A Road Trip Through Abu Dhabi Reveals Its History

From brutalist architecture to conservation oases, Abu Dhabi has it all.

A Road Trip Through Abu Dhabi Reveals Its History

Abu Dhabi’s presidential palace, Qasr Al Watan, took 150 million hours to build.

Photo by Tasneem Alsultan

In its 50 years of existence, the United Arab Emirates has developed at lightning speed, creating cities out of the desert with record-breaking skyscrapers, lavish hotels, and a fast pace of life. I moved to Dubai in 2015, and when I wasn’t traveling for work, I filled my calendar with dinners, sundowners, and gallery visits. As the pandemic forced me to slow down, I rediscovered the joy of exploring the hidden sides of my home. By the time my friend Rashid Khalfan invited me to Abu Dhabi, the emirate south of Dubai that covers 26,000 miles, I was ready to explore farther afield.

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Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque has 1,096 columns embedded with amethyst and jasper.

Photo by Tasneem Alsultan

Rashid grew up in Dubai and has worked for many years in Abu Dhabi. We had cemented our friendship over a shared love of history, so a road trip to explore Abu Dhabi’s historic architecture and ancient souks suited us both. We met in the evening, after my two-hour drive through the desert, and were joined by our friend Nasser Saeed. Together we headed down Zayed the First Street (nicknamed Electra Road for its dozens of electronics stores) to glimpse the city’s many modernist structures.

Rashid, knowing my love for brutalist architecture, showed me some of his favorite buildings, which he admires as symbols of a young nation’s progress. He pointed out the Buty Al Otaiba Tower, covered in rows of hexagonal windows, and the Hamed Centre, with its diamond motif. The most handsome edifice was the Al Ibrahimi building, a circular tower with protruding balconies that resemble woven fabric, designed by the late Egyptian modernist architect Farouk El Gohary. “The older ones have more Arabic touches; the later ones from the ’80s and ’90s have more glass on their facades,” Rashid said.

It was getting late, but Nasser wanted to show me the Gold Souk, one of the older marketplaces he used to frequent with his mother. He still likes to come here for its human scale when the large, air-conditioned malls of the city become overwhelming. He took me inside to visit the Yemeni gold traders, and I gazed at bridal necklaces covered in gemstones. As we were leaving, Rashid bought me what looked like a stick. I looked at him, confused. “It’s a toothbrush,” he told me. Known locally as a miswak, cut from the arak tree, it’s traditionally used across the Arabian Peninsula and parts of Africa.

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The dome at the Louvre Abu Dhabi weighs 8,200 tons.

Photo by Tasneem Alsultan

The following day, I set out to see the Qasr Al Hosn fort, parts of which date to the 1790s, and the nearby Qasr Al Watan presidential palace, a dizzying expanse of geometric mosaics that opened in 2019. I could have continued along the coastline to the Jean Nouvel–designed Louvre Abu Dhabi, covered with a metallic dome that, pierced by the rays of the sun, mimics the light and shadow patterns of date palm fronds in the Emirate’s oases.

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A local pickup game in Abu Dhabi

Photo by Tasneem Alsultan

But instead, I made the two-and-half-hour drive to Sir Bani Yas Island in the western region of Abu Dhabi, a formerly barren island that was transformed with the planting of more than 3 million trees such as date palms and native ghafs. The late ruler Sheikh Zayed—the beloved founding father of the UAE known for his commitment to conservation—designated it a nature reserve in 1971. The island is also home to the ruins of a Christian church and monastery from the 7th century, as well as three resorts—including the Desert Islands Resort & Spa by Anantara, where I had booked a room.

On a morning safari drive with Abdul Asif Ali, my guide from the resort, we observed sand gazelles eyeing us curiously, peacocks pecking at the ground, and curly-horned Barbary sheep rolling in the dust. But what Abdul really wanted to show me were the Arabian oryx. We found them soon enough, large antelopes with bright white bodies and horns that can grow up to 36 inches long. They were hunted to extinction in the wild but are now one of the conservation world’s success stories.

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Oryx roam Sir Bani Yas Island.

Photo by Tasneem Alsultan

“In the 1980s, only six species of fauna were found here,” said Dr. Abid Mehmood, the island’s wildlife and conservation manager. “We’ve created a ‘novel ecosystem,’ effectively a new habitat.”

I could’ve stayed longer, but the Rub’ Al-Khali—the Empty Quarter, an expanse of desert 130 miles to the south—was calling. There the Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara rises like a mirage, designed to enable your desert fantasies as you ride camels, smoke fragrant shisha, and let yourself be cocooned in rhassoul clay in the hammam.

The real magic, however, lies in the surrounding dunes. On a sunset walk through the soft, fine sand, I took in sublime views that stretched as far as the horizon in every direction. I woke early the next morning and did it all over again, the rising sun giving me the same show in reverse while I contemplated my next nearby adventure.

Writer Nicola Chilton tells the stories of people, places and unexpected adventures from her home base in Dubai.
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