Abu Dhabi – Old Traditions and New Horizons

Liz Gill discovers a cherished heritage and an exciting cultural future

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The hospital waiting room is full but the patients seem remarkably composed; it’s their companions who occasionally get up and pace about or check times with the receptionist. They know, of course, that the place offers state-of-the-art surgery, ophthalmology, endoscopy, radiology and a dozen other cutting edge procedures. Still, the patients are precious to them and in some cases worth thousands of pounds.

For this is a hospital not for humans but for falcons and it’s in Abu Dhabi where the bird is both the national emblem and a link with its people’s desert origins and ancient traditions.

Where Europeans hunted for sport, the nomads of the Arabian peninsula hunted for survival, their falcons bringing down rabbits, birds three times their size, even gazelles. In the old days they would catch and train one each autumn and release it in spring before the heat of summer.

Today the capture of wild ones is forbidden in the United Arab Emirates as is hunting itself but falconry remains a passion. Birds are bred in captivity and travel on special hunting expeditions to places like Uzbekistan. Each has its own passport with exit and entry stamps –there’s no photo though because the feathers change too often – and can even travel on the wrist of its owner inside the cabin of an Etihad plane.

I’ve learned all this – and much else besides – on a fascinating tour of the hospital. It sees 6,500 birds a year for illness or injury or for preventive measures like health checks and claw clipping. We’ve watched them be anaesthetised and while they’re asleep been shown their wing span, inside their beaks, even peeked at their normally hidden ears. We’ve seen a live video of an exploration of a bird’s lung and looked closely at the selection of the little hoods they wear to keep them calm, each one an exquisitely crafted avian fashion statement. Mostly magically we’ve been able to hold and touch them.

Falconers write poems and songs to their birds, says the centre’s director Dr. Margit Muller, and can be devastated when one dies. “They’re part of the family.” Hunting expeditions are social gatherings, the men cooking what their birds have killed and eating together round the camp fire as they’ve done for generations.

This clinging to old customs while embracing the ultra-modern seems to sum up Abu Dhabi. Its rate of growth has been phenomenal. Barely 50 years ago it was a small settlement of simple homes clustered around an old fort built to defend the water well. Today it has a Manhattan style skyline. Tomorrow it should have some of the most dazzling museums and art galleries in the world.

The change, of course, was due to the discovery that Abu Dhabi – the name of both the country and its capital city – sat on about 10 per cent of the world’s oil reserves and five per cent of its natural gas. Under the astute leadership of the late Sheikh Zayed, (an expert falconer himself incidentally), oil was used not just to provide jobs and material prosperity but to create modern social institutions and infrastructure and to kick start a tourist industry.

It’s a journey that could be symbolised by two structures at either end of the coastal Corniche Road. One is the sumptuous Emirates Palace Hotel which has a dome bigger than St. Paul’s and where they get through a kilo of gold a month just decorating chocolates and cakes. The other is the Heritage Village where we have a go at weaving on hand looms and turning a potter’s wheel in the recreation of an old oasis settlement.

The size of Abu Dhabi’s ambition is clear when you visit Saadiyat Island, a massive development 500 metres offshore which will eventually have over two dozen hotels plus golf courses, marinas, villas and apartments and a group of landmark buildings including a Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Gehry, a Louvre by Jean Nouvel and the Zayed National Museum by Norman Foster.

None of these is actually finished yet – they’re all due to complete over the next few years – and visitors to the Island’s information centre have to make do with scale models and CGIs  but the first hotel, the St. Regis, opened last December and that’s where we are staying.

It’s five star with 377 rooms and suites and has such grand proportions – acres of marble floor, soaring ceilings, massive statement chandeliers and pieces of furniture and corridors and anterooms far bigger and wider than they ever need to be – that I get a sort of Alice in Wonderland moment in which I feel that I might have shrunk.

It’s not, I’m told, just a case of showing off: emiratis with their nomadic desert ancestry like uncrowded spaces and the opportunity to be silent. When nearly 90 per cent of the population of your country is now made up of ex-pats, it becomes particularly important to hold on to your heritage, hence the wearing of traditional dress with the style of a man’s headdress denoting which tribe he belongs to and the full veiling of many women. There’s even a women’s only bank with a notice on the door: ‘no men allowed’. 

A dress code is, of course, rigorously enforced at the stunning Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque: bare legs or tight clothing must be covered just to get you from the gate to the robing room where men are given long white dishdashas and women full length black robes called abayas and sheyla headscarves.

The scale of the Mosque is, quite simply, astonishing. It has 82 domes, 1,000 columns, the world’s largest hand knotted carpet and can hold 41,000 worshippers. Like so much in Abu Dhabi it is a monument to what can be achieved with a vast amount of empty space and seemingly unlimited money.

The spending is still going on and indeed much of the place is a work in progress but two completed attractions are already proving a major draw. One is the Yas Marina Circuit which will host the 2012 Formula 1 Grand Prix later this year but which offers other kinds of racing at other times plus driver experiences. These include the chance to be driven at speeds of up to 165 mph in an Aston Martin GT4 or to have a crack at a circuit oneself.

Next door is Ferrari World a theme park based on the iconic Italian car. Attractions include the cars themselves – and you don’t have to be a petrol head to appreciate their beauty – and a variety of simulated and real rides. I tried three virtual ones: Driving With The Champion where you feel to be in the car; Speed of Magic where you whiz  through a fantasy world and Viaggio in Italia where you’re hoisted into the air to look down on a screen and feel the sensation of flying over the famous Mille Miglia route.

I’m afraid I baulked though at the Formula Rossa. Always a bit of a coward about white knuckle rides, I though the world’s fastest roller coaster might not be the best place to overcome my fears. Braver chums emerged ecstatic about being catapulted 170ft into the sky at 150 mph in less than five seconds but for wimps like me the evening ride which followed it – a lazy glide along the coast in a traditional wooden dhow – was excitement enough.

Getting There
For a short break Travelbag has three nights at the 5* St Regis Saadiyat Island on a B&B Basis from £729 per person, including flights with Gulf Air from London Heathrow and Abu Dhabi airport transfers. Book by 31 October for travel between 10 January and 15 February 2013.

For a longer stay Travelbag is offering three nights at the 5* St Regis Saadiyat Island on a B&B Basis, and three nights at the 5* Beach Rotana, in downtown Abu Dhabi on a B&B Basis, from £899 per person including flights with Gulf Air from London Heathrow and Abu Dhabi airport transfers. Book by 31 October for travel between 10 January and 15 February 2013.

To book call 0871 703 4240 www.travelbag.co.uk

More information from:
www.szgmc.ae  (Grand Mosque)

Article and images copyright Liz Gill

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