Abu Dhabi might conjure up images of luxury hotels and eternal sunshine, but this emirate also offers a rich cultural heritage and age-old traditions that are well worth exploring, says Abra Dunsby
In downtown Abu Dhabi, three Emirati women walk through a square, each casually balancing a large clay pot on their headscarf-covered head. Nearby, a row of men garbed in immaculate white gowns link arms and chant a hypnotic refrain to the beat of traditional small drums.
I’m in the courtyard of Qasr Al Hosn, Abu Dhabi’s most historically important building, which was built in the 1790s as a fort and reopened last December as a cultural centre and museum.
The fort was originally created to defend the only freshwater well that existed on Abu Dhabi Island. It later housed the emirate’s ruling families and – incredibly, considering the current city landscape – was entirely surrounded by desert until the 1940s.
Today, the creamy coloured citadel appears diminutive and incongruous alongside the city’s looming skyscrapers of differing shapes and sizes, which glitter with reflections of the dazzling midday sun.
Abu Dhabi is a city that has undergone dramatic change in a relatively short space of time. Less than 70 years ago, the UAE capital relied on its fishermen and a declining pearl industry for survival.
The discovery of oil in the 1950s transformed the UAE’s society and economy, bringing unimaginable wealth to the area and an influx of high-spending tourists to Abu Dhabi and the neighbouring emirate of Dubai.
Yet despite its relatively newfound wealth, today’s Abu Dhabi isn’t just about swanky hotels, sun-kissed beaches and supercars. This is a city that’s steeped in tradition, and whose residents are fiercely proud of their culture.