The riches of Abu Dhabi


The riches of Abu Dhabi

Diamonds are a girl's best friend? Evidently that is the case after visiting the twelfth jewellery shop at the Gold Souk, Abu Dhabi's premier source of all that glitters and shines. Was there no end to the number of rings, bracelets, pendants and earrings one girl could try? How naive of me. Of course there wasn't.

Dozens of shops are housed in the souk in Madinat Zayet, downtown Abu Dhabi, all selling a spellbinding variety of jewellery, most of it, as suggested by the name of the souk, gold. It positively drips from the cabinets and window displays, some of it supremely elegant, but much of it splendid in its tastelessness. But we are scouring for diamonds.

Shop visit number 13 produces the much anticipated breakthrough. Hours after entering the souk, my girlfriend spots not so much her best friend glittering amid the array of diamond-encrusted displays, but more of a life partner. We emerge after a lengthy period - time had long since become immaterial - with a small parcel containing a pair of earrings.

It must be said, 40% off the original asking price seems like a decent piece of haggling, an accepted - and expected - way of conducting business in the souks of Abu Dhabi.

Quite how all these small businesses survive is difficult to fathom, selling as they do the same items of exaggerated beauty. But then Abu Dhabi and its citizens have lately enjoyed the fruits of rapid growth and the attendant prosperity that goes with it.

It's hard to imagine this city in its previous natural guise - so far removed from the modern day incarnation of high rise buildings and luxury yachts. But as recently as the late 1960s it was a largely barren land with scattered communities trading in fish and pearls. For centuries this lifestyle of mostly rustic pursuits was enough to sustain the inhabitants.

And then came oil. And that, as they say, was that. The initial offshore discovery in 1958 was the catalyst for Abu Dhabi's startling transformation. The ruling Al Nahyan family, who have been influential within Abu Dhabi since the late 18th century, suddenly found themselves massively enriched once the black gold began to flow. And it seems that the only thing greater than the volume of resources beneath the emirate's surface are the ambitions of the wealthy ruling elite.

Quite where to start in documenting the largesse of recent years is tricky. But motorsport, a wealthy man's pursuit if ever there was one, seems as good a place as any. For instance, the Formula 1 racetrack on Yas Marina Island has seen four races conducted since its grand opening in 2009. It is considered to be the most impressive race track ever created, with no expense spared to develop the class leading facility.

Elsewhere, away from the petrol fumes and perhaps targeting a more rarefied clientele, a Guggenheim art gallery is under construction on Saadiyat Island. Ultimately scheduled to cover 30,000 square metres and slated for completion around 2017, it will be the largest of the world's Guggenheims. Its total cost is estimated to be a lazy $US200 million ($194 million).

Thankfully there's a fair bit in the coffers to pay for such lavish undertakings. Abu Dhabi (the name of both the city and the wider emirate) controls 87% of the United Arab Emirates' oil reserves and 10% of the world's total reserves.

The Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque, in the Al Maqtaa region, is another site that is indicative of this extraordinary wealth. It is located 30 minutes from the city centre, although our taxi driver manages it in 10, treating the public roads like his own private Formula 1 circuit. "Are you scared sir?" he asks at one point while careering from lane to lane, oblivious to the presence of other motorists. I must be giving that impression, although I maintain a stiff upper lip.

Somehow we arrive in one piece and behold the mosque, known locally as The Grand Mosque. It is an oasis of calm, the antithesis of the preceding mayhem in the cab - a majestic and imposing construction of white marble, stone, gold, semi-precious stones and crystals. It is also open to all comers, in an admirable attempt to bridge the divide between faiths and religions.

It features more than 80 domes of varying sizes and a 1580 square metre courtyard of floral marble designs. In addition, huge ornamental chandeliers - including the largest in the world - are suspended over the world's largest hand-woven Persian carpet. The main hall can accommodate 10,000 worshippers and if filled to capacity can house an astonishing 41,000 people.

Abu Dhabi's other main landmark is no less impressive. But while The Grand Mosque is tranquil and uncomplicated, the Emirates Palace is anything but. Reputedly built at an eye-watering cost of 3.9 billion pounds ($6 billion), the Palace, a hotel which opened in 2005, is unashamedly opulent. It is surrounded by over 100 hectares of landscaped gardens and has 1.3km of private beach, in case you were worried about securing a spot. The property boasts 302 rooms and 92 suites - and if only the best will do, a night in the Palace Grand Suite will set you back $US11,500 ($11,150).

A stone's throw from this colossus of a property lies the old Abu Dhabi, a heritage village which portrays Bedouin life in the days before oil. It is a gentle reminder to visitors that the emirate has a history and culture that flourished well before the 1960s.

A taste of that Arabian culture may also be found at The Lebanon Flower, a chain of restaurants recommended for traditional flavour and local clientele.

We aren't disappointed either as the meal of warm bread, stuffed vine leaves, hummus, falafel and a variety of kebabs appears to be the staple diet of pretty much every other diner in the restaurant.

Regrettably for us however, there is no prospect of any alcohol to accompany this excellent fare, as no restaurant or bar other than those connected to a hotel is permitted to sell it. Which is a pity, because while diamonds are normally a girl's best friend, a cold beer with a good meal is one of mine.