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Abu Dhabi - Classy development site

The drivers competing on Abu Dhabi’s desert racetrack push their vehicles to the limit, hurtling around hairpins, overtaking each other in death-defying maneuvers on the home stretch and thundering under the bridge straddled by the luxury Yas Hotel, the 800 horses under their engine hoods straining at the bit. But the last time they were out there dicing with death there was only one guest in the spa of that beautiful snow-white hotel overlooking the racetrack. A middle-aged woman enjoying a massage in a darkened room lit only with candles and filled with meditative music. She had literally come here to seek refuge from the race.

“She was the mother of one of the drivers,” explains Aoibheanna Bonner, the spa manager, “and she was worried about him.” Did the manager remember the driver’s name? “Of course,” she replies with a smile. But she doesn’t reveal it. Discretion is writ large in the luxury hotels that are springing up out of the desert sand all along the Gulf coast. These hotels are a key part of the master plan for the future of Abu Dhabi, which is trying to reduce its dependence on oil by moving into service industries and tourism. Auto racing is an important element of the plan because it’s dynamic and exciting; it’s all about speed and winning and brand consciousness. In short, all of the values so beloved of Emiratis. There’s still a lot of sand around the place. Many of the attractions that are going to bring the world to Abu Dhabi are not yet operational or even completed, but they are springing up with breathtaking speed.

Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates and by far the richest of the emirates, is acquiring almost overnight a new skyline of glass, steel and concrete designed by renowned international architects. The Yas Hotel with its futuristic honeycomb design and ingeniously lit facade is one of the emirate’s most recent and most striking architectural achievements.

Others are in the works, as the world’s best-known architects strive to help Abu Dhabi fulfill its vision for the future. French architect Jean Nouvel is working on a branch of the Paris Louvre planned for the island of Saadiyat. Its dome will be studded with decorative openings that channel daylight into the exhibition rooms.

The new museum will have to pay a hefty licensing fee for the right to bear the famous name, but this will allow it to rent items from the Paris Louvre for exhibition in Abu Dhabi. Frank Gehry is busy designing a gigantic branch of New York’s Guggenheim Museum using the convoluted architectural style of his Guggenheim branch in Bilbao, Spain. “I’m building something that the sheiks already love and that I’m very proud of,” says the Canadian-American architect. Other talent working there includes architect Zaha Hadid, who is building an enormous stage complex called the Center for Performing Arts, and Sir Norman Foster, who has completed design of a national museum dedicated to Abu Dhabi’s founder, Sheik Zayed.

The first of these museums is scheduled to open in 2013. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan is the driving force behind most of these mammoth projects. He wants to avoid “westernization” of Abu Dhabi and the sort of frenetic building craze that engulfed Dubai. His plan is to pursue a more conservative strategy that will bring the emirate all modern amenities while preserving its Arab heritage. He is acting in accordance with the wishes of his father, Zayed, who died in 2004. “A country is not measured by its size on the map but by its heritage and culture. A nation without a past is a nation without a present and a future.”

UNESCO recently emphasized its agreement with that opinion by declaring the oasis of Al Ain in the emirate’s interior a world heritage site. The initiative to put Abu Dhabi on the international tourist map began with the construction of a spectacular hotel featuring columns

decorated in gold leaf, 1002 chandeliers, more than 100 solid gold wash basins and a vending machine for gold bullion in the lobby – all very reminiscent of Dubai’s success story that began with the Burj al-Arab. The outrageously extravagant Emirates Palace began making headlines as soon as it opened in 2005. This sort of project is only possible in a country where money is no object. Like Abu Dhabi. Although the new Sheik Zayed Mosque, completed in 2007, cost Abu Dhabi over 500 million dollars, but hardly made a dent in the state coffers.

Now the world’s third-largest Muslim place of worship, it is an enormous complex topped by 82 domes with space for 40 000 worshippers. Non-Muslims are allowed to enter and admire it. Nor did the sheiks stint at the opening of Ferrari World, the world’s largest indoor amusement park. The roof alone measures 200 000 square meters. The park’s central theme is motor sports, and it has the world’s fastest roller coaster, which hurtles around the complex at speeds of up to 240 kilometers per hour. Asked how the public has reacted to the park, the attendant at the entrance beams: “Sheik Mohammed loves Ferrari World.” That’s what matters to this man, the public’s opinion is much less important. And the park is one of the places in Abu Dhabi, where few Arab traditions are visible, but that is not apparently regarded as a violation of official policy in this case.

The next Formula One Grand Prix will start on November 4. The entrance to the racetrack is right across from the Ferrari World park. Many of the teams will stay at the Yas Hotel, and the motor sports-addicted crown prince will once again entertain his guests in a fancy suite overlooking the track. If the mother of that nameless driver decides to repeat her visit, she will no doubt seek out the gentle ministrations of Aoibheanna Bonner. But no matter how high the soothing music is turned up, it won’t entirely drown out the roars of the crowd and the shouts of jubilation when the winners cross the finish line.

 
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