Eurotrip Day 95 – 96: Abu Dhabi

Like Dubai, but with worse shopping malls

The capital city of the United Arab Emirates has more in similar with Dubai than it has differences.

And so, its a city that I hate as well.

I hate the wide ten-lane roads built for cars.

I hate their excessive use of water to hydrate all those plants in their lush parks and gardens.

I hate the disconnect between the rich, minority Arabs and the poor, majority Indian foreign workers.

I hate the sweltering desert heat and that distinctive, slightly charred smell in the air (is it so hot that even the sidewalk is smoldering?)

I hate it that they have almost zero public transportation.

I hate their dull fast food and staid, expensive restaurants.

According to CNN, this is the richest city in the world. Abu Dhabi’s oil reserves are estimated to last till way beyond the year 2100. In other words, they can continue building garish glass skyscrapers, ten-lane roads and meaningless theme parks like “Ferrari World”, fill the desert with hundreds of water-sucking fountains and import thousands of foreign workers from the Indian subcontinent and the Philippine archipelago to construct all this grandeur. 

What are we going to do with so much money?

I mean, there’s only so many ten-lane roads and skyscrapers they can build.


Here comes the prestige projects like yes, Ferrari World. Saadiyat Island is their latest mind-blowing, opulent project. The island is going to be called Cultural City, and will feature a bunch of museums and cultural institutions. I really don’t understand this love of building self-contained but otherwise disconnected and disparate mini-cities. To me, its just poor urban planning. 

The entire project will cost billions and feature more reclaimed waterfronts, more spewing fountains, more parks that look almost tropical-like in their lushness, and of course, more shopping malls. Emirati-style, of course, which means its likely to be populated with luxury brands for the conspicuous consumption of the rich locals, and staffed to the brim with Indian security guards and Filipino store assistants.

Oh no, Dubai is overtaking us

The UAE is really more of a federation than a country. When I was in Abu Dhabi, which owns over 10% of the world’s known oil reserves, I read of foreign workers in another emirate, Sharjah, suffering electricity cuts to their dormitories and flats. Yeah, you heard it right, electricity cuts in a country that has too much oil.

And of course, everyone has heard of that famous episode when Dubai finished building the tallest building in the world and suddenly found themselves in trouble of defaulting on the international market. Their rich neighbour Abu Dhabi steps in with a guarantee, and suddenly, the name of the tallest building is changed from Burj Dubai to Burj Khalifa. Khalifa, of course, is the name of the current ruler of Abu Dhabi.

Everyone thinks that the capital of the UAE is Dubai, of course (its actually Abu Dhabi). The name "Abu Dhabi" just doesn't have the same cachet to it. It seems like they are in the middle of a spending spree to reassert their wealth and status. CNN has its Middle East headquarters in Abu Dhabi, and they are keen in transforming themselves into a “hub of hubs”. Yeah, they want to be a business hub, financial hub, cultural hub, artistic hub, hub of the Middle East, aviation hub, shipping hub… Oh man, that actually sounds a lot like Singapore, yeah?

In response to Dubai’s 7-star Burj Al-Arab hotel, Abu Dhabi built the Palace of the Emirates, also a 7-star hotel. What does it mean to be a 7-star hotel? I'd always thought that the number of stars were capped at 5. The Palace of the Emirates was ridiculously opulent and lavish. It had a long driveway, huge spacious lobbies in which you feel slightly afraid to move around in fear that you are dirtying their polished marble floors, and a ratio of what felt like 10 staff members to every guest. They also have a private beach, numerous swimming pools and a butler for every room. The ultimate winner? A gold bar vending machine in the lobby, where you can feed all your spare thousand-dollar notes into and watch a real gold bar pop out. Just the perfect souveniour for those folks back home.

Good Old Expat Life

I stayed with an expat in Abu Dhabi, Florent from France. He’s a pretty cool guy, and I got to see expat life through his eyes. Abu Dhabi isn’t the most interesting city, but Florent seems to like it a lot. Alright, I’m going to lay off my attacks on the city for a bit. The weather may be sweltering but at least its good enough to go to the beach everyday. It seldom rains, and there are always clear blue skies stretching overhead, a rarity in cloudy Singapore.

Another plus is there's also lots of beach activities and desert activities around Abu Dhabi. Florent and his French friends in Abu Dhabi seem to enjoy these a lot on weekends. And on weekdays, they meet each other frequently after work, and hang out in hotel bars (sadly, the only place where you can drink legally in the UAE) or have dinner together.

The best part of the expat lifestyle? Florent gets an apartment and a car with the job. This apartment is no ordinary flat – its located on the top floor of a sixteen-storey building, with fine views of the corniche and the sea. It has three toilets, a huge living room and plenty of rooms. By the way, Florent is only 23 years old - he graduated from university the previous year, and is living alone in Abu Dhabi. If such a young, inexperienced guy already gets these perks, I can’t imagine what life must be like for a middle-aged expat.

Well, I guess they need to offer people attractive remuneration packages to get them to come to a place like Abu Dhabi.