I set off on the hour-and-a-bit drive from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, with little excitement. I'd made a contact on Twitter who offered to show me round the capital and I was desperate to get out of Dubai so I took a risk.
It paid off – my travel companion was excellent company and very well informed. My knowledge of Abu Dhabi being fairly perfunctory, I left the itinerary in his hands and I soon began to suspect that he might work for Guinness World Records because the tour definitely had a theme ….
Our first stop was the man-made Yas Island, home of the Formula 1 racing circuit and the revolting-sounding Ferrari World. This was pretty much what I expected – a vast shopping opportunity for people who don't actually own a Ferrari but want the "merch". It did, however, boast the world's fastest roller coaster which we braved wearing our Ferrari protective eyewear. We were left in no doubt that this thing was fast – so fast that there was no longer any need for lunch so we popped over to Saadiyat Island which is set to be culture HQ for Abu Dhabi (a new Louvre is being built there.)
At that moment there wasn't much to see so we headed into town proper and stopped at the Emirates Palace, the world's most expensive hotel – it cost a mere £3bn to build. At one stage the place was offering a £1m package-break that included being helicoptered over to Iran to have your own carpet made for you.
Unsurprisingly, it was Bling Central. The lobby alone was so vast that it could have been a contender to host the F1 Grand Prix.
I started to feel a bit ill in there so we went to look at other architectural delights. We parked outside the world's most leaning building. It was impressive but strangely pointless since most architecture up till now has been about stopping buildings from leaning. It was also further proof, should I have needed it, that somewhere in this country was a bar full of architects howling with laughter at the latest thing they'd been able to build.
The pièce de résistance however, was our last destination – the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. It is the largest mosque in the world that non-Muslims can visit and, in a country that doesn't really go for architectural beauty, it is utterly magnificent. It boasts the world's largest carpet and the world's largest chandelier (by now you'll have realised that everything here has to be the biggest) and is one of the most wonderful buildings I've seen... and yet I'd never heard of it.
Having just revisited Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul, I had something to compare it with and Sheikh Zayed won hands down. Possibly because it is so new, it doesn't yet rate on the global consciousness. It most certainly will though. This is a building that has been constructed with the purpose of announcing to the world that the UAE has arrived. And it does the job.Reuse content