Magazine article The Spectator

Elegant Emirates

Magazine article The Spectator

Elegant Emirates

Article excerpt

I know that it is de rigueur among serious business people to complain that travelling very long distances for work is a stressful and disruptive chore, but I'm still at the stage of my career/emotional maturity level when I really really like it. I have not spent enough time in the pointy end of aeroplanes to have become blasé about the perks of flying in business class -- an environment I find far more comfortable than, say, the inside of my flat. But I find it soothing to hang around with people who have; the sort of airmile-laden veterans who get their laptops unpacked and ready for security checks without having to be asked and wouldn't dream of striking up conversation with each other mid-flight.

Short-term separation from friends and family seems a small sacrifice for the pleasure of seeing a new place at someone else's expense and with the added advantage of experiencing a foreign culture as a professional visitor with people to see, rather than as a tourist with time to kill. Best of all, as a long-haul business traveller I feel none of the pressure to enjoy myself at my destination that hangs over me when I've elected to spend my own time and money on a trip.

So when a project in Abu Dhabi beckoned a few months ago, I skipped home to pack my bags and wait for the car that Etihad Airways (the United Arab Emirates' new flagship carrier which is experiencing the fastest growth rate in the history of commercial aviation) sent to take me to Heathrow. Twelve hours (several glasses of pink champagne, a delicious fillet of cod and a George Clooney blockbuster) later, I felt reassured that at the very least I was travelling to a nation that knew a thing or two about world-class air travel.

But before my plane even touched down at Abu Dhabi's mosaic-domed airport terminal, the country's most famous assets had made themselves known. Huge beacons of flame illuminated the dark desert sky where the pipelines carrying its oil and gas supplies are allowed to 'breathe'. There is some complicated engineering necessity for what I initially mistook as a show of conspicuous consumption, but with an estimated 8 per cent of global oil reserves and 4 per cent of the world's natural gas supply lying underneath their feet, the Emiratis can afford to waste a bit.

It is exactly 50 years since oil was discovered in Abu Dhabi. Until then the ancient sheikhdom had an economy based on pearldiving, camel-trading and date-growing -- the name Abu Dhabi translates as Father of the Gazelle after the deer that used to gather on this tiny peninsula on the Persian Gulf. The pace of change under the ensuing oil boom has been dizzying; the citizens of a historically nomadic society that paved their first road in 1961 now swish between air-conditioned office blocks and shopping malls in their air-conditioned cars -- powered by an economic growth rate that seldom falls below 9 per cent a year.

But for a nation who have grown so very rich so very quickly the Abu Dhabians are incredibly restrained, unspoilt consumers.

Only very occasionally do they display a tin ear for enjoying the spoils of their enormous wealth. For instance, some of the spanking new sports cars being driven around the city still have the plastic covers over their leather seats with which they were delivered from the production line. When the plastic wears through, the owners return to their dealers to have it re-applied. Although as someone who threw up on the way to work after being hurled around the back seat of a turbo-charged taxi like a rag doll as my driver negotiated the city's uncluttered grid of streets, I have to concede that they may have some justification for retaining a wipedown option. …

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