Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Abu Dhabi Dreams

A night-time view of the central section of The Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi. Photo: JH.
Abu Dhabi is a sleek boomtown rising above the desert sands along the Persian Gulf. It is a real estate developer’s dream come true. Only three decades ago it was just barren land at the gateway to India and Asia. Astoundingly it is now a teeming metropolis of wide boulevards bordered by scores of huge modern glass and steel apartment and business towers. In fact, a large strip of the land populated by these towers was once part of the Gulf itself. Furthermore, the development is still very much in motion and as the ubiquitous five and ten story construction cranes bear witness, it is far from over.

And like the modern American cities of the Southwest and Florida that are populated by similar towers, to the visitor driving through, the only evidence of humanity are the cars and trucks jamming the roadways.
A quick visit to The Center for Documentation and Research.
The local paper which is waiting outside our hotel room doors in the morning, the Khaleej Times (“Established 1978”) is full of ads for George Forman grills, office, apartment and housing space (Sweet Homes Real Estate “Picture Perfect Living”), McDonald’s (“Tuna Salad - new”), Porsches, Range Rovers, Mazdas, Cadillacs, cell phones and more real estate. The news stories are not unfamiliar to Americans: “No Nukes for Iran: Cheney,” “Wildfires Spark State of Emergency in California,” “Fight Against Breast Cancer is a Serious Business Now” (with First Lady Laura Bush in town to help launch the new campaign); “Shisha Cafes Face a Hazy Future; Ban on Smoking Outdoors Takes Shape” (“Shisha -- also known as the hookah -- must be smoked indoors, and if it’s used outdoors, everybody will be exposed to the harmful effects of secondhand smoke”).

In today’s paper there was also something we haven’t seen in America yet: Fuel Companies Refuse to Accept Popular Credit and Debit Cards at the Pump Stations Starting Saturday (“Not will willing to bear the cost of an increased service charge levied by credit card companies”): i.e. “cash only.”

The noticeable differences to the American eye are mainly in costume: you see many men in the white condura (long white cotton dress) and ghetra (head wear) and women in abaya (long black dress and scarf). The men of royal stature or important position also wear what is called a bishet over the condura, which is a silk/cotton robe-like garment with a wide gold band running down either side of the coat.
Driving past the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahayan Mosque, one of the world's largest.
An Abu Dhabian walking along Al Hosn Palace.
Looking towards Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum street in downtown Abu Dhabi.
Above & left: Two views of downtown Abu Dhabi and ts gleaming futuristic skyscrapers. The Etisalat Tower is topped by a telecommunications dome resembling a giant golf ball.

Below: The view of downtown Abu Dhabi from the Emirates Palace hotel.
Sunday night, the night before the official opening of the Festival of Thinkers, many of us were invited to dine at the palace of Shaikh Nahayan bin Mabarek al Nahayan, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research and chancellor of the Higher Colleges of Technology.

The reception/diningrooms of the palace -- a one story white stucco building surrounded by flora and fauna, behind a white wall and imposing gates was large, spacious, resembling to these eyes, a midtown New York hotel reception room. There were two long tables perpendicularly meeting the head table, all heaped with food including huge platters of roasted baby lamb (whole) and camel meat (which tastes like lamb according to JH) surrounded by rice and dishes of sauces, tabouleh, salads and chicken.
Clockwise from top left: Gold-plated palm leaves line the countless domes of the Palace Hotel; Our gracious host for the evening and the Festival itself, Shaikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan; Cellphone-itis Dr. Robert Butler, Kathleen Lacey, and Jennifer Raab trying to reach Pranay Gupte on their cells with Dottie Herman behind.
The dinner was called for six-thirty. We were transported by bus (a ten-minute ride) and back at the hotel by eight-thirty. The event was unremarkable in almost every way except that we were being hosted by a honest-to-god sheik in (a part of) his palace on the Persian Gulf.

Shaikh Nahayan is a slender man of average height, a salt-and-pepper grey short beard and full moustache. As we were departing the dinner, he stood at the exit bidding us all goodbye. When JH asked to take his picture, he was not only accommodating but amused at the request to pose for a second and third shot.
Dinner at the palace of Shaikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan.
Dr. George Campbell, Jennifer Raab, Kathleen Lacey, Shirley Lord Rosenthal, Holly Russell, DPC, and Dottie Herman.
Back at the porte cochere of the hotel I am reminded of the Beverly Hills Hotel which is much, much smaller, with a driveway lined with shiny and very expensive cars including models we haven’t seen in America -- the latest Rolls convertible, with a brushed steel hood, and massive like a luxurious tank, and beautiful, and desirable, as well as Bentleys, Audis, Mercedes, BMWs, etc.

Almost all of our activity since arrival has been around the sprawling hotel complex. For those who are interested, there is the beach, the pools, the golf course.
Camels stationed on the private beach of the hotel.
Monday morning the conference opened at 10 o’clock with the arrival of Shaikh Nahayan and a large entourage preceded and followed everywhere by a large gaggle of male photographers whose presence is quickly annoying since they put themselves in the way of everyone and everyone’s view of what’s going on. The sheik, however, seemed as used to it as a movie star (and possibly much more patient)(and gracious), walking along slowly, as if to accommodate the needs of shutterbugs walking backwards in front of him.

The sheik’s entourage included Dr. Wangari Maathai, the 2004 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Madame Bakul Rajni Patel, a founding trustee of the Jawaharlal Nehru Center and Planetarium from Bombay and MF Husain, the nonagenarian artist from India.

Once we were all settled in the hotel’s auditorium, David Ignatius of the Washington Post took the podium to open the Festival (“We are here to celebrate the most precious gift: the ability to think and to think freely.”) introduce Shaikh Nahayan to the entire audience.
Dr. Wangari Maathai, Shaikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan, Maqbool Fida Husain, and Bakul Rajni Patel en route to the opening ceremony.
Shaikh Nahayan then took the podium and in a deep, well-modulated voice explained that: “This festival focuses on the role of scientists and thinkers in the renewal and progress of human societies, their role in generating ideas, solving problems, sustaining the environment, promoting health and well-being of women and children and nurting the values of global peace and understanding.”

“I am hopeful,” the sheik continued, “that the energy generated at this festival will help turn useful ideas into action.”

Then Dr. Wangari Maathai spoke. Born in Kenya, the doctor is the first woman in eastern and central Africa to earn a doctorate degree (in Biological
Sciences from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas, followed by a MSc degree from the University of Pittsburgh). She later became chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy at the University of Nairobi. In 1976, while serving on the National Council of Women in Kenya, she introduced the idea of planting trees and developed the idea into a broad-based grassroots organization whose main focus is the planting of trees with women groups in order to conserve the environment and improve the quality of life. Dr. Wangari in her message yesteday urged world leader to think about peace and prosperity before overconsuming and redistributing natural resources.
L. to r.: Bakul Rajni Patel and Shaikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan; Dr. Wangari Maathai, Shaikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan, and Maqbool Fida Husain at the opening ceremonies.
In the Auditorium for the opening ceremony.
Shaikh Nahayan Mabarak's opening address
Dr. Wangari Maathai
Professor Swami Parthasarathy
Maqbool Fida Husain painting a horse and horseman draped in the colors of the Abu Dhabi flag.
A scene from the opening ceremony entertainment.
Dr. Wangari was followed by the Indian philosopher and writer, Swami Parthasarathy, who at 80 was introduced as a man who practiced yoga every morning and has maintained his weight of 148 pounds for the past sixty years, since age 20 -- an item which resonated with almost everyone in the room, no matter the age. Swami Parthasarathy, who also has the energy of a man half his age, spoke about the difference between intelligence and the intellect, and urged all of us to employ our intellectual energy without which intelligence is ineffectual (www.vedantaworld.org).

After the speeches, there was the first panel discussion of the festival featuring a number of Nobel prize winners explaining how they came to their fields of endeavor and how they thought in order to achieve their objectives.

After the opening discussion, the guests adjourned to another room for roundtable discussions of issues of our society today such as: Protecting our environment, Energy and sustainable development; Globalization, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and the Role of Media in Impacting Future Changes.
"To foster young thinkers and Innovators: environmental ingredients" — Dr. Werner Arber, Dr. Ivar Giaever, Dr. Sheldon Glashow, Dr. Frank Sherwood Rowland, Dr. Wangari Maathai, Dr. Martinus Veltman, Dr. Edward de Bono, and Dr. Buzz Aldrin.
This writer was on the latter panel and although there was very little discussion on the role of media in impacting future changes, there was significant discussion on what media is today: print or internet. There remains a divide between the two and its participants. Those in print media seem to believe that internet media is somehow not legitimized -- lacking credentials, as Reader’s Digest editor-in-chief Jackie Leo stated, and “shrill” as David Ignatius opined. This writer is inclined to disagree, but then being an internet reporter, why wouldn’t I? Some of my opinion about the matter can be seen on the video on this Diary entry, although the sound is deficient enough that it may be difficult to grasp much, if anything of what I said.
Michael Goodwin, Shirley Lord Rosenthal, and DPC on stage as panelists.
The panelists: Pranay Gupte, Bonnie Fuller, DPC, Shirley Lord Rosenthal, Jacqueline Leo, Ted Sorensen, Jack Rosenthal, Judith Hornok, Bernd Debusmann, Devi Cherian, David Ignatius, and Riz Khan.
Last night beginning at 6:30, the creators of the Festival including the sheik, hosted a large banquet for several hundred on the grand patio behind the hotel overlooking the beach and the Gulf. As it has been with everything about this festival, the buffet tables were laden with all kinds of dishes, both familiar and unfamiliar to Westerners, as well as a full program of entertainment including a spectacular session of fireworks. It was a warm night under a three-quarter moon sky and a beautiful way to end the as this most unusual retreat into the world of thinking and ideas, all in the context of being a guest of this amazing emirate.
Above, right, and below: Multiple nightscapes of the massive Emirates Palace hotel.
Looking east (above) and west (left) towards the hotel.

Below: DPC on the driveway to the front entrance.

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