It is a brilliant, sun-swept afternoon at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, site of today’s Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and for the beautiful people of the Persian Gulf this is the place to be. Soon the stadium will fill with the heady aroma of high-octane exhaust and the earsplitting din of engines screaming at 18,000 rpm. Finned and winged like cruise missiles, the vehicles will travel at speeds of up to 200 mph over a track
inspired by the tight chicanes and S curves of the Grand Prix circuit at Monaco. For the moment, however, the drivers of those vehicles are maintaining a leisurely prerace pace, luxuriating in the gulf sunshine and socializing around the paddock with their fans.
Typical of big-ticket sporting events in the United Arab Emirates, the crowd consists of expats in designer casual, Emirati men in gleaming white dishdashas, and enigmatic women in black burkas. Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan—a high-ranking member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family and the chairman of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) and the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC)—is here, turning heads as he and his retinue move through the crowd. Commanding even more attention is German driver Sebastian Vettel, the 25-year-old sensation who has won 11 of 17 races thus far in the season. But the most brilliant spectacle of all is the Yas Marina Circuit itself.
Speeding toward the track’s north grandstand, Vettel and his fellow drivers will be hard-pressed to ignore the roller coaster that comes clattering out of nowhere at 150 mph. Farther along the track, in the adjacent marina, bikinied ladies laze on the decks of superyachts like sirens in the Odyssey. Most distracting of all, however, will be the huge, blimp-like form that engulfs the track across from the main grandstand, providing what appears to be barely enough room for the cars to squeeze through underneath.
“There is nothing else like this track in the world of motorsports,” Sheikh Sultan says as he surveys the action from a VIP lounge high in the grandstands.
Nor is there anything else like Yas Island, a $40 billion phantasmagoria set just off the E11 superhighway that leads over the sands from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, some 90 miles distant. In addition to the race circuit, the marina, and the trackside blimp—in reality the Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi, a 499-guest-room contemporary artwork whose outer skin forms an “atmospheric veil” that reflects the sky—Yas Island is home to the planet’s largest indoor theme park. Opened in 2010, Ferrari World is a 925,700-square-foot air-conditioned fantasyland with amusements such as a simulated tour through Ferrari’s history, a junior racing school, a tower that launches riders more than 200 feet up and out of the building, and, of course, the roller coaster—at 150 mph, the world’s fastest. Also on hand are Ferrari-themed restaurants, a vintage Ferrari museum, and a souvenir shop filled with every imaginable form of Ferrari haberdashery, bric-a-brac, and memorabilia.
No less remarkable is the adjacent marina; viewed from the grandstand, the water that buoys the boats seems to wash up against the track. Accommodating more than 100 yachts, the marina provides the ideal base for exploring the surrounding archipelago of some 200 islands, where balmy winds and calm, azure waters make for ideal sailing conditions nine months out of the year. Soon, however, yachters in Abu Dhabi will have an abundance of alternatives. “By 2030,” says Sheikh Sultan, “we will have enough marinas and berths in Abu Dhabi to accommodate 10,000 yachts.”
Also on the horizon for Yas Island are more hotels, a water park, golf courses, lagoons, polo clubs, restaurants created by famous chefs, apartment complexes, and private villas. But Abu Dhabi’s flair for the spectacular is not confined to Yas. Rising from the gulf some 10 miles to the west of the marina circuit, downtown Abu Dhabi is an extravagant affair of broad boulevards, palm trees, and fountains, where skyscrapers occasionally defy gravity and logic. One of the city’s new high-rises resembles a huge steel Frisbee balanced on its edge. Another is designed to appear as if it were toppling, à la the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Abu Dhabi’s most intellectually compelling metamorphosis is taking place just about 550 yards offshore, on Saadiyat Island. Here, five Pritzker Prize–winning architects are transforming a low-lying mangrove swamp into one of the world’s great collections of art, literature, and music. When completed, Saadiyat will be home to a Louvre and a Guggenheim, among other cultural institutions, as well as the world’s first outpost of the Monte-Carlo Beach Club.
“It’s all part of a broad national scheme,” says Sheikh Sultan. “Our strategy is to use tourism to move the economy of the future from dependence on oil.”
This is not to say that the sheikh and his family have anything against fossil fuels. The world’s petrochemical habit has made Abu Dhabi the wealthiest city in the world, with a per capita net worth of some $17 million. The Al Nahyan family’s collective wealth is estimated at around $150 billion, and the emirate’s sovereign fund, the world’s largest, is rumored to hold $1 trillion in overseas investments.
Abu Dhabi is certainly not the first affluent Arabian state to turn to tourism as a long-term source of revenue. Oman, once known as the Hermit Kingdom, now lures visitors with its Frankincense Trail. Qatar touts its inland sea, while Bahrain has its biblical sites and grand prix race. And, of course, just two hours down the coast from Abu Dhabi, Dubai has become known as the Disneyland of the Desert.
“Anyone who knows Abu Dhabi knows we will never become another Dubai,” says Sheikh Sultan. “We’re not in the market for mass tourism. We’re creating an exclusive, high-end destination for people who appreciate culture and art and tradition.”
it was not always this way. Until recently, Abu Dhabi was a dour Bedouin backwater nobody could have mistaken for an upscale leisure destination. It was neighboring emirate Dubai that had made the leap from a sleepy pearl-diving and trading outpost to a dynamic hub of commerce. As early as the 1950s, when oil was first discovered in Dubai, the emirate’s ruler, the late Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, started planning for the day the oil wells would run dry.
Sheikh Rashid first tapped the country’s oil revenues to dredge Dubai Creek, which by the 1960s had been transformed into the biggest container port from Rotterdam to Singapore. The Al Maktoum family also built hospitals, schools, roads, and housing for the poor, earning themselves a reputation as visionaries, beacons to the rest of the Middle East. But Dubai earned true international fame in the 1990s, when the ruling family—under the leadership of Sheikh Maktoum Bin Rashid Al Maktoum—started making an unprecedented push for global tourism.
Today the reminders are everywhere in Dubai that while oil reserves are finite, fantasy is a commodity that need never run dry. The emirate is home to the World—an artificial archipelago of muck and rock dredged from the shallow Persian Gulf coast and molded to replicate a map of the world—and to the planet’s biggest shopping mall, first indoor ski area, richest horse race, and tallest building. Dubai is also home to the Burj Al Arab, a hotel so expensive and lavish that it claimed to warrant a new classification—not five, not six, but seven stars—when it opened in 1999.
In Abu Dhabi, on the other hand, life had become a dreary slide into isolationism and stagnation. Oil or no oil, Sheikh Shakhbut Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the emirate’s ruler from 1928, was wary of progress. He was hesitant to tap the emirate’s oil wealth and refused to use his country’s revenues to provide such basic social services as roads, health care, or education. His resolutely antibusiness policies drove away Abu Dhabi’s best and brightest and aggravated potential foreign investors.
Regime change came in 1966, when a British-backed coup resulted in Sheikh Shakhbut abdicating in favor of his brother, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Sheikh Zayed would eventually come to be revered as the father of the United Arab Emirates, helping to establish Abu Dhabi as its capital. During his reign, he planted trees and enacted wildlife-conservation measures that rescued such animals as the desert oryx and gazelle from the brink of extinction. But he was also an old-fashioned tribal chief, a true son of the desert with little taste for glitz or tourism.
However, Sheikh Zayed’s son Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan had an intense interest in tourism. And in the early 2000s, he facilitated Abu Dhabi’s answer to the Burj Al Arab: the Emirates Palace hotel.
Opened in 2005, the Emirates Palace reportedly cost more than $3 billion to build and was festooned with 1.5 acres of gold leaf and marble and 1,002 chandeliers of Swarovski crystal. A dome, decorated with gold, soared 250 feet off the ground in the lobby. Even so, the hotel did not make people forget the Burj Al Arab. “The Emirates Palace was stunning, all very lavish and ornate, but it wasn’t a game changer,” says Giuseppe Pezzotti, a senior lecturer in hotel administration at Cornell University in New York. “It also called itself a seven-star hotel, but the Burj Al Arab had done it first. So what Abu Dhabi had was Pepsi, but Dubai had Coke.”
But Abu Dhabi was just getting started. The emirate’s tourism offensive intensified after Sheikh Zayed passed away, in 2004, and Khalifa took over. The new ruler soon allowed land sales to foreigners and eased restrictions on alcohol. That same year, in an effort to define its image and establish operating standards, the emirate established the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority. Maybe it was sour grapes, but the ADTA’s first dictum was to “stay different” from Dubai. It further stated that the capital should “complement and not compete with Dubai.” Instead, it advised, Abu Dhabi should focus on its own rich culture, heritage, and traditions. The ADTA also asked what Abu Dhabi could offer, with its profound sense of tradition and identity—and seemingly limitless resources—that Dubai could not.
The answer was clear: culture! More precisely, $30 billion worth of this most elusive quality, featuring some of the most vaunted names in the arts and education. Institutions like the Louvre, the Guggenheim, and the Paris-Sorbonne University—which opened a campus on Al Reem Island in 2009—would not only elevate and inform the sheikh’s subjects and create a draw for well-heeled tourists, but also help Abu Dhabi distinguish itself from its déclassé neighbor.
Predictably, the ADTA’s plan met resistance from some Western doyens of class and refinement. French intellectuals especially recoiled at the idea of associating their most prized institutions with . . . a theme park? As the former president of the Paris-Sorbonne University, Jean-Robert Pitte, so delicately put it, “Can we really bring culture to camel riders and carpet sellers?”
However, mean-spirited stereotyping eventually gave way to an awareness of shared values, a spirit of intellectual bonhomie, and, of course, all that cash. The Louvre, for instance, will reportedly receive $520 million from Abu Dhabi just to license its name to the Louvre Abu Dhabi for 30 years. The French museum will get about $750 million more for art loans and advice to the outpost, which is scheduled to open on Saadiyat Island in 2015.
Preceding the Louvre on Saadiyat, in 2014, will be a New York University campus and the Tadao Ando–designed Maritime Museum. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Abu Dhabi—a museum of modern and contemporary art that will measure more than 1 million square feet—is scheduled to open on the island by 2017.
Eventually, in addition to international cultural institutions and the aforementioned Monte-Carlo Beach Club, Saadiyat Island will be home to nine hotels, a marina, a golf course, a performing-arts center, and 145,000 people. For many Emiratis, however, the centerpiece of Saadiyat will be the Zayed National Museum, designed by Foster and Partners. Scheduled to open in 2016, the monument and memorial to the late Sheikh Zayed will showcase the history, culture, and drastic social and economic transformation of the United Arab Emirates.
When completed, the intricately sculpted, lightweight steel towers of the Zayed National Museum will resemble the wings of a falcon fluttering high above the ground. At this moment—from my position on a speedboat in a narrow channel—I am attempting to make sense of an equally impressive, and perplexing, edifice. Rising from a grassy stretch of shore in front of me is a perfectly circular building, balanced on its edge and blotting out the sky. “That’s the headquarters of Aldar, the development company that built Yas Marina,” says the boat’s captain, Hamad Bachi. “It’s 360 feet high, but to build it they had to leave very little office space inside.”
Bachi, a native of Syria, then steers our boat toward another illogical structure, a strangely contorted high-rise tower that appears to be on the verge of tipping over. “You might recognize this building from your history lessons,” Bachi says. “It leans over more than four times the one in Italy. The city decided that if it was good to have a building that leans a little, it’s even better to have a building that leans a lot.”
As Bachi talks, a pair of women in burkas come walking along a nearby path and set out a blanket for a picnic. “You know, there are two kinds of women in Abu Dhabi, the old and the new,” Bachi says. “You never see the women from the old Abu Dhabi. They’re always inside, cooking, looking after the children, the house, and the servants while their husbands are away.”
And the new women of Abu Dhabi? “They’re yuppies,” he says with a laugh. “They’re from two-income families, and you see them everywhere. In the hotels they check you in. In offices they greet you. In the schools they teach you. Sometimes I think Abu Dhabi is run by women. But it’s all very liberal. I have been here 18 years, and Abu Dhabi has been very good to me.”
“Of course,” he adds, after a moment, “it is even better to be born here.”