By coincidence, an article in the Guardian appeared raising questions about Abu Dhabi’s ability to complete its Guggenheim Museum on time just as I was finishing reading Jo Tatchell’s book about the city, A Diamond in the Desert. Subtitled “behind the scenes in the world’s richest city”, the book does what it says on the cover, in other words provide an insider-outsider’s view of a rapidly changing city in which she grew up and to which she returned on a prolonged visit years later. It’s sobering to think that when I was born, Abu Dhabi was a very small settlement of predominantly palm-frond huts, clustered round the local sheikh’s modest dwelling, whereas now it is a densely populated city, criss-crossed by 8-lane highways and boasting several mind-blowingly luxurious hotels. But unlike Dubai, just a couple of hours’ drive away, Abu Dhabi has not gone down the route of ultimate flash, what one might call the Beckham lifestyle. Instead, as the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as well as the main city of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, it has chosen in recent years to reinvent itself as a great cultural centre, with an island of different museums which will house some of the creme de la creme of world Art. This could be seen as an idealistic attempt to recreate the spirit of Cordoba, an era of cultural flowering and tolerance that characterised that southern Spanish city under Islamic rule. But as Jo Tatchell makes clear, there is a difficult dynamic in modern Abu Dhabi’s development; while wanting to be seen as a global cultural centre, it nonetheless wishes to remain essentially Emirati, despite the fact that 80 per cent of the population are migrant workers, notably from the Indian sub-continent and the Philippines. Moreover, many of Abu Dhabi’s gilded youth live in a dream world of social privilege and conspicuous consumption that has little connection with such lofty aims. There are many things which disturb Ms Tatchell, including the recognition that tolerance is limited in the Emirates (criticising the Ruling family or indeed the country is a complete no-no) and that expats — especially the Indians — will never be living on an equal footing with the indigenous Arabs. Nonetheless, the author retains a fondness for the place, albeit nostalgic for aspects of the past that have disappeared — a view I whole-heartedly share.
(A Diamond in the Desert is available in paperback in England, published by Sceptre)