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Abu Dhabi, the Next Xanadu?

Ad1 by Bobbie Leigh

When you are sitting on almost 10 percent of the world’s oil, you should be able to accomplish miracles. Even without a surfeit of petrodollars, China built its new Beijing Airport in less than four years. Now we await the Abu Dhabi miracle: Sadiyaat Island. This is no pipe dream although when you view the model of the 670-acre island, it does seem like an Arabian Nights fantasy. The new island will be connected to Abu Dhabi by bridges and will eventually be home to some 150,000 residents, three marinas, major parks, restaurants, 29 hotels, and two golf courses. The island’s superstar attraction is its new $27 billion cultural district, which is on its way to becoming a reality .

The first of the buildings planned for Sadiyaat Island’s waterfront cultural district are due to open in 2012-2013 . They include the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum (above), designed by Frank Gehry which has a "potentially unlimited budget" according to Zaki Nusselbeth, the cultural adviser to the Abu Dhabi authority, and the Louvre Abu Dhabi, designed by Jean Nouvel. The latter’s yearly budget for acquisition is said to be about $62 million. The French government according to most sources will receive $947 million over 30 years to establish the Louvre Abu Dhabi which will feature art from French museums. The other museum anchors for the cultural district are the Sheikh Zayad National Museum designed by Foster + Partners; a performing arts center, designed by Zaha Hadid; and a maritime museum, designed by Tadao Ando. They are scheduled to be completed at a later date along with the island’s biennial park and 19 pavilions for showcasing art.

Ad2_3  Building from scratch has its advantages as the new island will have no carbon footprint and will be powered by renewable energy. If that seems surprising, just keep in mind that oil does run out and Abu Dhabi wants to be in a position to sell the world solar, wind and other renewable technology. Credit its leaders with both conscience, education, leadership, and the money to accomplish their ambitious plans for turning the Emirate into a cultural hub not just for the Middle East but for the rest of the world. What all these museum commitments demonstrate is that Abu Dhabi, the capital and one of the seven Emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, is convinced that art can lead to better understanding among the peoples of the world and that Abu Dhabi can eventually play a leading role in world culture.

The Abu Dhabi government is also establishing N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi, the first liberal arts campus in the Middle East by a major American research university. Students are expected to begin enrolling in 2010. Philippe de Montebello, who is stepping down as director of the Met after 31 years, has signed on as advisor to the overseas N.Y.U. campus and eventually will teach there. NYU Abu Dhabi students will be held to the same admission standards as in New York and will graduate with the same degree as Washington Square students. Considering the new museum clones scheduled to open in a few years, de Montebello can help significantly shape the next generation of Abu Dhabi museum curators and directors. A Sorbonne satellite is also in the works offering another cultural and educational bridge between the West and the Emirate.

If you need some convincing that Abu Dhabi will achieve its ambitious goals on schedule, consider what has happened with its airline, Etihad, the National Airline of the United Arab Emirates. It took less than five years to build a fleet and attract world attention. Etihad has 39 planes serving 45 destinations including New York, Paris, and London across the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Europe from its hub in Abu Dhabi. Its business class flatbed pods, totally horizontal, are a match for any first-class service anywhere.

Ad4 To position itself as a world-class destination, the Emirate needed a hotel, not just any hotel, but one that would be an Arab version of Versailles, The Emirates Palace Hotel, which cost about $3 billion, is probably the most expensive hotel ever built. Along with Dubai’s Burj al Arab hotel, it is one of the world’s only seven-star hotels. It is huge, dazzling with more gold and marble than you are likely to see anywhere and a staff of some 2600 to service 302 rooms whose closets are roughly the size of a typical New York City studio. Approaching the hotel from a distance it looks like a mirage with its 114 domes, the largest, totally gilded and higher than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. What all these superlatives add up to is great comfort, a lovely spa, a stunning sandy beach bordering a turquoise sea. But you will need a good sense of direction to avoid getting lost between the hotels gargantuan wings or finding your way to one of the four restaurants.

The Palace is a destination in itself, although Abu Dhabi has other strong points. Several companies offer jeep tours in the desert, some even with overnight camping. Try to go late in the day as desert nights are brilliantly star lit. The trip is not for the weak kneed as the drivers like to roll around the huge dunes on two wheels whenever possible. They will slow down if you insist that you are prone to "seasickness. " Other leisure options are sailing, diving, deep-sea fishing, golf all typical of any resort destination with the happy addition of camel rides and belly dancing lessons. Add to that "The National," a daily English-language newspaper launched in April.

The city has a cultural center, large shopping malls, and a few important buildings. The most captivating is the white-domed Sheik Zayed Mosque, the latest city icon perched on a hill that dominates the skyline with its 51 domes and four minarets. One of the largest in the world, about the size of five football fields, roughly 40,000 worshippers can pray at the same time. Unlike most mosques in the region, non-Muslims are welcome to take an English-speaking tour, which like the Emirates Palace Hotel is a series of size superlatives the world’s largest hand-woven carpet and largest chandelier and acres of glistening white marble in stark contrast to the abayas, the long black robes worn by all women visitors. (Abayas and head scarves are supplied to those who need them.) Be sure to reserve: zayadmosquetour@adta.ae.

It remains to be seen whether Abu Dhabi, the richest city in the world, can truly transform itself into one of the great educational and cultural centers of the Middle East . The next decade will determine whether this Emirate can grow into another Xanadu, a forward-thinking new kind of city, protective of its heritage, but embracing all the art and cultures of the world.

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