Today, visitors flee the Arab El Dorado of Abu Dhabi to clear their minds in the Rub al Khali desert
LIWA, United Arab Emirates — In the dunes outside Liwa, the wind conveys nothing on its back. The edge of the Rub al Khali is so dead the air transmits no sound and your voice carries no farther than inside the empty quarter of your own skull. The Bedouin called these million square miles of emptiness the Sands or al Rimal. The expansive sand and sky can make one feel insignificant. But there’s a certain serenity in that knowledge.
Only in the desert, the Bedouin told the British Arabist and adventurer Wilfred Thesiger, could a man find freedom. “It must have been this same craving for freedom which induced tribes that entered Egypt at the time of the Arab conquest to pass on through the Nile Valley into the interminable desert beyond, leaving behind them the green fields, the palm groves, the shade and running water, and all the luxury which they found in the towns they had conquered.”
Instead of escaping green fields and palm groves to head into the desert, one now goes to the desert outside Abu Dhabi to clear one’s mind, to flee the Champagne brunches in rotating restaurants atop 30-storey hotels, to escape the endless energy and hype. Before the mid-1970s, it was a five-day trip by camel caravan. Today, the road to Liwa is a paved, straight shot through nothingness, interrupted by the occasional palm-frond home, or arish, and camel farm. It’s a peek at what life in the emirate might have looked like 30 or 40 years ago before oil created this Arab El Dorado. Along the way, you pass hundreds of emaciated palm and ghaf trees, whose tendril roots search out water 30 metres below. Greening the desert was the vision of the country’s founding president, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, but like many dreams, it was a pipe dream (appropriate because oil created the wealth to plant the trees in the first place).
The city of Liwa grew from 52 Bedouin settlements that once gathered around the water wells and groves of date palms. Most of the settlers were from the Bani Yas federation and the Manasir tribe. These were old tribes, who peopled the desert in the summer and the coast in the winter. These were Maliki Sunnis who fought the scripturally doctrinaire Wahhabis, from the lands of the house of Saud to the west. Their fighting in the 1800s and 1900s led to the creation of the frontier, a line drawn in the sand, between Saudi Arabia and what would become the U.A.E. Liwa sits on the edge of that line.
The earliest permanent structures in the Liwa area were forts from which the Bani Yas protected their oases. These date to the early 19th century, though almost all of them were rebuilt in the 1980s, the tendency in the U.A.E. being to either rebuild or reproduce rather than simply maintain heritage buildings. Two that remain from the 1800s are the Hayla Tower, a single cylinder of about eight metres in height, made of clay, gypsum and sarouj sand; and Um Hosn, or Arrada, an isolated three-metre-high single tower.
A more modern structure is the Liwa Hotel, a white 1970s-style elephant perched on a rocky outcrop, the only significant hill in town. The hotel itself is fair. Staff is attentive and all smiles. There’s a pool of refreshingly cool water, and the restaurant serves the standard fare of Abu Dhabi: Lebanese or Arabic mezze and a variety of Indian dishes. At night the restaurant is a club, where a Filipina singer and her accompanist on his electronic keyboard take requests and the best-quality import is Heineken. (Tourists can drink alcohol legally in some emirates, but only in licensed hotels.) The multi-star alternative, with gorgeous views of the desert and an infinity pool, is the Qasr al-Sarab Hotel.
The Liwa Hotel is a convenient meeting point for a day or two-day excursion in the Empty Quarter. Pickup is generally toward the late afternoon, an hour or so before sunset. In a 4×4 sport-utility vehicle you’ll be taken off road into the desert on hard-packed sand tracks that fade like a mirage until you’re off-off road and rising and dipping, slipping, sliding, revving along a road only the driver knows, only the driver can see. This is not a drive you want to make on your own. U.A.E. newspapers are filled with stories of would-be dune-bashers who get lost in the sand. Knowing the movement of these slowly shifting mounds is the secret behind desert driving. Then, a sharp left and a serpentine descent and you’re in a Mars-like crater hollowed out by the wind.
Two- to three-man tents for those planning to spend the night are already set up, along with photosensitive lanterns — the sun sets quickly and determinedly in the desert — and a couple of barbecue drums: one for vegetables, another for chicken. While the fat drips and inflames the fire, and the aubergine, onion, carrots and red potatoes char, you drift away along the endless striations of cayenne-coloured sand. Up one hill to the summit of another, and yet another: a gently unfolding blanket. Two hundred feet up, you stop and turn and there is no one, no thing, no sound. You, yourself, are nothing here.
There is movement, however. Tiny grains sweep over the sand, pushed forward by an invisible force, seeming to form curlicues at your sandalled feet, then stopping, then rushing away.
Abu Dhabi for non-tycoons
Get out of the city and into the desert for a better, less expensive experience
It’s not cheap getting to Abu Dhabi or Dubai, and many of their hotels are geared to high-rolling oil-and-gas men, F1 fans and others with more disposable income than Haiti. Yet it’s entirely possible, indeed advisable, if you want to see how the vast majority of people live in the U.A.E., to enjoy a different, far less expensive, tourist experience.
Desert tours into the Empty Quarter near Liwa are offered by a number of tourism and adventure groups. They offer same basics: pickup and drop-off, sunset BBQ, an option to overnight, perhaps some dune-bashing (though from an environmental point of view you might not want to participate in this; the desert ecosystem is fragile, with many endangered flora and fauna). You can book these tours via the Internet or when you arrive in Abu Dhabi. The tour described in the accompanying story was organized by a one-man outfit operating out of the Liwa Hotel. But my memory is like desert sand running through the fingers and I cannot remember the German-Arab man’s name. I recall his face, and his assured driving, his fine grilling, and the stories he told about how the sands of Liwa move.
Here are other experiences to enjoy in Abu Dhabi or Dubai.
1. A free tour of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque. This masjid is said to be the third-largest in the world. It is a feat of architectural design, a wonder that stands alongside the grand cathedrals of Europe and the Taj Mahal. It boasts the largest Persian carpet in the world (60,570 square feet), made of New Zealand wool, and the third-largest chandelier in the world, made of Swarovski crystal. But more important is the stillness, the peace, you’ll feel here. Dress modestly, in long pants and long-sleeved shirts. Women must wear an abaya and a head scarf, provided free at the entrance.
2. Walk along the Corniche and its beaches to Heritage Village on the point near the Marina Mall. This is a free DIY tour of what Abu Dhabi looked like 50 years ago, before oil money was spent on infrastructure and development: lots of palm-frond buildings, plus a camel or two for riding. You can learn about the 52 varieties of dates found in the U.A.E. and eat at an inexpensive restaurant. If you’re there for dinner, you can watch the Gulf waters darken and the lights turn the Abu Dhabi skyline afire.
3. A free tour of the Emirates Palace Hotel. At the gate, tell security you’re going to one of the hotel restaurants or cafés, but once you’re past them and parked in the massive, free, underground parking, the hotel is yours. Warning: Don’t wear shorts. The restaurants are the finest of the fine in Abu Dhabi and the café top-notch, but be prepared to spend for the privilege of eating there. Walk through the hotel’s public areas and admire the craftsmanship, the glassed exhibits of jewelry and local artifacts. If you’re lucky, there’s an art exhibition. And take note: Everything gold you see is, in fact, gold.
4. Only hotel restaurants serve alcohol to tourists and since a majority of people in the U.A.E. are Muslim, a hotel restaurant isn’t a good place to mingle with locals. If you insist, the Captain’s Arms behind Le Meridien offers decent pub fare and pours a solid pint, and the menu of the Belgian Café in the InterContinental is typical steak-et-frites or moules et frites, plus the best selection of European ales in the city. Better yet, try a non-hotel restaurant and eat among the expats who actually built Abu Dhabi: the Lebanese Flower on Defence Rd., the India Palace or any in the Arab Udupi chain, Cantina Laredo (Khalidiyah Mall), Hanoi Vietnamese restaurant and the Royal Orchid (Thai). The freshest juices come from Forty Fruity kiosks all around the city.
5. Take a bus from the central station behind the Al Wahda Mall to Dubai to visit the gold, spice and perfume souks. (The souk in Abu Dhabi burned in 2004 and was never rebuilt in its original form. Instead, a multi-storey tower called the “central souk” replaced it. But it’s a mall.) Walking through the souks is free. You’re on your own to negotiate any purchases. Afterward, take an abra, a wooden shuttle costing less than $1 to ride, to the western side of the Dubai Creek to eat and walk around the Bastikiya, one of the oldest settlements of Dubai, with marvellous wind towers and narrow alleyways.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Etihad flies direct to Abu Dhabi from Toronto. Air Canada, Lufthansa, British Airways and others have one-stop flights. The difference between direct and one-stop can be as much as $800, and the time saved only about four hours.
Staying there: The Cassells Hotel Apartments costs $75 U.S. a night and the Emirates Palace Hotel, $450. There’s a lot in between, including two Sheratons and the InterContinental. Le Meridien, where I stayed for a week, is a steal at $94. There’s a Royal Meridien as well for a few dollars more.
Getting around: The city is built on a grid, but most buildings are unnumbered. Know the name of the building you seek. Cabs are ubiquitous and cheap. For longer trips, to the oases of Liwa or Al-Ain, to Dubai, or any of the other emirates, rent a car or take a bus from the central bus station.
Currency: The dirham is pegged 3.67 to the U.S. dollar.
Entertainment: Completion of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums has been delayed until 2015 at the earliest. Ferrari World has been open since 2010. There are several malls with varying degrees of glitz and bling: Abu Dhabi Mall, Al-Wahda, Marina, Mushrif and Khalidiyah. There are shopping plazas as well, mostly with groceries or inexpensive juice and sandwich shops. A falafel sandwich at such a shop will cost about four dirhams and tiny bakeries sell flatbread discs for one dirham.
Making yourself understood: Because 85 per cent of the population of the U.A.E. are foreign-born workers, most people speak English, to varying degrees of success.
Holidays and store closings: Friday is the Muslim holy day. Prayers at the mosque generally let out about 1 p.m., at which point stores reopen.
What to wear: Be modest. For men: no shorts. For women: no shorts, cover your shoulders and arms.
Weather: December through April has high daytime temperatures in the 20s with little humidity.