Saturday, June 13, 2009

Desert Notes: Now where is that exactly?

When my husband was first offered the opportunity to work in Abu Dhabi, all I knew for sure was that it was the place to which Garfield used to mail Nermal and that it was somewhere near Dubai.

Of course, being an internet addict I started trawling web pages to find out more. Abu Dhabi, it turned out, was both the capital city and the name of the largest emirate within the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The UAE itself is made up of 7 such emirates, which also include Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Qaiwain, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah.

The largest portion of the UAE coast is on the Arabian Gulf (known mistakenly by many as the Persian Gulf), while a short stretch of coastline edges into the Gulf of Oman. Its nearest neighbours are Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Oman. On the opposite side of the Gulf is Iran.

Map of Middle East

So I now knew where Abu Dhabi was. And I knew that it was the economic hub of the UAE and that it originally supported a community of fisherman and pearl divers. Plus I knew from family friends who had worked that that it had two malls. And that it was hot and humid. For some reason all rational sense flew out of my head and I imagined Abu Dhabi as a sort of "Nelspruit-by-the-sea" in terms of its weather, its population and city life.
What had failed to register in my house-moving addled brain was the words “economic hub”. And the fact that Abu Dhabi city was in fact an island. A rather large one. In fact, the emirate itself (including the island city) occupies nearly 85% of the total land mass of the UAE.

So needless to say, when we eventually arrived in Abu Dhabi I was amazed. Not only was the city much, much larger and far more crowded than I had imagined, but the fact that it was surrounded by water made me completely lose my sense of direction (my husband would tell you I didn’t have very much of one in the first place). (Abu Dhabi skyline)

The total population of the UAE is around 2.8 million, with around 930 000 of them based in Abu Dhabi emirate and around 500 000 of that figure in the city itself. Only 19% of people living in the UAE are actually citizens (known locally as UAE nationals). The remainder are expatriate workers from around the world: Gulf/Arab states (23%), South Asian (50%), other expatriate (Western and East Asian) 8%.

The two malls I had been told about referred only to the two newest malls – Marina Mall and Abu Dhabi Mall. But these are not the only ones, and nor are they even the biggest. We have been here over 6 months and I STILL haven’t been in all of them! It’s a shopaholic’s paradise….

Despite having that typical “it-could-be-anywhere” big city skyline, it is unmistakably different too. The architecture has retained much of the traditional middle-eastern/Islamic style, and slick steel and glass constructions are delicately decorated with arches and minarets.

It is very cosmopolitan, and on any given day you can hear Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Malayam, Tagalog, French, Russian and English being spoken all around you. You are just as likely to see a long-legged blonde in a micro-mini as you are to see a woman covered from head to foot in her black gown (known here as an abaya) with just her eyes peeking out from behind her sheyla (veil).

The smells are different too. You get the sea smell, along with a “swampier” note from the vegetation covered sandbanks in the khors (creeks) that surround the island. In the malls you are welcomed by the scents of sandalwood and oud (frankincense) sold at the local perfumeries. And don’t forget the sweetly spicy apple flavoured tobacco scents from the sheesha pipes that waft past on lazy weekend afternoons.

The sounds are typically big city with added car horns for emphasis and punctuated at regular intervals by the five-times-daily calls to prayer that echo out across the city from the mosques that literally are found on every street corner.

It’s an interesting place to be, and I look forward to sharing my experiences with you over the next few weeks!

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