Although Dubai has firmly established itself as the region's tourist hub, Abu Dhabi is the actual capital of the U.A.E., as well as the largest and by far the wealthiest emirate. Abu Dhabi is both the name of an island city and of the larger emirate that surrounds it, which occupies over 80% of U.A.E. territory - only 30% of which is inhabitable.
Abu Dhabi and Al Ain are the emirate's two important cities, and the rest is essentially uninhabitable desert. Boasting nearly 10% of the world's proven oil reserves, Abu Dhabi is known today for the incredible oil wealth that it's using to remake its landscape and become a leading metropolis. It's in the midst of a bold economic transformation and construction bonanza that will no doubt continue for years.
Abu Dhabi's visibility has continued to increase with its widely publicized bailout of Dubai during the economic crisis. Yet it remains far less Westernized than Dubai and is not yet a major tourist destination, retaining a focus on oil exports, trade, and commerce. In fairness to people who prefer Dubai, Abu Dhabi feels conservative and perhaps a bit boring. But its beaches are just as beautiful, there's more greenery, and the character is more distinctly Emirati, preserving a greater degree of the country's traditional heritage when compared to its northeastern neighbor.
Although Abu Dhabi doesn't seek to compete directly with Dubai in terms of tourist and entertainment infrastructure, it is shooting ahead with the kinds of grandiose projects that Dubai used to pursue but can no longer afford - at least for now. Its full transformation from a slow-paced Gulf town to a major international destination is still at least a few years away, but projects such as the development of Saadiyat Island, which will house branches of the Guggenheim and the Louvre, of Yas Island, which is home to a Ferrari theme park and the Yas Marina Formula 1 racetrack (Abu Dhabi hosted its first Formula 1 Grand Prix in 2009 to great fanfare), and of the Desert Islands, which will become an eco-tourist destination off the coast, will significantly raise its tourist appeal. Abu Dhabi is expanding its airport, building world-class resorts, attracting major Western universities such as NYU, MIT, and the Sorbonne, and embarking on visionary social and cultural projects such as the zero-carbon, zero-waste Masdar City - all designed to show that Abu Dhabi wants to play a global leadership role and is willing to pay for it.
Take a walk along the Corniche, the road that runs along the water's edge, and you'll see a mega city rising behind it. Construction is relentless, skyscrapers are going up everywhere, and streets are being torn up and doubled in size. Detours are everywhere and the roads are a mess. And if you thought the city skyline seemed busy, just look out to the water. Man-made islands are springing up in all directions with boats, barges, and ships crisscrossing the sea. The money is flowing like a geyser here. In fact, it almost seems the economic recession skipped Abu Dhabi, which was considerably insulated by its massive oil wealth.
It's worth coming to see this rapid transformation take place before your eyes. And there are plenty of unique destinations already established: Emirates Palace sets the standard for unadulterated luxury, the most expensive resort ever built. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is the world's third-largest mosque with a capacity for 40,000 worshippers. The Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation and Heritage Village showcase the emirate's arts community and cultural heritage. Beach resorts, international restaurants, and tourist attractions are popping up all along the coast. There are parks and gardens for free, as well as beach, golf, and equestrian clubs for a fee. The shopping is world-class, and you can spend your entire savings in one of the opulent malls or find a bargain in a traditional souk. More and more festivals and themed events are being offered to attract visitors. In other words, there's a little bit of everything here, and soon there will be much more.