I had come to Abu Dhabi to see the Grand Mosque and to have a day away from Riyadh, and in neither did my day disappoint.
Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Grand Mosque has 82 domes, more than a thousand columns, can hold 41,000 at prayer, and has the world’s largest hand knotted carpet. Conceived in 1986, construction began in 1996 and it was opened in 2007; pretty ancient by Emirati standards given the astonishing pace of development and change out here. On the outside, the white marble pillars are inlaid with semi-precious stones, on the inside the inlay is all mother of pearl; plants trace their tendrils, leaves, stems and flowers around all. The flowers crawl across the marble surface of the courtyard; they stand proud, growing up around the gateways; they are there in the chandeliers and emblazoned across the walls. Tracking the fauna of the world, the marble flowers change as one moves from north to south through the mosque. The carpet, woven by 1200 Iranian ladies and installed in the mosque as nine pieces then carefully stitched together, is a sea of green bedecked again with flowers. It is an amazing place, richly worked and fabulously decorated. Gaudy perhaps, but still captivating. If it doesn’t quite capture the silence of some mosques and churches, it still reduces the hubbub from its endless flow of visitors to a background murmur.
Qasr Al Hosn (the Palace in the Fort) is Abu Dhabi’s oldest structure: it dates back to the mid-eighteenth century. It has been closed for many many years for a conservation project that seems to be taking far longer than it has any right to do so. But if tourists cannot enter the fort, they can visit a little exhibition that charts the development of Abu Dhabi. There isn’t much charting to do, but once water was found, the Bani Yas tribe made the place their own, built a watchtower (Qasr Al Hosn) and established a settlement that one Royal Navy office described as made from ‘date mats’. The water made the place inhabitable, but it was something else that made it rich: pearls. Before the oil was found, the riches of Arabia were pearls, at least for this part of the world.
Grass may grow in the central reservation, but that is likely because of the constant irrigation, not the climate. Abu Dhabi is hot, come a June lunch time. Leaving the museum fully fortified with knowledge of the city’s history, I walked up to the Corniche and then marched along as fine a strip of deserted white sand that I have ever seen. Of course two caveats must follow such a sentence: I haven’t been to the Caribbean and I possess not an ounce of interest in beaches. What I was interested in was lunch, and, true to form, I spent the next forty minutes searching for a restaurant I had read about, without ever actually finding it. When heat, thirst and hunger finally defeated me, the Japanese restaurant I saw across the road fitted the bill perfectly. Unlike the Japanese restaurants I have mistakenly tried in Riyadh, this place was excellent. It also dallied not at all in putting a bottle of cold water in front of me. The tourist brochure I had picked up from the hotel was spot on when it said that it was easy to find good food in Abu Dhabi.
Next came the Marina Mall. When I had asked the concierge at the hotel for a map, she had immediately circled all the shopping centres. Clearly shopping is what is expected of a visitor to the United Arab Emirates. As it happened, I needed a new pair of shoelaces. I had tugged too hard when tying the laces on my trainers a week or so ago and they had parted in my hands. I hadn’t made much progress in finding replacements in Riyadh, so I thought I would put Abu Dhabi to the test. The Marina Mall, the guide book said, had over 400 shops. I naively thought I might find a shoelace seller among them. It wasn’t easy. Most shops seemed perplexed at the idea. Why buy shoelaces? Why not just buy a new pair of trainers? Given the superabundance of high-end cars on the roads (I have never seen so many Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Porches Maseratis and those horrid Italian Ferraris and Lamborghinis, as I did today) it is possible that the usual UAE shopper has the same attitude.
But as I searched for shoelaces (and in truth, at the eleventh hour, the search was not in vain), I stumbled across something even more exciting. A cinema. Instantly I succumbed. I couldn’t really help myself. I had come to Abu Dhabi to forget myself for a day. I didn’t need to get comatose through booze, nor inject my eyeballs with dodgy chemicals; but a cinema, a couple of hours in the dark watching a film? This was something I couldn’t pass up.
By most yardsticks, today was hardly an exciting day, but rather painful in its mundaneness. But I don’t live by most yardsticks. A visit to a beautiful, world-famous mosque; a walk in forty degree heat along a beach of scorching white sand; a relaxed but delicious lunch; an afternoon ensconced in Dolby surround sound, all in a city as efficient, well-ordered and pleasant as one could hope for: these are the makings of a magical day.
Thank you, Abu Dhabi.