Unexpectedly Arabic: al-Episode ﺏ

This was my first trip to the Gulf in living memory, and Abu Dhabi turned out to be even weirder than I expected.

Let’s start with the obvious: the city is filthy rich. Not as in “prosperous” rich, but as “ridiculously loaded” rich — a while back, CNN figured that, on average, the net worth of any citizen of Abu Dhabi (who only make under 20% of the resident population, mind you) is a cool US$15 million. This is a city of nearly two million people and vast five-lane boulevards, without even the faintest attempt at a public transport system: the rich are chaffeured around in their Mercedeses, the middle class drive their own humongous SUVs, and the poor like me commute by taxi, which are ubiquitous and ridiculously cheap (metered fares right across the city won’t climb above Dhs 10, or US$2).

The Hilton Abu Dhabi is a bit awkwardly located at the edge of town, but it does have a marvelous sweep of the Gulf right next to it, complete with free (for guests) “Hiltonia” spa/gym/pool/beach complex right across the street. The shallow lagoon between the city and the Marina district’s shopping malls was the temperature and texture of warm spit, but there were enough hot Arabic babes in bikinis (yes, seriously — probably mostly Lebanese/Egyptian Christians) to make up for it.

Causeway to Marina Mall Arabian mixed grill at the Hilton

An interesting twist to the experience was added by Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month. Work thus started at 8 (notionally — few bothered to show up at the office before 9), ran straight through what would normally have been lunch, and ended by 2 PM, when everybody headed home to sleep the last hours of the fast. Abu Dhabi, being rather less uptight than some countries in the region, allows restaurants to keep operating for us kaffirs through the fast (as long as they do so behind closed curtains), but as everybody else was also fasting I went with the flow and opted for “Ramadan lite”: a (big) breakfast around 8 AM before work, and then fasting — no food, no drink, no nothing — until evening. And I have to say, I have a newfound respect for people who stick to the regimen for an entire month, especially those who manage it while working outside in the sweltering heat instead of just sitting out in an air-conditioned office.

But the fun began after the sun went down at 6 PM the first strains of the call to prayer wafted in from the mosque to announce that the fast was over. After nibbling on dates and drinking a glass of ridiculously sweet (but energy-packed and quickly absorbed) juices, everybody tucked into giant iftar feasts. Our spot of choice with my colleague Firas was the unassuming little joint behind the Hilton Baynunah, which had unremarkable if decent food, and truly remarkable shisha (water pipe) that makes your eyes roll around in their sockets as you sink into the cushion with a stupid grin on your face after each puff. (All hail Al Fakher!) So after eating, everybody just sat around, digesting their meals, puffing on shisha and occasionally sipping away at the vast variety of bizarre (and often tasty) juices the Arabs have come up with to replace alcohol. (Tip: lemon with mint; not a few sprigs, but a whole load of leaves blended in. Da-yamn.) For the locals, this continued on all the way to the suhur morning meal before sunrise around 5 AM, after which everybody slept a little more again, and then the cycle repeated.

Inside the Emirates Palace Model of Guggenheim Museum

On my last night, I wheedled my colleagues into paying a visit to the Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi’s attempt at surpassing Dubai’s iconic Burj al-Arab (the sail-shaped “7-star” hotel). Dubai forked out $1 billion to build theirs, so Abu Dhabi tripled the budget and spent $3 billion. Here’s a math problem for you: if you spend $3 billion on a hotel with 300 rooms and assume full occupancy at $1000 a night with no running costs, how long will it take you to recoup your original investment?

At any rate, the hotel was (seemingly) right next to the Hilton, and I even considered walking there on the weekend, but in the end we went by car and it’s a good thing we did. Security stopped us at the gate:

“Have you been to the Emirates Palace before?”

“No, we haven’t. We’re just going for a drink.”

“OK. Drive straight ahead, take the second right at the fountain, go around the palm trees, then take the second left at the traffic circle, go up the ramp and you’ll get to the main lobby.”

Yessir. We navigated our way through the maze, deposited the car with a valet and walked in. And walked, and walked, and walked some more. Ever been to one of those 10,000-room hotels in Vegas? That’s precisely what the Emirates Palace feels like, only minus the crowds and the slot machines, and the gold is mostly real. We enquired about places for a drink, and the concierge helpfully suggested the Caviar Bar for champagne or the Havana Club from a cigar and cognacs. We opted for the cafe instead, where tasty Turkish (not even Arabic!) coffees served by an army of pretty Filipinas cost around US$10 a pop, and then set off to explore some more. Tucked away in a corner was a fascinating expo on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi’s shot at buying itself onto the world map — with a budget of roughly $27 billion, they’re going to transform a barren desert island into a cultural oasis, and they’ve b(r)ought in branches of the Guggenheim and the Louvre to make sure it blooms, with the first buildings scheduled to be ready by 2011. Your oil money at work!

And then it was time to head to Abu Dhabi airport, a surprisingly un-spiffy structure (under renovation/expansion, of course), for my flight back home. I’d blown a few miles for a bump up to business class, which allowed me to breeze through the premium security queue (muahaha) and check in in no time. The smoky contract lounge was pretty crappy, but I managed to spend my last dirhams on some superluxury dates and then sat around in one of the tentacles of this recursive cephalopod while an insanely confusing boarding procedure took place. Passengers were bused to the plane, but us biz/first pax were not allowed to board the buses for ordinary plebs: instead, we had to wait for our very own bus, which meant sitting around on plastic bucket seats long enough to miss the pre-flight champers on board. Yay.

The bird was coming in from Jeddah and, despite thus having a good 10 hours flight time, was one of Singapore Airlines’s regional models without lie-flat seats. I’d figured this out ahead of time (although, it must be said, only after booking my upgrade), but in the end I was very happy I splurged: two hours into the flight, we were diverted to Mumbai for a medical emergency, where we were treated to three hours cooped up in a plane, watching slumdwellers in Dharavi poop next to the runway. Not too bad in a business seat, probably rather less pleasant back in steerage next to the babies screaming their heads off.

Eventually, though, the flight did take off again and we landed in sunny Singapore. And that was the end of this company-paid adventure: up next, Saudi Arabia or maybe even Iran?

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