Abu Dhabi stakes claim as Mideast culture hub


UAE-SheratonAbuDhabiMost likely, your clients have heard of Dubai, capital of flash and cash in the United Arab Emirates and home to the world's tallest building, an indoor ski slope and glitzy discos. But as the Dubai boom ebbs, the UAE's true political capital, Abu Dhabi, is emerging as a highly desirable destination.

Its dynamic crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed al-Nahyan, has pledged to make his kingdom the cultural nexus of the Middle East, and the dream is fast becoming reality. During the two-week, sixth annual Music and Arts Festival earlier this year, tens of thousands of attendees were treated to performances by the Bolshoi Ballet, tenor Andrea Bocelli and classical musicians such as flautist James Galway.

A cultural district on Saadiyat Island will eventually be home to a Guggenheim museum and a domed outpost of Paris' Louvre as well as other museums and a performing arts center. But there's plenty to see right now in this booming city on the Persian Gulf.

Abu Dhabi's appeal

Unlike Dubai, which is essentially a series of separate developments, Abu Dhabi more closely resembles an organic city. There's a vibrant downtown with interesting streets and abundant sidewalk cafes.

The lovely, long Al Corniche promenade hugs the white-sand beach and is a great place to stroll, bike or relax in the many parks. People-watching is itself a fun activity here, especially since the population is a brew of so many nations, ranging from Egypt, the Sudan and Lebanon to India and the Philippines.

Prime among the city's attractions is the Emirates Palace, both the city's most expensive hotel (room rates start at $500) and a mecca for well-heeled locals and visitors who can gape at the vast halls and ornamentation.

The multiroom exhibit of museum models for Saadiyat Island is reason enough to come by; just as compelling is the fascinating display of contemporary Arab art, a sprawling show assembled by the curator of the Picasso Museum in Paris.

Other activities include boat tours and visits to a major mosque; the Heritage Village, an exhibition depicting life in the region prior to the oil era; a carpet souk; or any of several megasize shopping malls. Outside Abu Dhabi proper, there are safari adventures to the dunes of the Empty Quarter or day trips to the historical oasis of Al Ain.

The centrally located Crowne Plaza Hotel offers a sumptuous breakfast buffet and a rooftop swimming pool, while the Le Royal Meridien, a notch up in price, overlooks the Al Corniche. Both the Hilton and Sheraton hotels boast their own private beaches.

Alcohol is served only in hotel restaurants; fans of Lebanese food shouldn't miss the lively Lebanon Star, with its friendly service and five-star falafel.

Visit www.visitabudhabi.ae.

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