Land of intrigue: Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates. Photo: Mary O’BrienThe air is thick with sand and we can hardly see a thing as we speed out of Abu Dhabi’s gleaming white metropolis. Enjoying the morning cool after landing in a storm the night before, we’re keen to glimpse some local life.
We’re being driven by our guide, a rather stern-looking Mohamed al-Ameri, smartly dressed in traditional white kandura and headgear. But looks can be deceiving and Mohamed turns out to have a good sense of humour and a genuine interest in people. He ditched his engineering career to set up a tour company, Tent Tours, and is passionate about showing visitors his country.
First stop is his cousin’s camel farm, where my daughter is very taken with the camel calves. But these aren’t just any camels: they’re hot contestants in camel beauty pageants, which are taken very seriously by the locals.
For the Bedouin, the camel was life itself – transport, food, wealth and survival. Every December there’s a big contest where millions of dollars change hands as camels are judged on their lips, legs and ears. One of the camels, which I must admit exudes a certain charisma, is worth 500,000 dirhams ($130,000), according to Mohamed.
Also central to life in the United Arab Emirates are dates, which are everywhere, from the trays in hotel lobbies to the 33 million date palms lining the streets. Dates are also associated with many religious events. They are the biggest export after oil and the annual Liwa festival is a big deal here. A visit to date farms or Abu Dhabi’s date market is a great experience, and today I’m visiting the Al Foah factory, the largest date company in the world.
Set up by the government in 2005, the factory has the latest processing systems. It also has the largest organic farm in the world – in the nearby Al Ain oasis.
About 17,000 farmers supply dates from July to November. These are sorted, fumigated, graded, and stored or processed before being exported to 40 countries, including Australia. Date Crown is the best-known brand.
Al Ain, near the Oman border, is a popular retreat in summer and well worth a visit. Stroll through its tree-lined paths (look at all those date palms) and marvel at the ancient system of irrigation that is still in use. The Palace Museum gives a real insight into the people. It was the former palace of Sheikh Zayed – the founder of the United Arab Emirates (of which Abu Dhabi is the capital) – and was opened to the public in 2001. Locals seem to have a real fondness for their departed leader and the simple architecture points to a modest, down-to-earth philosophy.
On our way back to our hotel, Mohamed reveals he’s a music fan (the Script is his favourite band). Abu Dhabi is a great place for concerts, he tells us – another insight into a part of the world we’re still discovering.
FLY Etihad Airways fly Melbourne to Abu Dhabi from $2182 return low season.
STAY Eastern Mangroves Hotel, Abu Dhabi, double room specials from $140 a night. See abu-dhabi.anantara杭州夜生活m; 97126561000.
EAT Al Sahari, Khalifa Bin Zayed Street, Al Ain, for typical local cuisine; Ingredients, Eastern Mangroves Hotel, Abu Dhabi, for its nightly Emirati banquet created by colourful local personality chef Hussain.
DO Tent Tours, 971554444962. Visit Al Foah and Zadina date shops in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain. See alfoah.ae.
Mary O’Brien was a guest of the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority and Eastern Mangroves Hotel & Spa by Anantara.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.