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

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
video
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Jodie Stimpson crosses the finishing line to win gold in the women's triathlon
Commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan stars as Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey movie
filmFirst look at Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey trailor
Life and Style
Phillips Idowu, Stella McCartney and Jessica Ennis
fashionMcCartney to continue designing Team GB Olympics kit until 2016
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
Sport
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game