Oasis of Wealth; All That Glitters Probably Is Gold in the Opulent Oasis That Is Abu Dhabi. TOM MULLEN Visits the Desert Kingdom of the United Arab Emirates

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Byline: TOM MULLEN

is the United THERE are vending machines that dispense bars of solid gold here, and hotels so plush, the Queen has her own suite.

It is, if you'll forgive some clichs, a rich man's playground, an oil-rich super-city whose modern skyscrapers, sports cars and paradise resorts offer every known extravagance.

But even a short stay in Abu Dhabi soon reveals that the purpose-built beaches, spa hotels and gourmet steakhouses are only half the story.

The United Arab Emirates is a land of contrasts - brought together in this, its thundering capital and second-largest city.

A polished shopping mall sits not far away from pungent fish markets, while a Western-style business district of gleaming tower blocks lies in the shadow of one of the largest mosques in the world.

Everywhere, the traditional meets the modern, ancient history combines with contemporary style, and pious religion hides a shade of decadence.

A land that was, not so long ago, little more than a desert trading hub is now a shiny, fascinating world of expat workers, flowing white robes, camels, cars and dazzling opulence.

And waiting for every visitor is a beaming warm welcome from the Arabian people, or, more correctly, the Emirati. The stunning Fairmont Bab Al Bahr Hotel was our base, where every room feels like an upmarket studio flat, complete with rainforest power-shower and the most comfortable beds and couches you're likely to find.

Our party of six were treated to daily meals at the hotel's restaurant - supervised by renowned chef Marco Pierre White - tucking into such delights as duck foie gras, oysters thermidor and juicy seafood platters.

One remarkable dish featured a steak, cooked rare and using meat from a "wagyu" cow.

This special breed of tasty beast isn't simply reared and slaughtered. It is pampered for months, given muscle massages and, not unusually, a tot of beer to make sure it is relaxed and totally succulent by the time it arrives on your plate. Delicious.

The first of a selection of tours was a visit to the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital - a sanctuary for the bird of prey which is the country's national emblem.

People in the UAE revere the falcon. Our guide at the hospital explained that there are families who would pay to have their beloved pet treated sooner than their own children.

The origins of this love are in the desert, and the days when falcons were harnessed as indispensable hunting tools. To this day, many families keep them.

Here, falcons can be held, fed and stroked, and a wealth of fascinating facts can be gleaned from the hospital's dedicated staff.

A very different tour later that day saw us sneaking into a hotel bedroom in which Tony and Cherie Blair, Elton John, George Michael and Beyonc have all recently slept. Separately, of course. I say "sneaked in" but this was really an organised visit to the Emirates Palace Hotel - a residence so sumptuous we could enter only as part of a chaperoned tour.

The politicians and celebs had opted for one of its most exclusive suites, complete with dining room, giant beds and a bathroom the size of a modern bungalow. The Queen and Prince Philip stayed here several months ago, we were told, although the even more exclusive "rulers suite" could not be visited as part of the tour.

It was here that we came across the extraordinary vending machine that dispensed gold on demand. The machine - itself plated in gold - ejects some 300 varieties of gold bars and a selection of gold coins for those who can afford it.

Money and the pursuit of wealth seem to drive much of life in Abu Dhabi, but so does Islamic culture. Everywhere, you see men in traditional Arab dress, women in burkhas, and the haunting call to prayer rings out daily, casting a sombre atmosphere throughout the whole city.

For a massive hit of Muslim culture, look no further than the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. …