Abu Dhabi

The Emirate of Abu Dhabi is by far the largest of seven emirates which constitute the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It accounts for approximately 87 percent of the total land area of the federation. However, the much smaller Dubai has the larger population. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are the only two of the seven emirates to have veto power. After the Emirates gained independence in 1971, the flow of oil wealth to the area accelerated, and development was rapid. Traditional mud-brick huts were rapidly replaced with banks, boutiques and modern high-rises. And Abu Dhabi quickly diversified, mainly into finance. Abu Dhabi has over a trillion US dollars worth of assets under management, in a combination of various sovereign wealth funds headquartered here.

The Capital Of Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi means “Father of the Gazelle”, in Arabic. The emirate is named after the city of Abu Dhabi which, is both the capital of the emirate and The UAE federation. So, Abu Dhabi is the home of the local and federal government offices, the President and the United Arab Emirates Government and the Supreme Petroleum Council. The current sovereign is Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan who is titled Emir of Abu Dhabi and also President of the United Arab Emirates.

The city of Abu Dhabi began on an island in the Persian Gulf, but soon spilled over onto the, connected by bridges. mainland. Most of the city and the Emirate reside on the mainland connected to the rest of the country. Roughly half of Abu Dhabi's population of three million live here, in this increasingly glitzy metropolis.

Abu Dhabi City

This time I’m not a tourist, I’m working in the Abu Dhabi city area. I have to be up at the crack of dawn on Sunday for training as of course the weekend is Friday and Saturday. We have taxis every day to take us to work. We leave at seven and I’m still up at 10 at night report writing – it’s pretty exhausting and not much time to sightsee. As we are rushed to offices in taxis it’s hard to describe my impressions so far.

The city seems very modern. There are little corner shops and small, modern bazaars, but most of the city is high rise. There are malls and plate glass. One of the most notable is the Capital Gate building, which is Guinness World Record-recognised as the "world's farthest leaning man-made tower." It has 728 individually made glass panels, which are custom-designed to fit the building's unusual shape. A team of 12 window cleaners called cliffhangers work on it constantly.

Somehow though, Abu Dhabi feels more different from home than the Arab script on the buildings warrants. And it’s not just that on the streets, for the most part, the Emiratis wear veils and long sleeved robes – it’s already more than comfortably warm in early April.

The men tend to favour the cooler white dishdosh and a headscarf with a black rope. However, the females are more often attired in the more uncomfortable black abaya, with shayla (head covering) a burqa, or a gishwa (black veil). It has been suggested that we should wear abayas, but the company has settled for ‘conservative’ dress. I have to make sure that my arms and ankles don’t show. No see through material. And at times I’m asked to cover my hair.


The hotel is relatively splendid and has a reasonable restaurant. I don’t get time for the free breakfast, except at the weekend. Even the possibility of losing weight has gone out of the window. All the schools I visit present us with huge beribboned baskets of chocolates and ply us with food all day. We have to buy our own dinners, but as I’m sated I’m more likely to frequent the hotel bar, where there are snacks – and cocktails. There’s officially no alcohol other than in the tourist hotels. Though we've already discovered that there are bottle shops if you know where to look and no-one challenges you if you enter (with trepidation).

No report today, so I rush down to the pool which I have been viewing fondly from my desk. But a sandstorm blows up so I still haven't done any sunbathing. The weather has been lovely up to now. I have still seen very little of the city other than a mosey round the corner to the supermarket. One of the kind drivers gave me a sightseeing tour of town on my way back from a school. It isn’t wildly exciting. It’s very modern, there are numerous skyscrapers and a marina and lots of malls.

I feel better after a weekend's  rest. I managed to get some time on the beach - very pleasant. It’s Mediterranean powdery white beaches (ironically the sand is imported from France), the sea is very blue and the (private) beach facilities excellent. Most of the big hotels have their own beach access with stripy sunbeds and the usual paraphernalia. And the winding corniche is a cooling place to wander.


Most of the company in Abu Dhabi is fellow employees who are staying in the same hotel. One woman keeps following me around trying to revisit the work we have already done. Even when I do sneak off to the pool she follows me out there, parks herself next to me and keeps prattling on. So I ban talk about work. Not to be out manoeuvred she moves onto whether she should she leave her husband or not. Yesterday, I closed my eyes when I saw her coming but she still wandered over and poked me. 'Are you asleep, Sue?'

So I sit in my room, do my preparation and report writing and consume KFC.

They upgraded my lodging today as everything kept going wrong in the last one. Most of the electricals and the plumbing gave up the ghost. Now I have a palatial suite with a separate sitting room and an endless supply of free drink coupons that the nice man in the bar obligingly swaps for margaritas, though he’s not supposed to.

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

Crumbs, time has flown this week and things are looking very different. Last weekend I did a double decker bus tour of the city and walked down the corniche to the seven star Emirates Palace Hotel. The hotel was originally built as a palace for the sheik who then decided that he didn’t like it. Its’s very swish, coffee with real gold flakes on top.

I have to wear an abaya to enter the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque - all 82 snow white domes of it - and am shouted at, as one of my trouser legs is showing. Like most Grand Mosques it has some mind boggling statistics. The mosque is huge, it can accommodate over 40,000 worshippers. The floral design in the courtyard is thought to be the largest example of marble mosaic in the world. The carpet in the hall is considered to be the world's largest carpet (it's wool, weighs 35 tons and has 2,268,000,000 knots). There are seven chandeliers (amongst the world's largest) that incorporate millions of Swarovski crystals. There is more - it's all on Wikipedia.

Sightseeing in Abu Dhabi

Saadiyat Island is also interesting. It’s to the east of the corniche, at the proper fishing harbour end of town. There’s a row of dhows and then a strip of road bridge to the reclaimed island itself. The biggest and best of everything is being built out there. The Guggenheim, the Louvre. They just haven’t started most of it yet. The Norman Foster designed, sand dune shaped UAE Pavilion has been finished for some time, but they can't find anyone who wants to use it.

Yas Marina is very flashy, as you would expect from the home of Ferrari World and the Grand Prix circuit. The corniche is a relaxing evening promenade ground. Towards the port end there’s a domed theatre and an open air tourist heritage museum, complete with humpbacked cow and tents and camel.

The Really Mad Lady follows me round all weekend. She says she has written to her husband telling him she wants a divorce for her birthday. She says it was only a joke and she can’t understand why he hasn’t replied.

An Unexpected Transfer

I am woken up at 6a.m by a phone call. I’m being moved to Al Ain, the other side of Abu Dhabi today. One hour to pack and get a cab into the mountains. I’m getting to see more of the UAE and it’s very brown. I don’t think I’ve seen a speck of green outside the city, (which is mostly artificial grass). Rocky desert stretches each side of the highway for most of the journey, but there are also some mini sand dunes. Much more Lawrence of Arabia.

Al Ain, Abu Dhabi

Al Ain is a desert oasis town, scenically facing a small but impressive mountain range. And the town rewards exploration. There is a small fortress with a museum inside and last evening we went and ate Moroccan in the town square, after watching the nightly mini Bellagio style fountain display.

Camel Racing

Driving out of the centre, to work, we often encounter camels being trained. Arabs prize camels hugely and camel racing is an ancient tradition. The animals can run at up to 40 kilometres per hour, but camels moving at speed and adult humans is a dangerous combination. The jockeys were originally small boys, from the Indian subcontinent, but there were still too many casualties. The Arabs bowed to pressure from human rights groups. put an end to this practice. Since 2005 small robots, complete with whips and racing silks, have been used instead. They're controlled from SUVs running alongside them. Two simultaneous races...

Jabal Hafeet

Jabal Hafeet - literally "empty mountain"- emerging from the desert to the south of Al Ain, is the only mountain in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. Nevertheless, its one of the highest mountains in the UAE. It has given its name to a period in UAE history, the Hafit Bronze Age (3200 to 2600 BC), because of the discovery of a cluster of important Bronze Age beehive tombs in its foothills. The escarpment offers a whole switchback of hairpin bends and views of the desert over to Oman.

Al Ain Rotana Hotel

This hotel is lovely too. A central atrium, glass lifts, a swim up bar and a weekly fish buffet. In the hairdresser I gossip with the local women who happily remove their burqas and shaylas to reveal glorious heads of over ornamented black hair - much gold and jewels. As regular readers of my column will know I’m always amused by hotel quirks. This time there is the guy who thinks it is a good idea to bring my laundry back at 11 o’ clock in the evening, when I am asleep. The laundry list has wedding dresses as the last item. And I’ve finally worked out why so many of the hotel rooms have little arrows on the ceiling. I thought it was to show where the smoke alarm was, but light has dawned. It’s the direction of Mecca.

The weather is very warm now, forty degrees, but very dry and not unbearable and the evenings are beautifully balmy. Tomorrow, I’m back to the city and my last job next week is with the mad woman again. I might go out with a bang.

Saddam Interferes

This is a trip I’ve been wanting to make for a long time; we learned so much about the Holy Land at school - I’m expecting a very spiritual experience. But my trip has become much too scary before I’ve even left home. Saddam Hussein, with immaculate timing, has invaded Kuwait and the Middle East is in uproar. We’re wondering if the trip will be cancelled but the FCO haven’t declared Jordan a no-go zone, even though Israel is polishing up its rockets, and the tour goes ahead.

Amman, the Capital of Jordan

Naturally, by the time my plane lands, the FCO has changed its mind, but we’re here now. David, our tour leader tells us to keep our head down, in all senses of the word. The British are not very popular here currently and sightseeing in Amman is off. Amman is still our starting point. and we catch glimpses off the modern mixed with the ancient. The earliest evidence of settlement in Amman dates to the 8th millennium BC. Atop Jabal al-Qala’a hill, the historic Citadel includes the pillars of the Roman Temple of Hercules and the 8th-century Umayyad Palace complex, known for its grand dome. Built into a different downtown hillside, the stone Roman amphitheatre has a 6,000-capacity.

We’re not too oppressed, though there are some surly faces and a few internationally recognised gestures in our direction. It’s ironic that Amman was the original Philadelphia - City of Brotherly Love. It was re-named, for a time, after Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the Macedonian ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom, who reigned from 283 to 246 BC. (after himself, of course),


The area where modern-day Jordan exists has been inhabited by humans since the Paleolithic period. Three stable kingdoms emerged there at the end of the Bronze Age: Ammon, Moab and Edom. In the third century BC, the Arab Nabataeans established their Kingdom here, with Petra as the capital. Over the years the land was incorporated into the Assyrian, Babylonian, Roman, Byzantine, Rashidun, Umayyad, Abassid, and Ottoman empires.

After World War I, the Greater Syria region was partitioned by Britain and France. The Emirate of Transjordan was established in 1921 by the Hashemite, then Emir, Abdullah I, and the emirate became a British protectorate. In 1946, Jordan gained independence and became officially known in Arabic as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The country captured the West Bank during the 1948 Arab–Israeli War and annexed it until it was lost to Israel in 1967. Jordan renounced its claim to the territory in 1988, and became the second Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1994.

Today, Jordan is a mainly Sunni Moslem, population, considered an upper middle income economy and a major tourist destination. Medical tourism is also, apparently big business here.


Jordan is home to many biblical sites including, among others, the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptised by John, as well as the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Ancient Jerash, located in the Gilead Hills is still a sightseeing possibility. The itinerary says that ‘this beautiful Roman city (Gerasa) is considered to be the best preserved of the Decapolis, a confederation of ten Middle Eastern cities established by Pompey’, but I believe it’s the only one to have survived at all, in any meaningful way. There’s plenty of colonnaded streets, theatres, temples, baths and an oval forum to be admired.

Madaba and Mount Nebo

Next, south west of Amman, to Madaba. This is home to the sixth-century mosaic map of the Holy Land, in the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George.

Northwest, the biblical hill of Mount Nebo overlooks the Jordan Valley, the West Bank, Jericho and the Dead Sea. Mount Nebo is an elevated ridge, approximately 710 metres above sea level. (The lowest point on Earth in terms of dry land is the shore of the Dead Sea in Jordan. It lies 420 metres beneath sea level.) The Bible tells us that this the place where Moses was granted a view of the Promised Land before his death. (He was not allowed to reach there after transgressing.) A Brazen Serpent sculpture commemorates the event. It was created by Italian artist Giovanni Fantoni and represents both the miracle of the bronze serpent invoked by Moses in the wilderness and the cross upon which Jesus was crucified.

Mount Nebo crops up again in the Old Testament (Maccabees), as the prophet Jeremiah hid the tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant in a cave there. There's also a Christian church from Byzantine times with some nice mosaics.

Castles in Jordan

There’s a crusader castle or two, to take in. Kerak Castle is probably the most famous. Qasr Al Abd, is actually older than it first appears - it dates from Hellenistic times. Qasr Al-Kharana (below) is one of Jordan’s best-preserved and most frequently visited Desert Castles. It is located just 60 kilometres to the east of Amman, near to the Jordanian – Saudi Arabian border. It is believed to have been constructed at some point during the first half of the 8th century AD by an Umayyad caliph. so again, it's older than would be expected. Most of the castles are twelfth century, actually built during the Crusader Wars. At the time I’m more concerned with a distinct lack of toilets – gut rot has already set in. Perhaps the national dish, mansaf - lamb cooked in a sauce of dried yogurt hasn’t agreed with me. (In Jordan, it is considered courteous to refuse a meal three times before actually accepting it.)

Then over the Allenby Bridge...

See Israel and Palestine for the next few days of this trip.

Petra, Jordan

Back into Jordan, from Israel and down the King's Highway, roller-coastering over huge 'wadis' (valleys). We finally reach Nabataean Petra (sixth century BC), billed as one of the world's most outstanding ancient cities: ‘the rose-red city, half as old as time'. It’s deliberately located in the midst of mountains, most of the buildings carved out of the rock face, making it virtually unapproachable. This was to protect the riches collected in levies on caravans. We venture in on horseback (walking is discouraged), through the Siq, an exceedingly  narrow chasm. The first thing we see is the huge basilica of the (Khazneh) Treasury, made famous in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Petra is  even more eerie than Jerusalem. All the other tourists have gone home. I expect it’s usually heaving, so it’s lovely to have it all to ourselves.

We are guided high and low - streets, monastery, tombs, cave houses, a wonderful theatre and shards of pottery lying in heaps on all the mountainsides. It is a unique and unforgettable place, enhanced by the play of light and shadow.

Wadi Rum

Onwards on the ‘fast’ Desert Highway, which is increasingly full of vans and trucks. Egyptians workers are pouring out of Iraq, to retreat to their homeland, in anticipation of a war. Wadi Rum, to the east, not so far from the Saudi border, is the largest wadi in Jordan. It's also known as Valley of the Moon (not a unique name by any means...) But this is how one imagines deserts to be, instead of the rocky desolate places they often manifest. It has dunes and dramatic sandstone mountains rising from the sandy desert floor. This is where Lawrence of Arabia operated - he described the landscape lyrically. And this is where part of the film was actually shot. (Sorry, some of my photos are not in good condition - it was a long time ago!)

It's now, naturally a tourist mecca: 4x4 tours -'dune bashing', camel rides, riding Arabian horses, Bedouin style camping, hiking and rock-climbing among the massive rock formations.


The road south, to Aqaba, is now lined with vehicles, as the fleeing occupants wait patiently (some have been here for several days already), for a ferry back to Egypt. Jordan has just 16 miles of coastline along the Red Sea and Aqaba is a very important port city. This is my first opportunity to snorkel - and this area, of course, is famous for its coral reefs. But Aqaba is struggling with its influx of refugees and we are patently unwelcome. After my underwater adventure it’s time to go home.

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