Abu Dhabi

Caught between the blue sky and the Gulf's blue waters, Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, is a city reflected in the blue glass of its towering skyscrapers.

You’re a member of the generation that witnessed the start of the new millennium. How our world would be in the future was a question discussed the world over at the turn of the 21st century. Expo 2000, the world's hitherto biggest fair, was held in Germany on exactly this theme in the first year of the millennium. All the countries in the world staged promotions at the fair and presented their projects for the future. The most interesting promotion that I remember from this fair, which I visited as a university student, was that of the United Arab Emirates. First you watched the country's projects through 3D glasses on a special 360-degree rotating screen in a giant space. The minute you left that venue you entered another gigantic area covered with sand and tents. The United Arab Emirates had devoted a large part of its promotional space to the desert. Yes, our country is in the middle of the desert, they explained. But, you'll see, in the future we are going to be in a completely different dimension!

It wasn't ten years before I saw the country with my own eyes. My plane landed at Dubai airport. All along the 145-km drive to Abu Dhabi I kept en eye out for the desert, but all I saw was row upon row of giant buildings. For a long time after we left Dubai, the outline of a hotel shaped like a giant sail remained visible in the distance. After that we passed some buildings under construction punctuated by vacant lots. I kept asking myself what kind of city I was going to. Some time later we were again surrounded by tall buildings, and then, suddenly, there was Abu Dhabi, gleaming in their glass facades.

How you explore a city depends on how many steps you take. As you walk along, you get a better understanding of those who are walking with you, those who have walked before you and even those who will walk after you. I first stepped into the streets of Abu Dhabi on a Friday morning. Rows of expensive cars were lined up at the entrance to the luxury hotel with blue glass facade rising on the shore. They had said that nobody walks far in this city because of the terrific heat. A taxi pulled up alongside me, but I didn't get in. Instead I plunged into one of the boulevards that runs perpendicular to the Corniche, an esplanade which extends for six kilometers around the bay. The streets were deserted. Friday is not a workday and everybody was at breakfast. The only people out were customers buying bread from the bakeries.

Lined up side by side, almost all the tall buildings are uniform in height, most of them covered in blue glass facades. I'm not talking about the giant towers but the tall buildings. You can only infer what might be inside from the signs. One says it's a bank, another a library; some are the university. But each one is encased in the same blue glass. Among the tall buildings, the mosques are immediately distinguishable by their white domes. They are the only places you can look at and guess what's inside. Some of the mosque gardens have overhanging porticoes where people are stretched out in the shade waiting to perform their prayers. As noon approaches there is  more activity in the streets. Some of the mosques fill to capacity at the Friday noon prayer hour, and the faithful spill over into the streets.

Many families, indeed almost everybody in the city, comes together on the Corniche on weekend Friday afternoons. Each of the broad boulevards that run parallel to each other ends here in any case. The major firms too generally have their headquarters near the Corniche. You can see green areas large and small almost all over the city. On the Corniche they lie side by side, covered with picnicking families spread out on the grass. When the temperature goes over 40 degrees C in summer, the coastal area turns into a beach. In winter when temperature 20 degrees, the main activity is either strolling or picnicking. Men, women and children - young and old, heads covered or bare, on bikes or skateboards - can be seen on this avenue in a panorama of the city's population.

Close to a million people live in the city of Abu Dhabi, capital of the emirate of the same name. Eighty percent of these people are foreigners, most of whom work either in construction or in the services sector.    The well-heeled natives spend their time, and money, in the restaurants and shopping malls, most of which have English names. When you enter one of these malls, you feel you could be any place in the world, perhaps even in Istanbul. The familiar brand names, the furnishings, the architectural style, the marble, the glass... You can only shake this feeling if you go to the city's old bazaar. There everything is much cheaper. Everything from perfume and home furnishings to food and electronic equipment is sold side by side. The only thing unique to the East are the spices and foodstuffs. The city's two contrasting aspects are most conspicuous in these two shopping venues.

This is a term we hear frequently with reference particularly to projects in Dubai -  its most luxurious hotel, for example, in the shape of a giant sail, its giant manmade islands and its snow park, all of which are described in superlatives. Similar projects are now getting rapidly under way in Abu Dhabi as well. It all began with a luxury hotel, the Emirates Palace, which opened in 2005 and rises like something out of the Thousand and One Nights with its 114 domes. The fountains and palm trees in its garden make you feel as if you're at Versailles. It could take you a whole hour just to walk around this colossal hotel with its seven thousand doors, 1002 crystal chandeliers, 140 elevators and eight thousand palm trees.

Another project in progress is one similar to Dubai's manmade islands. The only difference between the gigantic island of Saadiyet and those of Dubai is that Saadiyet is a real offshore island some 500 meters from the city. This gargantuan, 27,000-square meters tourism project, on which world-renowned architects like Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry are working, is expected to be completed in three phases between 2012 and 2018. The island, where 150,000 people are expected to live, will boast a total of three yacht harbors, two golf courses and 29 hotels with over seven thousand rooms. A jungle for wild animals is also going to be created on the island, where motor vehicles will be banned. Museums such as the Louvre and the Guggenheim are also expected to build branches here which will open to visitors in 2012. Yet another entertainment industry investment is a culture and amusement park planned by Warner Brothers. One leg of the Formula 1 motor races will also be held in Abu Dhabi starting in 2009. Through these investments the emirate hopes to garner the lion's share of the Middle Eastern tourist industry. And the international airport, currently with a capacity of three million, is going to be expanded to twenty million by 2010 in yet another crucial investment.
But to return to where we started, Abu Dhabi is the 'capital' of the Persian Gulf. A city of blue glass between the blue sky and the Gulf's blue waters. The sun is reflected off the buildings, the people are in the park. As the blue fades in the gathering dusk, lights rise from the city's minarets. Looking westward during the daytime, Abu Dhabi turns it face to the East at evening and returns to itself. It's just the way it is.