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What’s going on in Abu Dhabi?

Richard Birch stops to consider his surroundings in a place of unadulterated senselessness

Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, is under construction. Not the sort of construction that looks like it has any sort of concern for the future, or any normal planning permission processes; but the kind of frontier mentality that dictates that as there’s a vast open desert, nice beaches and fuck loads of money to finance it, growth must be endless. In short, it is receiving a makeover not too dissimilar to those visited upon the faces of much of Abu Dhabi’s clientele. No long term plan, no sustainability: just plain mindlessness.

Instead of trying to create a long term basis for tourism and development, or indeed any genuine cultural apparatus with which to do so, Abu Dhabi developers have quite literally paid for the names of foreign art galleries to give the illusion of cultural involvement. In a few years (once the cranes and imported and undocumented work forces have left), you too can visit The Saadiyat Louvre; or indeed the Saadiyat Guggenheim! How on earth these places were persuaded to give their names away is beyond me (oil money, you say? No, surely these fine art institutions have more dignity than to be bought off).

Departing Saadiyat Island to head to the main city of Abu Dhabi, one must cross the Sheikh Khalifa Bridge, a six-lane highway with nobody on it. In its desire to imitate the ethos of American excess to the extreme, half of this unusual landscape is covered in tarmac. Indeed, the extent to which the locals appear to admire ‘The American Way’ is evident in the rather bizarre apparition of men in the local, timeless apparel driving Ford Mustangs and enormous 4x4s while blaring out a strange blend of Arabic music with American pop and hip hop. No originality, no culture: just plain mindlessness.

I headed first to the Marina. Symbolically the clouds came over such that when I arrived, the place was disturbingly akin to a seaside town in the North of England. A muddy orange mall, a concreted promenade, a ferris wheel which already looked sad in its rusting emptiness – yes, I could have been in the North (although the North at least has the advantage of not being so oppressively humid).

I then walked down another six-lane highway towards the main centre of the city, via the Emirates Palace, the impressive luxury hotel. The lagoon on which Abu Dhabi sits is undeniably beautiful; turquoise waters lined by golden beaches. Looming in the distance are the great towers of Abu Dhabi, including the three slightly curved glass masterpieces that are the Etihad Towers. The Emirates Palace itself is a testament to the state’s grandeur and wealth; acres and acres of verdant greenery and tropical flowers stretching all around the centerpiece of the huge palatial hotel.

Something about it, however, is amiss. It doesn’t take long to realise what that is: this is a palace which imitates the older styles of other Arab states. Yet this is not an old country. Indeed, in 1950, the region was incredibly poor and barely even irrigated. So it seems strange – disingenuous – to see an old-style palace here. It’s almost like a model city, really, rather than one with an individual style of its own. No history, no future.

As you pass the corner from the palace into the centre of Abu Dhabi, a giant poster looms overhead. A waving sheikh is the image, and the message says, “OUR FATHER ZAYED. UAE.” I subsequently noticed that this poster was just one of many. In Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed constantly looms overhead, like Il-fucking-Duce. Even granted the status of Sheikh Zayed in the country’s history (pushing for the formation of the UAE, leading Abu Dhabi into prosperity, etc.) it seems more than a little presumptuous for him to proclaim the status of a deity. Who art in heaven, indeed. After all, the successes of his reign come down to his luck of digging a hole in his back garden and happening upon a tenth of the world’s oil supply. That doesn’t make him a deity or even a Duce, just one hell of a lucky guy.

I then wandered around the city centre and found absolutely nothing. It was just a continuation – all glass frontispieces with nothing behind them. The Etihad Towers which stood magnificent and curved, visible all the way from Saadiyat Island, were just offices with a viewing deck at the top. I walked away from here to see the new Presidential Palace. The old one, apparently, was insufficient (it only looked twice the size of the Winter Palace, after all) and so a new one, white with gold tips at the domes, was being built round the corner. The whole area was deserted for miles around. If we Brits feel morally wronged by the tax evasion of Cameron, we can at least be thankful that we’re not being run by a self-indulgent President and a dictatorial god-like King.

With sweat pouring off my face, fed up of seeing nothing of any value – of seeing mindless expenditure; mindless construction; mindless dearth of culture; mindless governance; mindless cars, highways and towers – I felt myself a little mindless, head pounding with dehydration. Time to head back to the hotel and give up Abu Dhabi as a bad mistake.

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