The capital of the United Arab Emirates has come a long way from its pearling town roots. With a magnificent outpost of the Louvre, head-turning Islamic architecture, and a new cultural park sited on Abu Dhabi’s original settlement, there is plenty here for visitors to admire — and that’s before they even venture into the fantastical desert on the city’s doorstep.
Photographs by Martin Westlake
It was the desert that brought me to Abu Dhabi. Specifically, it was a photograph that came over my desk a decade ago of an impossibly picturesque Arabian fortress nestled amid great red dunes at the edge of the Rub’ al Khali, the world’s largest uninterrupted expanse of sand. The caption identified this vision as Qasr Al Sarab — “Palace of Mirages” — which, in fact, was not a fortress at all but rather a newly built resort designed to emulate one: a stately confection of crenellated walls, towers, and archways enveloped by undulating desert. I was captivated. One day, I promised myself, I’d go.
The years passed, and my travels took me in other directions. Every once in a while, the announcement of another high-profile hotel opening or big-name attraction would remind me of Abu Dhabi, as did a visit from an old college friend who had been living in the emirate since the early 1990s. Finally, late last year, while planning a trip to Tunisia that would see me transit through the United Arab Emirates, I decided to build a weeklong Abu Dhabi stopover into the return leg. It was time to check that desert off my bucket list.
As it transpired, I spent my first two nights in the city, which not so long ago had been regarded as the aloof and conservative counterpart to bigger, brasher Dubai, a 90-minute drive away. To a degree, that’s still true. But after years of pumping money into all sorts of projects in a bid to catch up to its headline-grabbing neighbor, Abu Dhabi now has plenty going for it — or at least enough to have attracted more than 11 million overseas visitors in 2019.
History, admittedly, is not one of the draws: pretty much everything you see in this fast-growing metropolis of 1.5 million people (80 percent of whom are expatriates) was built after 1958, the year oil was discovered. Prior to that, the former pearling town — then part of a British protectorate known as the Trucial States, the forerunner of the UAE — was little more than a collection of palm-frond huts and coral-stone buildings spread out be – tween the beach and the fortified palace of the ruling Al Nahyan family, who had first settled this lonely stretch of coast in the late 18th century. But the city today does offer much of interest to the modern eye, not the least of which is the Louvre Abu Dhabi, my first stop.
The capital of the UAE since federation in 1971, Abu Dhabi sprawls across a number of interconnected islands on the Persian Gulf. Yas Island has all the theme parks — Ferrari World, Warner Bros., SeaWorld, Waterworld — not to mention a Formula One circuit and the world’s biggest indoor skydiving tunnel. Saadiyat, on the other hand, is being groomed as a global cultural destination, with a long-in-the-works museum district that will soon include a Frank Gehry–designed outpost of the Guggenheim and the Zayed National Museum, whose five pinion-like steel solar towers are inspired by the wing of a racing falcon — a pastime beloved by the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founding father of the UAE.
For now, the Louvre, which opened in 2017 after a five-year delay, is the district’s sole occupant, but an iconic one at that. Set on a man-made peninsula, the low-rise structure by French architect Jean Nouvel is crowned by a gigantic star-patterned metal dome that references both traditional Arabic mashrabiya latticework and the stars that once guided the Bedouin across the desert. Said to weigh as much as the Eiffel Tower, it casts dappled sunlight on the Louvre’s agora-like central plaza and the white concrete cubes that house the various galleries.
The museum is equally illuminating on the inside, where a collection spanning millennia of human civilization juxtaposes Western and non-Western work along thematic lines. Thus, a medieval ivory Madonna and Child from France sits side by side with a maternity figure from 19th-century Congo and an ancient Egyptian statuette of the goddess Isis nursing her son Horus. Farther along, Ottoman painter Osam Hamdi Bey’s “Young Emir Studying” shares wall space with an Orientalist masterpiece by Édouard Manet. There are some thoughtful 21st-century acquisitions as well, including Susanna Fritscher’s diaphanous “Für die Luft” (For the Air) installation. Had I not been on a tight schedule, I would have walked through it all again.
As it was, I had just enough time to check out the clamorous goings-on across the water at the Mina Fish Market — where Indian fishmongers sell an eye-popping array of Gulf seafood brought in by the dhows that anchor nearby — before meeting my friend Peter, who’d offered to take me on a spin through town before dinner. As we drove away from my hotel in the Khalidiya neighborhood, he told me matter-of-factly that he could remember a time when Pashtun émigrés would graze their goats and cattle in the area.
“When I moved here in 1991, the tallest building was maybe 30 stories high. Now look at it,” he said, gesturing toward the soaring towers that rose beyond Corniche Road, Abu Dhabi’s grand beach-hugging boulevard. Among them stood the slant-roofed tower of the Burj Mohammed Bin Rashid, at 381 meters the tallest skyscraper in the city.
That’s oil money at work,” Peter continued. “Dubai may have the swagger, but it floats on invoices. Abu Dhabi is a different breed of cat altogether. It’s got actual money, rock-solid money.” A few minutes later, he jabbed at the windshield. “There, you see that big glassy thing? That’s the headquarters of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, the world’s second-largest sovereign wealth fund. They’ve got about a trillion dollars invested. So even if they run out of oil, they can just literally live on the interest.”
He had one more thing to show me before we headed off to dinner: Qasr Al Hosn, the onetime home of the Al Nahyans and Abu Dhabi’s seat of government until 1966. “If you want history,” Peter said, “this is it.”
Dwarfed by the surrounding high-rises, the whitewashed stronghold is the oldest building in town, by a long shot: its original watchtower dates back to around 1760. A small fort was added later that century and in the early 1940s an outer palace was built. Following a decade-long renovation completed two years ago, the complex reopened as a museum.
I returned the next morning for a look inside, wandering through displays recounting the history of the Bani Yas, the tribal confederation that begat the ruling families of both Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Across the courtyard, the palace’s former residential wings house exhibits of their own, as well as a traditional ventilation system called barjeel that funnels sea breezes through recesses in the walls. “Arabian air conditioning,” marveled a fellow beside me.
The plaza outside Qasr Al Hosn spans an entire city block. It, too, has been remodeled, into a landscape of beach sand and date palms and angular sections of pavement that evoke the cracked patterns of Abu Dhabi’s coastal salt flats. Envisioned as a cultural park, the square is anchored on its eastern corner by the Cultural Foundation, a handsomely arcaded 1970s interpretation of Islamic design by Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius’s The Architects Collaborative. First opened 40 years ago, the building is a place of great nostalgia for Emiratis, which is apparently the only thing that saved it from the wrecking ball when the plaza was re – developed. Good thing too — it’s a real gem. Inside, the main exhibition hall was given over to an inscrutable yet fascinating series of allegorical installations of found objects and video sculptures by Saudi prince-turned-artist Sultan Bin Fahad.
From there, I wandered back across the square toward what looked like a jumble of putty-colored rocks, but was in fact a prayer hall sculpted from faceted concrete forms seemingly afloat in a pool of water. The work of a Danish design firm, it stood in perfect contrast to the trio of elderly Emirati men sitting cross-legged under a palm-leaf shelter nearby. I watched as they languidly salted fish, wove fishing nets, and braided strands of coconut husk into rope. A passing guide explained that the old gents were part of a “living museum” exhibition put on by Al Hosn to showcase skills from a time before oil transformed life in Abu Dhabi. He then introduced me to Ahmed Mohamed Alhammad, who wore his ghutra piled on his head above a great white beard.
Ahmed, the guide translated, was 71 or 72 (he couldn’t be sure), and had more than 20 grandchildren. Like his father and grandfather before him, he had been a pearl diver, an occupation he began training for at the age of eight. It was hard work, Ahmed recalled; during the summer pearling season, they would dive 40 times a day, sometimes more, going as deep as 20 meters to collect oysters from the pearl banks along the southern curve of the Persian Gulf. Jellyfish, sharks, and sawfish were constant dangers, as were aneurysms, damaged eardrums, and drowning.
When I asked him about life in the emirate today, the old man beamed. “Sheikh Zayed [who ruled Abu Dhabi for almost 40 years until his death in 2004] gave us everything,” Ahmed said. “Now we have free housing, health care, education.” He is the last generation of his family to fish for pearls. Two of his sons are businessmen; another is a lawyer. One works for the police department.
Still, Ahmed admitted to some misgivings about Abu Dhabi’s modern development. “Back in the day, we used to work more than 15, 16 hours just for one dirham. It was tough,” he recalled. “But even though our bodies were tired, our hearts were satisfied. Now, people’s bodies are satisfied, but their hearts are tired, because they spend all day talking on their cell phone or sitting in an air-conditioned office.”
And with that, he returned to his task, whacking a chunk of salt with a wooden mallet.
The drive from downtown Abu Dhabi to Qasr Al Sarab took just over two hours, but it was utterly transporting. Here in the Liwa Oasis, at the northern fringe of the Arabian Peninsula’s Rub’ al Khali, or Empty Quarter, towering flame-hued dunes rip – ple away in all directions, luminous in the shimmering desert air. Twenty kilometers to the south they flow over the Saudi border, and far beyond that, into the Dhofar region of Oman.
Rounding one final hump of sand, I finally came face-to-face with the place that had taken me a decade to reach. I was instantly dazzled. With a scallop-arched entryway flanked by imposing turrets, Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara (to give the property its full name) more than lived up to the promise of its photos. Its fort-like buildings and courtyards rise like a crescent-shaped island from the sea of sand, with a “village” of standalone villas — each with their own swimming pool and walled garden — forming the southern arc.
There are tributes to Emirati heritage everywhere, from the qanun player plucking away in the foyer to the guest rooms’ man – grove-pole ceilings and the falaj-style canal that flows through the grounds. There’s also a small museum-cum-library off the lobby lounge that displays Bedouin artifacts, many gifted by the royal family: brass coffee pots, bronze jewelry, goatskin drums, camel crops, daggers, and rifles — lots and lots of rifles. Sure, it can be a little themey: I could have done without the shivering Russian belly dancer who entertained us one crisp night at an outdoor barbecue. But, fresh from a multimillion-dollar renovation, Qasr Al Sarab is undeniably enchanting — a paean to Arabia before all the marbled shopping malls and gleaming skyscrapers.
It also ticks all the boxes for a destination resort. The food is excellent, and a good thing, too, given how far away the nearest outside restaurant was. I’ve never had a better chargrilled octopus than the one served to me on a bed of herb-marinated tomatoes and smoked almonds at Ghadeer, which overlooks an oasis-like swimming pool. The menu at Suhail, the more formal rooftop dining room, is heavy on foie gras, lobster bisque, and hefty cuts of house-aged steak, with an impressive wine list to match. Even the buffet breakfasts were elaborate.
Should one tire of sipping pomegranate juice by the pool, there are plenty of distractions: guided desert walks and dune bashing; camel trekking and horseback riding; falconry demonstrations. The resort also keeps a kennel of saluki, a relative of the Afghan hound, which have been used by Arab tribesmen for thousands of years to hunt gazelles and hares; watching the dogs tear across the sand at speeds topping 50 kmh is no small thrill. The pace is considerably more subdued at the spa, which occupies its own castellated compound. Guests can spend time in the Moroccan-style hammam or sign up for treatments that utilize native ingredients such as Arabian rose oil, dates, and desert sand. I opted for a Thai massage in deference to the Anantara brand’s Thai roots, and was treated to a muscle-melting session in an outdoor cabana set right above the shifting sands.
A new offering at Qasr Al Sarab is Camp Nujum, a tented encampment set apart from the main resort in its own dune-framed valley. This is where I spent my final night in the desert, dining by lantern light on yet another barbecue feast prepared by a small squad of cooks. As we ate on a carpet laid out under the stars, Amro Affar, the resort’s Jordanian activities director and my host for the evening, kept the conversation going with tidbits of Bedouin lore and facts about life in this harsh environment, which boiled down to a list of things that could do you harm: camel spiders, sand vipers, scorpions. “Have you heard of desert chocolate?” he ventured at one point. I shook my head. “It’s what we call camel poo, ha ha!” With that image lodged in my head, I retired to my black camel-hair tent, or beit ash-sha’ar (literally, “house of hair”). Was it as comfortable as my villa back at the resort? Not quite. But the silence — the profound stillness — of the desert night was its own luxury. Vipers or no, I slept like a baby.
I had one more night back in town before my flight home, and two more landmarks to tick off my list. The first was just a 10-minute taxi ride from my new digs at Anantara Eastern Mangroves, Qasr Al Sarab’s opulent sister property. As the name might suggest, the hotel overlooks a long stretch of protected mangrove forest at the edge of the city; for a moment, I considered abandoning my plans and renting a kayak instead. But that would have meant missing out on a visit to Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, one of Abu Dhabi’s great treasures. (“Grand” doesn’t do the place justice; built in a mix of Moorish, Ottoman, and Mughal styles, it’s one of the biggest and most ornate mosques in the world, with 82 domes, more than 1,000 marble columns inlaid with semi-precious stones, and, in the main prayer hall, the largest hand-knotted carpet ever made.)
Risking an architectural overdose, I then headed across town to Qasr Al Watan, the UAE’s presidential palace. Opened to the public in 2019, it’s another head-spinning monument to Islamic design, a Mughal-inspired citadel of arches, domes, and ornate tile work centered on a Great Hall that covers an entire hectare. Overwhelmed, I left the Instagrammers to take turns posing inside a golden orb-shaped sculpture of stylized Arabic script and stepped into a hushed gallery called the House of Knowledge. Here, antique manuscripts and traditional music instruments like the oud, or lute, celebrate the Arab world’s historic contributions to science and humanities.
The daylight was fading by the time I left, and with the promise of another mild February evening, I decided to ignore the waiting taxis and headed back to the Corniche on foot. The route took me past the entrance of another multidomed behemoth — the Emirates Palace hotel — and on through the heritage garden of the Founder’s Memorial, where a prismatic, 30-meter-high pavilion by American sculptor Ralph Helmick stands as a glowing tribute to Sheikh Zayed.
Soon I was on the wide beachside promenade. Residents were out in numbers and the atmosphere was upbeat, with music spilling out of beach clubs and festival grounds. Expat teenagers flirted over ice cream. Joggers and dog walkers passed by. Young Emirati boys zipped around on electric scooters, their white kandura robes flapping behind them.
And on I went, drawn not by the stars that once guided the Bedouin, but by the glimmering city lights that shone brightly in the Arabian night.
When to Go
Wintertime in Abu Dhabi (December through March) offers the best weather — neither too hot nor too humid — with nighttime temperatures dropping to around 15°C on the coast, and lower still in the desert.
Where to Stay
A secluded oasis in the desert, Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara (971-2/895- 8700; doubles from US$245) is as magical as it gets, offering indulgence, romance, and adventure in equal measure. Sister property Anantara Eastern Mangroves (971-2/895-8700; doubles from US$136) holds its own in a city stocked with high-end hotel brands like Rosewood and St. Regis; an excellent Thai restaurant and views over Mangrove National Park are among its assets.
What to See
Mina Fish Market
1 Al Masadir St., Zayed Port.
This article originally appeared in the December 2020/February 2021 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“All Eyes on Abu Dhabi”).