on the international cultural map, having such high-profile names is likely to attract a host of other international galleries, curators and artists.

"I'm so excited about the arrival of the new museums," says Hoda Ibrahim Al Khamis-Kanoo, founder of the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation (ADMAF).

"The high-calibre galleries and events coming to the emirate show how seriously we take arts and culture. It's a wonderful thing, for the benefit of the nation and tourists alike. We want to create a bridge of culture and understanding - it's all part of Abu Dhabi and the late Sheikh Zayed's legacy, to create a culture of learning, dynamism and respect."

But most impressive to date is the erection of the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque. Named in honour of the late UAE President and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, the landmark covers 22,000 square metres and combines traditional Islamic designs and modern architectural techniques.

The third largest mosque in the world, its interiors embrace materials and craftsmanship from across the globe. These include: the world's largest carpet from Iran (7,000 square metres), the world's largest chandelier from Germany made from one million crystals, plus 28 different types of marble and 24-carat gold.

Places to stay

Emirates Palace

West End Corniche, Abu Dhabi Tel:  + 971 2 690 9000 Web: www.emiratespalace.com

Intercontinental Abu Dhabi

Bainona Street, Abu Dhabi, 4171 Tel: + 971 2 6666888 Web: www.ichotelsgroup.com

Shangri La Qaryat Al Beri

Between the Bridges, Abu DhabiTel: + 971 2 509 8888Web: www.shangri-la.com

Desert Island Resort and Spa

Sir Baniyas Island, Abu DhabiTel:  + 971 2 801 5400 Web: desertislands.anantara.com

The looming gold-topped minarets sit atop an indoor and outdoor arena that can sit up to 30,000 worshippers.

But for all its grandeur and sheer size, the mosque retains a sober, calm and spiritual feel. As a mark of respect to a place of prayer, visitors must wear modest, loose fitting clothing, with women covering their heads.

Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque is the first mosque in Abu Dhabi to allow non-Muslim visitors, so the ADTA has recently launched guided tours that take around an hour, starting every day from 10am.

These come highly recommended; not only for a background to the mosque, but for a broad grounding in Islam and UAE culture.

Ahmed Al Mehairibi, our tour guide, arrives in a brand new silver Range Rover sport and is impeccably turned out in a white dish dash, designer sandals and Giorgio Armani sunglasses.

He is bright and knowledgeable and tells me about the hardship of finding suitable husbands for his five Muslim sisters. Al Mehairibi is a living epitome of Abu Dhabi's melding of heritage, traditions and new oil affluence.

"Traditionally, a stranger in the desert would be taken in, fed and watered, even if it meant giving him the family's last supplies," explains Al Muhairi, the boss of ADTA.

"The English explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger discovered this first-hand when traversing the Empty Quarter on foot in the 1940s. This same warm, open door hospitality lies at the heart of Abu Dhabi today and is a direct and living link with its past."

What to do in Abu Dhabi

Heritage Village

On the breakwater near the giant UAE flag, Heritage Village comprises a group of traditional buildings and a small museum showing the life of the Bedouin in old black and white photographs.

A replica of a traditional oasis irrigation system and a ‘wind tower' - the world's first ‘air conditioning - are striking examples of the ingenuity of the desert people who founded Abu Dhabi. There is also a traditional souk where you can buy gifts and souvenirs.

Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital

Close to the airport, this was the first institution in the world to provide comprehensive veterinary health care exclusively for falcons. Visits to the hospital are fascinating experience. You'll witness falcons on mini hospital beds being spruced up ready for flight again.

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Grand Mosque

This recently opened mosque is a wonder of Islamic design, a feat of engineering and the first mosque in Abu Dhabi to allow non-Muslims to tour its interior. Four minarets soar  more than 100 metres into the sky and look down upon the mosque's 57 white marble domes.

Emirates Palace

At a cost of US$3 billion, the Emirates Palace was once the world's most expensive hotel, decorated with gold leaf, marble and crystal.

Visit the Cultural District exhibition, a permanent display at Emirates Palace, and see designs for the museums that will make up Saadiyat's new Cultural District, which will include the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Performing Arts Centre, Maritime Museum, Classical Museum and Sheikh Zayed Museum.

Qasr Al Hosn

Built in 1973 by the Bani Yas tribe near the site of an important water well, this fort is one of the most culturally significant buildings in Abu Dhabi. It is one of the best preserved forts in the UAE and a walk around its interior offers a trip back in time to the eighteenth century.

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