Formed in 1971, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is much younger than a good proportion of its citizens and travelers who visit. It sits just off the coast of the mainland and is the largest of the seven emirates. Abu Dhabi also has the largest population but only less than 21% of its 2.3 million residents are Emirati citizens.
Its large expatriate community is what makes it one of the truest cosmopolitans in the world. For years, flocks of expatriates from Britain and the rest of Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Australia have flown to Abu Dhabi for its flourishing oil industry.
There are also a large number of Arabs from other Arab nations, such as Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and other countries. The influx of expatriates has definitely changed the infrastructure of the city.
Only a few decades ago, Abu Dhabi was a barren desert with no running water, electricity or public transport. But with the discovery of two oil mines in the late 1950s, demands for better amenities for the growing number of foreign workers entering the country pushed Abu Dhabi to completely transform its skyline. And thanks to its oil trading industry, gleaming sky scrapers, and other architectural marvels soon became a norm.
Many also attribute the exponentially fast development of Abu Dhabi to Sheikh Zayed, the late former President of UAE. Before his position as President, Sheikh Zayed served as Ruler of Abu Dhabi, which at that point of time was still a separate emirate from the rest of the seven emirates around the Persian Gulf.
The decline of the pearl industry and discovery of oil in Abu Dhabi hastened unification calls made of UAE sheikdoms, when Sheik Zayed was declared President of UAE and Abu Dhabi established as the capital of the UAE.
However, despite the advancement of Abu Dhabi, it still is the less glitzy sister of Dubai, which is why more travellers are heading here instead. The stronger sense of traditionalism in its souks and grand mosques, the untouched mangroves, wildlife safaris and Liwa Desert (the world’s largest sand desert) are just some of the things that make Abu Dhabi an oasis in the Persian Gulf. Abu Dhabi is relatively near Singapore and Kuala Lumpur and is easy to get to.
The city is served by the Abu Dhabi International Airport, where there are 30 international and domestic airlines that service 112 destinations in more than 40 countries, and offers direct flights to all inhabited continents.
Official flag carrier and Skytrax’s sixth best airline for the year, Etihad Airways, has its home base in Abu Dhabi International Airport. The airline has direct eight-hour flights from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur daily.
Navigating around Abu Dhabi is convenient. Get to the city centre in 45 minutes via the green and white A1 bus that departs from Terminals 1,2 and 3 that runs 24 horns a day at 40-minute intervals. Those who plan to stay around the entertainment district on Yas Island can hop onto the complimentary bus service. There are two bus routes that connect all major attractions. There is also a shuttle between Yas Island and Saadiyat Island between 10am and 7pm.
There is also the Abu Dhabi City Bus that operates on 14 routes that traverses all of Abu Dhabi. Get the rechargeable smart card, Hafilat, from vending machines at bus stops and shopping malls for a fast and efficient way around the city.
The Temporary Card (US$1.40, valid for 14 days) is the most useful for visitors. Women travelling by themselves should look out for the government-monitored Abu Dhabi Taxi that operates a ladies’ cab service.