Abu Dhabi is part of the United Arab Emirates. It isn’t running out of money anytime soon with 9% of the world’s reserves of oil and 5% of its gas . However, it is a very small piece of desert with a coast line in a very hot place where a lot of concrete has now been poured. As part of the diversification (for the day when we heat our houses by solar panels or drive our electric cars) they have developed a tourism business.
Anna booked the Sofitel Corniche and it was very much 5 stars with wall to wall smiling, beautifully groomed and trained staff and luxurious and attractive facilities. We’d planned to find some winter sun. It could be argued that we were late in the season but the “Beast Of The East’ had made the preceding weeks icy in the UK and some genuine heat was in order.
It has to be said that there isn’t a lot to do other than lounge about beside a hotel pool. Granted there are shopping malls although they are around 20% more expensive than the UK. An offshoot of The Louvre was to be found. I understand that most of the exhibits of these large museums/galleries are kept in storage and so no doubt finding another outlet seems good business. Ferrari World wasn’t a gigantic car museum but a themed park with rides – at £60 a pop to enter and maybe a little too long in the tooth then we weren’t interested.
So first it was about getting into the swing of hotel living. The first bemusing thing is getting into the lift/elevator and riding 30 floors whilst avoiding eye contact and communication with all the other occupants. However, on exit you then turn to the people you’ve ignored and say ‘goodbye’. Other adjustments were alcohol. In the hotel a pint of lager clocked in at £9. We, later, had access to a free Happy Hour in a Lounge that overcame this potentially ruinous state of affairs.
Leaving the UK is not what it was with a blackout of news from home a couple of decades ago. The Internet and TV provide all the current affairs you can absorb. Sadly this coverage extended to sport and even the coverage of the Aston Villa versus Leeds game – is there no escape from a disastrous season? However some Premiership football and a Grand Prix were better entertainment. Communication with our progeny, Katrina and Sophie, was eventually resolved despite FaceTime and Skype being unusable. Apparently there are encryption disputes with the Government and Apple can’t be bothered to fix them. We used the call facility on WhatsApp. Some of the calls proved illuminating as Katrina explained that at her party she was playing ‘pass the parcel’. In between the layers of paper were sweets and a condom. The prize was unmentionable in pleasant company. I can’t tell you how much we spent on her education, where did it all go wrong?
Food was copious and delicious. We ate in the hotel and also out and about. Breakfast is always the big treat that you seldom fashion at home in the same way – fresh fruit (pineapple, melon, segments of grapefruit, segments of orange, kiwi fruit etc.) , followed by croissants or cereal with ground coffee before a leisurely stroll up to the counter (again) for an omelette or some pancakes. After this you need some exercise and via two pedestrian underpasses we were 200m from the front. Here was a large promenade with joggers, cyclists, some fishermen and a few children. We enjoyed feeling virtuous by walking a few kilometres. On a couple of occasions we took advantage of some ‘Boris bikes’. They enabled us to get further and not least find a café for some iced coffee. We learned to ensure that they didn’t add sugar! Abu Dhabi has a sweet tooth and cakes were everywhere and all the soft drinks seemed too sweet.
I should have known this, I’d been here before. Back in the day (early noughties) at Moores we did quite a lot of business with a contractor/studio in the town. These exports were several hundreds of £000’s per year and we were glad to have it. Our contact was Lebanese and he wasn’t beyond the odd unconventional arrangement. The first I recollect was that he overpaid for deliveries. This largesse was because after we took the correct amount from the transaction he requested that we placed the balance in a UK bank account – his! The second thing was that he had a Kitchen Designer in the office, who was an employee and wife of another colleague. He brought her to the UK for kitchen design training (along with her very young child) . If the ‘cat was out of the bag’ that they were more than colleagues it came to light when over dinner they were feeding each other dessert with their respective spoons and also retired very early!
In fact in the UAE 99% of the workforce are expat. The 1% of Arabs who work tend to be in the public sector and can be found in the Government departments, airports, police and no doubt counting their money as they manage the Indians, Filipinos, Pakistanis and Europeans who run the country. Out of a population of 9 million in the UAE then 60% are expats with no legal domicile rights or any chance to get citizenship. Remarkably there are 1.8m Indians, 1.2m Pakistanis, 0.6m Filipinos and 0.5m Bangladeshis in the Emirates.
You can’t overlook the fact that they are keeping their respective homelands afloat with all the money they send back. It seems many have been in Abu Dhabi for decades. Our porter from Bangladesh had been in the Emirates for 10 years, our Filipino hostess in the Lounge had been in the country three years; she was busy sending money back home to educate her siblings. Lastly, Richard out taxi driver was Ugandan. He calculated that he would earn a quarter of what he earned in Abu Dhabi back home as a teacher. This seems so sad to waste such talent. He had plans to buy a farm at home and he’d calculated that was where the money was.
Richard had brought us back from the Yas Mall. This is a cavernous construction near the F1 Grand Prix Track, Ferrari World and, not least, IKEA. (When it came to lunch my wife did suggest a quick trip into the furniture store but I could live without meatballs for a few days!) The Mall had all the major brands but, as I’ve said, the prices were uninteresting but it is an worthwhile visit.
Not nearly as interesting as The Grand Mosque. This is a sumptuous construction and despite the numbers of visitors had a great calm and coolness about it. Anna was made to dress appropriately: unfortunately there was no retail outlet for me to buy this outfit for her. In fact our Mosque guide explained the traditional dress (unconvincingly).
It goes something like – back in the day the men worked in the sun and needed white robes. With no money left then the women were stuck with cheaper black material. Nowadays they can wear white if they want, and I did see one woman at the airport dressed thus. However the reality is that they don’t. Similarly it was explained that women worshipped separately because the men had to touch shoulders in the Mosque and also prostrate themselves. This was inappropriate between the sexes – I had hoped for some dissent from the gathered emancipated Western ladies, unfortunately my eldest daughter was back in London (wrapping condoms).
The guide, for all the frailty of these explanations in the 21st Century, did have a sense of humour. He showed us a monumental 8 ton chandelier in the centre and after explaining the lighting and weight did comment that in his early days he’d taken his grandmother around the Mosque. She’d not asked a question about the grandeur, King Zayed who instructed and paid for its building, the types of marble from Italy, Macedonia and China or where the carpet had come (Iran) from but did ask how they cleaned this huge suspended chandelier!
Of all the things I found impressive after the splendour of this ‘palace’ was the explanation of Islam to us ‘infidels’. It was gently paced and informative. I am not a Christian but why don’t tourists get taken around (the magnificent) St Paul’s in London (for free) with an explanation of the faith it represents? Are we ashamed?
Taking taxis was the norm. It came as a shock to find women taxi drivers in this male dominated society. The cars were a mixture of high end European models and Japanese for everything else. I still scratch my head at what happened to the British motor industry in the 1970’s. We used to export all around the world and in what seems like months that all collapsed and the Japanese moved in. Forty or fifty years later they still saturate the market with cars, vans, buses, trucks and 4 x 4s.
So in between our daily trip out I spent time in the gym clocking up a few miles on a bike or groaning on the hamstring curl apparatus. I was even found in the hotel pool – I think this is the first time I’ve been in a pool on holiday for about 15 years (yes, ‘Tony’s most dull fact of the report’). I liked to stroll around the expats shops in the town (Anna less so!) and I could understand the mobile phone and computer shops – these folk needed to talk to home. I could see why you’d need laundry services but why so many stationery shops? I have never seen so many shops selling paper, ball point pens, pencil erasers or staplers – what is going on?
Children seem very welcome and with an absence of alcohol then it works better with them for eating out. There were plenty of facilities for playing and no one seemed put out by their presence (apart from me). Safety was guaranteed. Despite poor urban lighting and shady alleys then single women jogged in the gloom, people wore their finery and jewellery in public places and respect was shown for all. In fact I think this is where we were once upon a time in the UK. When I am amongst this calm and respect I want to live in places like this.
Not all went to plan. After breakfast I left my mobile/cell phone on the breakfast table. My minder (Anna) retrieved this and handed it to me as I was entering the Lift/Elevator. The closing door hit my hand and the phone fell miraculously into the gap between the lift and the lobby. So 43 floors or ⅓rd of a mile later the phone came to rest at the bottom of the shaft. You may be unsurprised to learn that it no longer worked! Anyway the hotel retrieved the pieces and I was left with the job of sorting out a replacement back in Blighty.
The flight was a scheduled 7 hours each way, which is more than enough flying in Economy in less than a week. On the return flight there were UK based Commonwealth athletes from the England, Northern Ireland and Isle of Man teams. Whilst waiting for the loo I ended up talking to a girl who was resplendent in the kit. “So did you compete?” “Basketball” “Oh, did you win a medal?” Silver”. At this point I felt a complete plonker.
My other flight victim was the passenger sat next to me. He was a lad who was brought up in Grimsby but was an Albanian Kosovan (some might say that wasn’t a lucky escape). He was fascinating and we discussed the Balkans war, language, relations with Serbia, local food and football – I suspect the flight might have been longer than 7 hours for him! Overall a splendid break.