Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi is like NYC, but with better traffic, no subway, and no soul. Don't get me wrong--I enjoyed my three days here. The cuisine and service are excellent. If you like sweet pastries and even sweeter drinks, this place can be heaven on earth. I didn't try all the drinks, but here's a short list of ones to try: qahwa (tangy, watery coffee), chai/tea, karak chai, tea zafran, Turkish coffee (the go-to in any respectable cafe here), date milkshakes (my favorite), jellab (I didn't see this one during my stay), and habbath al hamra. 

Camel milk and camel meat are the region's specialty, but they're not widely available. I don't think the natives favor the camel-inspired industry--they're all in Starbucks, which doesn't serve Turkish coffee or any of the interesting drinks I just mentioned.

I didn't have time to try the camel burger at Le Cafe (inside Emirates Palace), but I did try their camel milk cappuccino (aka Camelccino). I'm sad to say it didn't taste much different than a normal cappuccino, though some people claim it's saltier. The highlight for most people with social media accounts will be the Emirates Palace Cappuccino, which is topped with 23-karat gold flakes. (By the way, the Emirates Palace is a fancy hotel, not an actual palace--but a must-see regardless. Their high tea is great.) 
There's gold in dem coffee!
My "foodie" highlight occurred at a cafe called Petek, where I ordered far too many drinks and pastries and could not move from my chair. (Worth it.) 
The lime-colored pudding was the best.
Cost for the whole spread: 30 USD.

Before I continue, let me say the UAE, which includes Abu Dhabi and Dubai, is not cheap. It is on par with San Francisco prices. If you're a foodie, you can stay at a reasonably-priced hotel before flying to another location. I stayed at Hotel Mercure--if you book on a third party website, you'll incur a tax/fee upon check-in, so have about 45 to 50 dirhams ready. 

Insofar as "typical" attractions are concerned, Abu Dhabi's claim to fame is its numerous conferences and events. As a result, its hotels are exquisite, and almost every building is creatively designed, yet not as touristy as you might expect. In fact, several of the most pristine waterfront areas haven't suffered development, which surprised me. For a pleasant evening diversion, you can go to the main public beach (the Corniche) and walk along the 8 km pedestrian and bicycle path. The beach has warm water, so feel free to swim. 

Other than the Emirates Palace/Hotel and the Corniche, the main tourist spots are as follows: Manarat Al Saadiyat, Qasr Al Hosn (closed for the time being), Heritage Village (a faux old market with a restaurant), Yas Mall (connected to Ferrari World), Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Yas Waterworld, and Ferrari World. (The Louvre Abu Dhabi will open November 2017.) 

Of these, the Emirates Palace, Corniche, Grand Mosque and Ferrari World were my favorites (I did not have time to go to Manarat Al Saadiyat or Yas Waterworld). If you're a thrill-seeker, you've got to go to Ferrari World, which has the fastest rollercoaster in the world. I was drenched in my own sweat afterwards, and I only managed to open my eyes for a split second during the ride. A local citizen saw me stumbling around after the ride and quickly brought me water.

The Emirates Palace contains Le Cafe, which has the gold flakes cappuccino and camel burger, along with high tea. Wear jeans/slacks and shoes or you won't be allowed in--no sandals or shorts allowed.

The Grand Mosque is relatively new, so you won't feel a sense of piety there, but as a tourist attraction, it's excellent. Take a tour to get the full experience.

Grand Mosque
As of 2017, Abu Dhabi has no reliable VPNs [Update: see below], no Uber, Careem, or OTaxi. If you want to get a taxi, you need to wait at one of the numerous taxi spots/stands, and one will eventually arrive. Minimum fare is 12 dirhams. The bus is much cheaper. 

Most people are from somewhere else. In the event you meet a citizen, you will feel immediate warmth and friendliness. The citizens in the UAE are alive and well, but almost everyone else walks around without any real connection to the country apart from work. Major downsides exist to having so many residents--many educated, many uneducated--without any path to citizenship. People who live or work in any country without a meaningful way of gaining citizenship will feel and act differently than the natives.  Given the obvious surveillance that occurs--not just CCTVs everywhere, but also the difficulty in using VPNs--Abu Dhabi feels like a very comfortable place in need of an ideology besides money. 

To its credit, their leaders know this. As I said before, the citizens are wonderful, open, and kind--but there are not enough of them to counter the intangible costs of other residents attached to the kingdom only temporarily.

Despite the numerous glitzy attractions available, my most memorable experience was meeting a humble Afghan immigrant making bread the traditional way. Cost of the delicious bread? Just one dirham, or about 25 cents. 

Perhaps I was overly harsh in the beginning when I said Abu Dhabi has no soul. Much of what people call a "soulless vibe" comes from the country being so new. With time, Abu Dhabi may feel different. Few other countries can match its diversity, wealth, and leadership. In short, the UAE's future, unlike most developed nations, is completely open, and it can go almost any direction it chooses. Neighboring Qatar has already recognized the citizenship issue and made it easier for non-natives to gain permanent residency. (Correction: earlier version stated citizenship has been made easier, but it's actually permanent residency--the first step to gradually easing in future citizens.) Once UAE workers begin to feel as if they can truly be a part of the country's future, there will be no stopping the UAE. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2017)

Update re: VPNs: technically, the UAE claims VPNs are allowed, as long as they are not used for criminal activity. However, not only is this standard subjective, but Abu Dhabi's public WiFi networks don't appear fully compatible with mainstream VPN providers. Abu Dhabi is the only country thus far where I've had to reinstall my VPN several times and where using a VPN didn't work after just one to two minutes of connection time.

Update on October 2017: I've seen a few stories of tourists claiming to be mistreated in the UAE, and the common factor is alcohol. Alcohol can be found in the UAE, but it's not common. As a result, drunk tourists are a rarity and not appreciated. Don't get drunk and don't do illegal drugs, and you should be fine. 

To give you an idea of the UAE's openness, prostitution is illegal but tolerated and informally regulated. Prostitutes congregate only on certain streets, and only late at night. Hotels require them to register their passports at the front desk, creating data that can be used by the government to track activities. Enterprising prostitutes use this "passport rule" to negotiate their prices upwards by claiming it will take more time to collect and bring their passport. Interestingly, all the women I saw loitering outside at night were from African countries, but a taxi driver told me different groups work on a few different corners. 

No comments: