You don't have to be a head of state to stay here ...

Can a mere hotel define an entire city? Sholto Byrnes reports from Abu Dhabi

France has the Louvre, Russia the Kremlin, and India the Taj Mahal. Late in the day, the government of Abu Dhabi has put up £2bn of its oil money to provide the capital of the United Arab Emirates with its own national monument. At one kilometre from end to end, the Emirates Palace rises through the distant haze, majestically occupying the whole of the beachfront at the end of the corniche, some of its 114 domes glowing purple and green in the Arabian night.

France has the Louvre, Russia the Kremlin, and India the Taj Mahal. Late in the day, the government of Abu Dhabi has put up £2bn of its oil money to provide the capital of the United Arab Emirates with its own national monument. At one kilometre from end to end, the Emirates Palace rises through the distant haze, majestically occupying the whole of the beachfront at the end of the corniche, some of its 114 domes glowing purple and green in the Arabian night.

It is a hotel. And building a hotel as a national monument may strike some as a rather odd choice. Surely Abu Dhabi boasts some magnificent remnants of its time as part of the Persian Sassanid Empire, the Kingdom of Hormuz or the Trucial Coast? The inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula, however, have tended to be careless of their antiquities.

The oasis town of Dir'aiyah, for instance, may be the ancestral home of the Sauds, but for years its streets were left to decay. Likewise, Oman has its desert forts, but anyone expecting a Middle Eastern version of Dover Castle will be disappointed. The discovery of oil in the last century makes it easy to forget what a backwater this region was for hundreds of years. The glories of neighbouring Sheba belong to another millennium, and until black gold was found in 1958, Abu Dhabi and the other sheikhdoms subsisted on pearl-diving and fishing.

The Emirates Palace hotel is the ultimate example of how the Gulf Arabs like to spend their new wealth. Crumbling old buildings are of less interest to them than magnificent edifices of marble and gold leaf, chandelier after chandelier, desks that look as though they belong on the Oscars ceremony set, and bathrooms the size of small apartments. What a triumph, then, for Abu Dhabi - which had shelved plans to build the largest mosque in the world in deference to Saudi pride in Mecca's Great Mosque - to have constructed the most expensive hotel on the planet. The concept that ostentation equals vulgar, remember, is alien here. The sheer scale, size, and cost are the important factors. Claims by the hotel management that it is "rich but understated" are to be discounted. This is a hotel that is never knowingly understated.

From the moment that the Palace's outline and the huge arch which precedes it come into view, the new visitor is aware that this is aimed at presidents and princes. The entrance leading up from the arch goes to a separate reception floor reserved for those checking into the 16 Palace suites, each of which has its own lift. Above them, on the eighth floor, are even more palatial suites, designed for the heads of government of the other Gulf Co-operation Council states, although the management suggests that other, non-GCC heads of government, may be allowed to stay in these suites if they are well behaved.

Lesser guests are met by dish-dash-clad Kenyans specially selected for their height (that is, after the new arrivals have had their cars taken by one of the 50-odd valet parkers); offered Arabic tea and coffee or German hot chocolate; taken to their rooms by one of the 35 female greeters, whose stunning, almost floor-length, cloaks and outfits are the product of an ex-Versace designer; and then given a tour of their lodgings by a butler.

There is one of these for every 12 rooms, and Mohammed, my butler, showed me the spacious bathroom, large bed, balcony, mini-bar, safe, and wardrobes, all of a standard that would satisfy the seasoned high-end traveller. Then he began to explain the touch-pad from which the lights, air-conditioning, and plasma screen (for TV, movies, internet and wake-up call) are controlled, but I cut him short. Foolishly, it turned out, as the technology was so simple and brilliant that I could barely switch a thing on. Mohammed was back in an instant. "Thank you sir," he beamed, as I told him of my bafflement. It might help if there was the odd switch or two; if that seems too old-fashioned they could always plate them with gold.

The soul of a place like this is difficult to locate. The huge dimensions are impressive - the ballroom is the biggest in Abu Dhabi, and the central dome, with a diameter of 42 metres, is one of the largest in the world - but seem empty. They are cathedrals with no sense of piety, and where no god is worshipped but some celestial loadsamoney. To be fair, the hotel is not yet open, and the armies of staff polishing, waiting, or simply in attendance, will not seem so overwhelming when the numbers of guests are above two figures. But the corridors are endless. From room to reception, for instance, can be a 10-minute walk. That's a long way to trudge if you forget a pair of swimming trunks. One member of staff told me that it took him a week to learn his way around the hotel. Getting lost yet another time, I found the image coming to mind of the little boy in The Shining, trundling his trike incessantly in the deafening silence.

The pools are pleasantly laid out on the beachside of both wings, east and west (the latter pool, not yet finished, will have children's slides), and on the 1.8km seafront laps a sheltered bay, framed on the left by a marina and on the right by a mall. From the hotel, a distant Ikea sign stands clear of the mall, reminding the homesick traveller that spiritually, at least, we are not far from Brent Cross.

Of the 20 planned "food outlets", two are currently open. La Vendôme is the central restaurant, where guests will breakfast, and be able to lunch or dine from an à la carte menu, or choose from an extensive international buffet which includes a splendid Arabic mezze. Mezzaluna, where Luigi, the chef, is bringing an opera singer to serenade diners, offers upmarket Italian. Sayad, the signature seafood restaurant, will not have a menu. Guests will consult the chef on the preparation of their desired dishes. High prices are the consequence, with many main courses costing up to £30. Even a small Turkish coffee is £7. But then, explained the food and beverage manager, this is not the kind of hotel where guests will worry about such matters.

The Emirates Palace is confident of attracting visitors from around the world, especially as a winter-sun destination. Equally important will be conference bookings; the two-wing design will keep the suits and the sunseekers separate.Those with large wallets who head for the Palace are expected to stay mainly within its grounds, apart from, perhaps, an excursion into the desert for sand-skiing and wadi-bashing.

On the day I left, lines of staff waited for hours on end for the arrival of the German Chancellor and his entourage. No doubt he was impressed when he saw the men in bright white tunics and the women in traditional German costume. This hotel has been built with visitors like him in mind. Lesser mortals can gaze in awe at this stupendous national monument - and then in shock at the size of their bills.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

The writer travelled as a guest of Ethiad Airways (0870 241 7121; www.ethiadairways.com) which offers return flights from London Heathrow and Gatwick to Abu Dhabi from £299.

What's the damage?

Double rooms at the Emirates Palace (00 971 2 690 8888; www.emiratespalace.com) start from AED2,000 (£300) per night, including breakfast. For reservations contact Kempinski (00 800 426 313 55; www.kempinski.com).

Further information

Go to www.abudhabichamber.ae

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