A report from Abu Dhabi

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center, Abu Dhabi.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi.

When my effectively sleepless 14-hour incommodious torture at 30,000 feet had ended, I walked into an airport slightly smaller than I had expected to find that everything, everyone was different. But really, I was the one who was different.

The men wore kandoras, an ankle-length white dress. Although religiously-inspired (and, some may say, strongly recommended) I could be convinced that the kandora was actually the ideal dress for Emirati weather. It was invariably hot and invariably dry. I imagined it must feel like the pleasure of wearing a more formal dressing gown after a warm bath, except around town.

Once I’d collected my baggage and passed the curiously lax immigration checkpoint, I went looking for a cab. There were multiple ranks of different styled cars. Some looked rather exuberant, more chauffeur than cabbie, but between others there seemed no obvious difference. So, I asked a local which to take. He apologised, managing to convey that he did not speak English. However, in the midst of his attempts to convey this, he saw what appeared to be a man of South-East Asian appearance wearing a shirt and pants. Immediately he began pointing and saying, “Him, him.”

The man quickly attended to us, and spoke English very well. But how had the local known this man could speak English? Apparently it was appearance alone.

Expats from South-East Asia are the backbone of the service industry in Abu Dhabi (though the Emirate itself could do perfectly fine without such industry given its mammoth oil reserves). Most speak English rather well and most wear Western-style clothing.

Before approaching the taxi rank I’d been informed was for me, I asked the tourist information centre whether my three-quarter-length shorts and shirt were appropriate clothing for my visit. “It’s fine,” they said, “Your shorts cover your knees, so it’s fine.”

Fine for some places, that is.

I asked my cab driver to take me to Emirates Palace, an ultra-luxurious hotel which I had no intention of staying in, but had been told was worth a look. The opulence and grandeur of the Emirates is infamous, after all. At the Palace entrance my cab was stopped by security and told to turn around: pants only. Annoyed, I asked the driver to let me out and I took a few photos from the gate.

My map and a list of must-sees in hand, I began my self-guided tour of the lavish city. The walking made me feel the dry, Melbourne-like heat a little more intensely, but it also gave me the opportunity to see a lot more, and to stop and appreciate my surroundings when I had the inclination. However, in keeping with the grand scale of things, the roads (thus walks) were rather long.

Perhaps the most striking find on my journey was made relatively early. A short walk from the Palace entrance was a monolithic, propagandist billboard. The divine-like depiction of the now deceased Sheikh Zayed, former President of the United Arab Emirates, stood proudly facing a major road intersection. It must have been at least 30 metres high and wide, and was supported by a scaffolding of rusted metal at the rear. From the road, one could not see the rusting metal. Only by walking behind, examining it more closely, could one see what was really behind the man.

The other big industry that many expats from South-East Asia work in is construction and general labour. Two such builders walked by. I took their photo in front of the Sheikh billboard. Let them be in the front of the photo, I thought, not stowed away in the background.

Two builders in front of a billboard of Sheikh Zayed, Abu Dhabi.

Two builders in front of a billboard of Sheikh Zayed, Abu Dhabi.

Reverential portraits and images of Sheikh Zayed and his sons (the current rulers) were everywhere in Abu Dhabi. I really mean everywhere. Every cafe and every restaurant and probably not every but still far too many bathrooms. I’d rather an old, dead Sheikh not watch me while I piss, thanks.

One cab driver described to me how he used to dine in a cafe which had no portraits. When military serviceman visited and noticed, they did more than merely suggest that the shopkeep put some up. And he did so the very next morning, according to my driver.

After walking a little more, past some of the gargantuan grandeurs of the skyline – hotels, offices, homes – I came to the heritage village. I had wanted to visit the Qasr al-Hosn fort, the oldest building in Abu Dhabi and the original ruling place of the sheikh-of-the-day, however in typical Emirati fashion the fort was not enough – it had to be refurbished and extended both in and around the site to make it more grand. So I was at heritage village – a fakery, but a decent-enough looking one to visit nonetheless. Who knows, perhaps it was better than the real thing.

Before seeing the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (where I was let in with shorts), I tried some Arabic food. The restaurant had portraits.

Upon leaving, an old Emerati man watched me. His face told a story of a tolerated liberalism: I got the sense that some here despise the international hub the Emirates is becoming.

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