Monday, October 22, 2007

Arrival in Abu Dhabi

Our descent on Etihad Airways into Abu Dhabi airport with a view of the coastline of Abu Dhabi, the largest and the richest of the seven United Arab Emirates on the Persian Gulf. The capital of the Emirates, with a population of more than 1.8 million (80% of which are ex-pats), its name is derived from legend which means literally, "Father of Gazelle." A little more than 60 years ago, this area was a desert of shelters made from palm fronds and mudhuts of fisherman, camel herders, harvesters of dates, pearl divers and traders. In 1939, Sheikh Shakhbut Bin-Sultan al-Nayhan granted the first petroleum concessions. Seventeeen years later in 1956, oil was discovered. Today, with the richest oil deposits of the Emirates (and one of the richest in the world), the Emirate, pumps 2 million barrels a day and the city of Abu Dhabi is considered to be the richest in the world. Photo: JH.
This past Friday morning JH and I flew out of JFK on Etihad Airways, the airline of the United Arab Emirates, bound for Abu Dhabi. We had been invited guests of the government which was sponsoring a four-day conference called "The Festival of Thinkers" with a roster of guests including 16 Nobel Laureates from around the world.

This is my first trip to the Middle East and my knowledge of the area consists mainly of the headline news stories, little of which provided an accurate picture of what I was about to see and learn of the area.

Of the seven Emirates states that make up the federation, I’ve read or heard mostly about only Dubai, which is next door to Abu Dhabi. More than one veteran traveler suggested, on hearing about this trip, that I make sure I somehow got myself over to Dubai to see what was going on there, as if to say that Abu Dhabi was the duller cousin which borders Saudi-Arabia and Oman.

The flight from New York is about thirteen to fourteen hours and the Emirates time zone is eight hours ahead of New York.

The airline which transported us is like so much of the UAE infrastructure, new, only a few years old. I am not a seasoned traveler compared to many I know, but I’ve flown across the Atlantic enough to know that Etihad is a superior airline. We flew business class, which is already an advantage in long flights, so the accommodations included seats which transformed into flatbeds. The service from the very attractive flight attendants was excellent -- courteous, efficient and pleasant. The menu was a variation of Middle Eastern and continental. The video screens -- a must for so many travelers -- were 15” in business class and 21” in first class. The languages spoken were English and Arabic.

We arrived in Abu Dhabi about 8:30 Saturday morning. The airport was bustling and had the look of the new, albeit Middle Eastern in flavor.

There were several from New York on the flight with us attending the Festival including Jennifer Raab, the President of Hunter College and her husband Michael Goodwin, political columnist for the New York Daily News; Shirley Lord Rosenthal, Conde Nast editor; Jackie Leo, editor of Reader’s Digest and her husband, New York Timesman John Leo; Jack Rosenthal, also of the New York Times, and his wife Holly Russell, and Dottie Herman, President and CEO of Prudential Douglas Elliman.
Clockwise from top left: DPC with remote in hand relaxing in Business Class aboard the Etihad Airways flight, watching John Huston's classic "The Maltese Falcon" with Humphrey Bogart (also being watched across the aisle); The wingspan of the plane as the sun is rising in the east, and then as the plane approaches the United Arab Emirates just before the descent into Abu Dhabi; On the tarmac of the airport and entering the main terminal after disembarking.
We were met at the airport by a fleet of white Mercedeses which whisked us down a long three-lane, palm lined highway into Abu Dhabi. First impressions: like riding into town on the freeway after arriving at LAX, on either side of the roadway are the prosperous-looking white stucco, flat-roofed houses, built closely together often surrounded by high white walls concealing the first floor levels and half the trunks of the palm trees behind them.

We are on the Persian Gulf and unlike what I had imagined to be long and wide stretches of desert sands, I was reminded of certain sections of Beverly Hills and the affluent neighborhoods of West Los Angeles.

The ride from airport to our destination was about 25 minutes. On the final leg, a couple of miles ahead lay an enormous and sprawling, palatial red sandstone complex on a hill: the Emirates Palace Hotel.
Arriving at the massive porte-cochere of the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi with its entryway paved in marble.
The first impression this grand and monumental edifice was of a Middle Eastern version of Versailles, surrounded by rich green lawns, palms and towering fountains with long and winding driveways leading up to a two-story high porte cochere, paved in shining marbles in patterns of black, red and white, indeed an Xanadu for the weary traveler to behold

The first impression did not diminish on entering. I’ve never seen a hotel like it. With a massive central section and equally massive east and west wings which run a kilometer in length from end to end, the Emirates Palace is more than 3 million square feet of marble, gold, brass, glass and stone. Completed less than four years ago at a cost to the government of more than $3 billion, with 394 rooms and a staff of 1000, everything about it is spectacular, splendid, Middle Eastern and every inch a fairytale fantasy of the 21st century Arabian nights.
Looking up at the main dome of the hotel. The eighth floor is reserved exclusively for the royal personages and visiting heads of state. During our stay Laura Bush was briefly in residence.
The hotel's double room with terrace overlooking an eastern view toward the center of Abu Dhabi; Two camels relaxing on the private beach in the back of the hotel.
A western plaza at the rear of the hotel which overlooks the beach and the Gulf.
The rear of the hotel looking from east two west, an entire kilometer in length.
Above: The western swimming pools which are designed for children's use including water slides and currents that move the bathers along when floating with tubes.

Left: The yellow waterslide in the western pool of the hotel. A young family floating along with the pools current.
The hotel's beachfront overlooking the Gulf and peninsula with the tower of the Marina Mall.
Our butler Blen Quizon greets us from the entrance to the hotel room; Four members of the housekeeping staff who had just completed tidying up the room. JH had left his wallet and cash on the desk when he left for breakfast. One of the staff made an inventory of the contents for him.
To list its accommodations and attributes, such as its series of swimming pools at end of either wing, its views of Abu Dhabi with its scores of glistening towers and accompanying building cranes, its white beaches rimming the azure Persian gulf, its domes, and arches and minarets is to defy any Disney-fed imagination.

Abu Dhabi is the richest of the Emirates states, with its natural gas and oil deposits, pumping 2 million barrels of crude a day. With a population of 1.4 million, of which only 20% are native, the per capita wealth of its citizens is $17 million. Until 68 years ago, when its rulers signed their first oil concessions, it was an ancient desert community of mudhuts and fisherman, pearl divers and vegetable growers. It was only a little more than 30 years ago that its then ruling sheik Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan began a building and investment program that almost overnight transformed Abu Dhabi into a leading financial and cultural center in the Middle East. Although its neighbor Dubai garners the greatest amount of publicity for its development into a modern nation, Abu Dhabi with its vast resources and income is moving on up the ladder of development success. Our hotel is representative of that. The locals have a saying to descirbe it: “Dubai has the flash and Abu Dhabi has the cash.”

Indeed, Frank Gehry has designed a $100 million Middle Eastern branch of the Guggenheim Museum, which will soon be joined by a Middle Eastern “division” of the Louvre, as well as an adjunct of the Metropolitan Opera Company of New York, as well as a Middle Eastern branch of New York University.
Anwer Sher, Managing Director & Co-Founder, Equine Management Services and Eileen Verdieck, CEO and Co- Founder.
From the candlelit dinner table at the Sher and Verdieck home looking out at the Jumeirah and Burj Al Arab Hotel Hotel (which looks like a giant sailboat) in Dubai.
On Saturday several of us were invited to dinner in Dubai at the home of Anwer Sher and his fiancee, Eileen Verdieck, an American woman now living in Dubai who is CEO and Co-Founder of Equine Management Services. Mr. Sher is a Pakistani, former CEO of an Abu Dhabi bank, a brilliant amateur photographer, and Managing Director and Co-Founder of Equine Management Services (www.aqsher.blogspot.com/).
Anwer Sher and Eileen Verdieck; Miguel Perez, Horse trainer; Marc Silvestri, Equine Programmes; Anja Grell, Equine Architect; Sophie Dyball (front) Administration and HR; Sonja Rasche, Equine Management; Mare Elston, Marketing and PR; Tauseef Qadri, Business Development.
Dinner at the Sher's
Besides the twenty Americans who were guests of the Sher and Verdieck dinner in Dubai, (arranged by international journalist Pranay Gupte), there were also about twenty of their local friends attending, most of whom were expats now living in Dubai. Several are there working with our host and hostess in their Equine Management Services, and all of whom seemed very excited to be living in the UAE.
Six views of the Grand Arc gate to the Emirates Palace as it changes color throughout the evening. The gate is only open for very special occasions as the VIP Guest entrance.
The view from the VIP Guest entrance looking up at the main lobby entrance to the Emirates Palace.

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