Something stops me in the tracks as I behold the young Egyptian man with round, obsidian eyes. They seem unable to decide between contempt and concern for the way I tiptoe towards the portrait of the faiyum with a strange two-eyed portal in my hand. I bluff on, unruffled, and complete the perfect vertical dolly shot for the ’Gram—the ideal heist for this day and age. If you’re familiar with Maurice LeBlanc, you’d say I’m at the Louvre. You would be right and you would be wrong, for I’m not in Paris but I am at a Louvre—the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
The glass pyramid that makes the French palace probably the world’s most recognisable museum, has made way for a dome here—a complex, curving metallic roof composed of innumerable parts and weighing 7,500 tonnes. In many ways, this shimmering cupola, made of 7,850 stars intended by the architect, Jean Nouvel, to shower the museum’s innards with a daylong dance of light, has come to symbolise the contemporary cultural face of Abu Dhabi. Situated at the confluence of the sands of Saadiyat Island and the Arabian Gulf, Louvre Abu Dhabi, dubbed an ‘island on an island’, came to exist as the result of a collaboration between France and the U.A.E. in 2007. The institution’s Temporary Gallery holds works of art loaned from the two other Paris giants—the Centre Pompidou and Musee d’Orsay, with a permanent collection that is quite well-endowed too. Deemed the Arab world’s first universal museum, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is expected to be soon followed by a Guggenheim, quite likely the biggest of them all. The choice of Saadiyat as Abu Dhabi’s art district might have disappointed Imperial Arabists, but this island that locals remember for its coral sands and beach grasses, seems well suited for the role.
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I’ll spare you the uninspired comparison with Dubai, but only when you set foot in the elegant capital, do you realise what understated really means in this country. As you creep through mosaic-wall tunnels and cruise along flyovers baking in the afternoon sun with Maseratis and Maybachs for company, a quietly busy capital that has built itself up as the mantle around the riches of energy and construction conglomerates, materialises around you block by block. Over coffee one morning, someone in the group casually quips that hedges outside buildings here never miss a day of pruning, lest they lose the symmetrical harmony of the form they’ve been destined for. It’s also telling how, unlike Dubai, the capital still demands pre-entry registration on the Al-Hosn app, along with a negative RT-PCR test.
Yas, of Course
This city is an all-rounder, and it knows how to play. Exhibit number one is the 22nd edition of the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) Awards, held at Yas Island’s gargantuan Etihad Arena on the Yas Bay waterfront. After the familiar fashion of structures in this part of the world often commanding superlative statures, the arena happens to be the Middle East’s biggest indoor entertainment venue, its skyline-headlining superstructure rivalled only by the steel-and-glass grid shell of the W Hotel. With an impressive seating capacity and top-notch facilities for big-ticket events, the arena is the quintessential modern-era colosseum. I am not surprised that the 23rd edition of the awards is being held at the same venue.
The venue, to be precise, is Yas Island—the U.A.E.’s gift to that part of the population that doesn’t want one dull moment on a holiday. My long-standing opinion of this unstintingly supplied sensory overload has been less than generous. To its credit, Yas does get even the staunchest champions of the slow life to just cut it and hop on to the rollercoaster like the rest. And when the opportunity to ride the world’s fastest rollercoaster at Ferrari World presents itself, I fall in line. Moments before boarding the Formula Rossa carriage, Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries plays ominously in my head and Robert Duvall in cheap aviators grins hellishly in my face. The eyeglasses are strapped, the restraint bars are pulled and the train jerks to life, hitting 240 kmph in under 5 seconds. There’s more to come—the Flying Aces coaster and the Turbo Track shuttle coaster will have you swearing and strutting around bewildered at your appetite for utter madness until hours later. I calm my farm with a spin around a diorama-esque Italy in a ride called the Bell’Italia. Sitting in a child-size Ferrari 250 California and smiling sagely at Amalfi and Portofino like a real-world James Bond—the kind who does know how to retire for good—you learn to ignore the sniggers.
Abu Dhabi: The New and the Old
Meanwhile, the rest of the capital grows as a genuinely enriching Middle Eastern experience. At the spotless Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Swarovski chandeliers and gold-leaf-calligraphed walls vie for attention with columns studded with amethyst and jasper, not to mention the world’s largest hand-woven carpet in its main prayer room. We visit just in time to catch the pristine onion domes and glittering Moorish hallways in the departing golden light of the copious Emirati sun, which takes the photographic potential of the mosque to a godly level. The closing flourish to the legend of this talismanic structure is its status as the final resting place of the country’s founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, whose demise 18 years ago memorably plunged the nation into a large-scale mourning. About 18 days ago, his son Sheikh Khalifa, the country’s second president, died of prolonged illness. Despite a similar state mourning announced this time, the Bollywood awards haven’t had to wait too much, and Abu Dhabi has preserved a modicum of cheer.
The newly launched leisure and entertainment district of Al Qana is minutes away, and its centrepiece undoubtedly is the fascinating National Aquarium, which opened only in November 2021. This entrancing underwater showcase demonstrates Abu Dhabi’s emphasis on catering to all traveller profiles across the cross-section of its experiences, instead of silo-style attraction-building. Ten nautically themed zones hold over 300 species including capybaras, squirrel monkeys and puffins, in addition to the great variety of marine species that visitors will come face to face with. While signage guides and interactive experiences educate, shoals of fish swimming inside a phone booth and a car, delight one and all.
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I overhear Fast and Furious and Sex and the City (which was actually shot in Morocco) in the bus as we approach the Corniche Area one evening. I’m at Emirates Palace, the opulent government-owned hotel that has seen a number of international screen projects filmed and hosted a slew of pop stars and influential world leaders. The hotel’s distinctly Arab splendour and regional architectural themes belie its relatively recent provenance. The roughly one thousand chandeliers are all encrusted with Swarovski diamonds. The gold-leaf ceilings, which reportedly undergo a $1,30,000 upkeep every year, will have you looking up until you reach Mezlai, a luxurious restaurant taking its inspiration from Bedouin tents and promising an ambience that’s just as sumptuous as the food. The hotel itself shows off stunning Arabesques, stretching for nearly a kilometre from wing to wing—an unending sea of indulgence (spread across 10,00,000 square kilometres) that Abu Dhabi has used effectively to epitomise its own status as one of the wealthiest cities in the world. Perhaps there is no better way to understand it than by taking some of the palace’s gold back with you. Just order the Palace Cappuccino, a foamy cuppa that comes topped with 23-karat gold flakes, at Le Café, on your way back.
For a taste of the old times in a fast modernising metropolis or at least an abiding semblance of them, we drive towards the historic Hamdan Street, home not just to souks but some of the oldest malls and residential skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi, where I also tick LuLu Hypermarket off my list. Our destination, however, is the Mina Markets at Zayed Port, a hive of seaside activity where residents often make their way for their supply of seafood and fresh produce, and tourists, for sundry varieties of dates. As I enter a date shop owned by a Malayali, I briefly gain admittance to a fragment of the collective memory of the South Asian experience and its close ties with the Middle East. The old-world awnings and cut-to-the-chase shop displays are surviving ciphers to a time of unheeded cultural exchange, when traders and travellers in search of a living would leave familiar shores to start a life in the region. Or maybe, unlike some of its peers around the world that go back centuries, this is a fairly young city that has managed to preserve a modicum of the past.
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Prannay Pathak dreams about living out of a suitcase and retiring to the island of Hamneskär to watch films in solitary confinement. He is Assistant Editor (Digital) at National Geographic Traveller India.