And the world’s fourth most popular city is…Abu Dhabi

Often Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirate (UAE) capital, is often overshadowed by its ritzy glitzy tourist laden neighbour, Dubai, but I’m am often told by the seasoned expat gulf community that UAE’s largest  emirate (and richest) captures the less money-obsessed vibe of Dubai’s early days.

‘World favourite cities revealed – but how were they chosen?’ – Sam Calder, The Independent

Abu Dhabi has four flights a day from London, while Dubai has 14. In Lonely Planet’s 224-page Dubai & Abu Dhabi guide, only seven pages are devoted to the latter.

Ipsos’ survey “The Worlds’s Favourite City” asked over 18,000 global citizens in 24 countries to rate cities as places to do business in, to live in and to visit, typically, New York, London and Paris pipped the top three spots, but the emerging emirate beat the likes of Sydney, Hong Kong and Los Angeles to score fourth place.

Around the financial crisis, A.A Gill’s piece in Vanity Fair considered Dubai to be running on empty and ‘a skyline erupting in under two decades,  a cautionary tale about what money can’t buy: a culture of its own.’  The emirate’s culture is imbued with bigger-the-better and expats, white or asian, outstrip Gulf Arabs 8 to 2.  Somehow, Abu Dhabi has avoided the same level of criticism – it’s not developed quite the same culture vacuum. Laurie Werner summed it up beautifully in Forbes earlier this year…

You go to Dubai for the flash, I’d always heard, and Abu Dhabi for the culture. – Laurie Werner

Indeed support for the state came from unusual places in Ipsos survey with Brazilians preferring Abu Dhabi to Rio, the Spanish would rather live in Abu Dhabi than Madrid and Italians rated Abu Dhabi as the world’s top city over Rome. British respondents in the survey expressed a preference for living in Abu Dhabi ahead of both Paris and Los Angeles.

Abu Dhabi’s influence can certainly be felt throughout its neighbours, the Burj Dubai is now the Burj Khalifa, after the Abu Dhabi Royal family and UAE’s President, after it coughed up $10 billion to make Dubai’s defaulted payments.

And the capital  is probably the more conservative all seven emirates; Saudi Arabia’s votes were critical to the success of Abu Dhabi, with the strongest showing for any city in the Ipsos survey.  It also feels like the more sensible older sibling – whereas Dubai, often described as Las Vegas on speed minus the gambling, Abu Dhabi has more cultural projects in the pipeline with the Guggenheim and Louvre both set to take up residence.

Abu Dhabi does have 95 per cent of the UAE’s oil and I’d be lying if I said this didn’t infiltrate general attitudes – the 7* Emirates Palace hotel has its own gold ATM, for the days you need to access bullion quickly and I enjoyed the world’s most expensive cappuccino with gold dusting, over the usual chocolate favourite.

Yet the more cultural feel, (and also the emirate’s mild tendency for the grandiose) is encapsulated by the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. As one the largest mosques in the world, it has 82 domes, seven gilded chandeliers of glass panels studded with Swarovski crystals – the largest 12 tonnes and 50 ft high and the world’s largest handmaid carpet.  Despite this, it is also the epicentre of the emirates spiritual activity with more than 40,000 people visiting during Eid alone. Wrapped in a cashmere headscarf, it felt a strangely serene and calming space in stark contrast to the schizophrenic towers looming from Dubai’s skyline only a few hundred miles across the desert.

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