Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to visit Abu Dhabi, a part of the world that was completely new to me. I’d be the first to admit that almost my entire knowledge of the Middle East past and present has been gained from and filtered through the prism of the Western media – never a particularly reliable source at the best of times. What I discovered was a country in the midst of dramatic redevelopment, one using its obvious oil wealth to create a luxury destination of jaw-dropping proportions. It’s a fine example of what you can achieve when you marry ambition, imagination and almost limitless coffers.
Unlike many other Muslim states in the region, Abu Dhabi doesn’t impose a strict interpretation of the faith on its inhabitants and although dress codes for women were much in evidence, they were certainly not compulsory or even rigidly enforced. That said, all women are expected to dress ‘sensibly’ although there’s a lot of latitude given in this, particularly for non-Muslims. Alcohol is even tolerated in certain circumstances: at one point I found myself watching Wales horse Scotland in the Six Nations while drinking the most expensive pint of Guinness I’ve ever bought (£8 a pint – ouch!). When I asked Luciana, my chaparone from the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, how she managed as a western female as she went about her business, she told me that she’d never encountered any issues and in fact as a woman had always been treated by locals with a courtesy and deference that she’d never experienced in the West. Personal safety at night was also never an issue.
The highlight of the all-too-short trip was a visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, a remarkable white marble structure capable of hosting up to 40,000 worshippers at any one time. When I first arrived with Luciana, it was just as afternoon prayers had begun and as obvious non-Muslims, we were politely requested to return later, which was fair enough. I remember being at mass in London’s Westminster Cathedral watching less-aware tourists wander almost up onto the altar itself during the service.
When we did return, we certainly weren’t the only tourists – the place was heaving with bus parties of all nationalities, mostly but not exclusively Arab. Men and women have to use different entrances, with all women being given a loose black abaya to cover themselves with. It was interesting to see that even if the women were already wearing some manner of veil or covering, if it wasn’t the regulation black (as it often isn’t here as different nationalities have different approaches to what’s religiously and socially acceptable), they didn’t get in until they used the one issued. An dthe dress code didn’t just apply to females: men wearing shorts were also obliged to cover up with a dishdasha, the long white traditional robe you see a lot of around the Arab world. In many ways it reminded of a more rigorously enforced version of the dress codes you commonly find associated with Catholic churches in the like s of Spain and Italy. Modesty is obviously a highly regarded commodity here but for all that, it didn’t feel particularly repressive; rather, it was a demonstration of respect for customs and traditions that are deeply felt by many people here. God knows, we pay little respect to anyone’s religious beliefs here in the UK, even out of common courtesy, so it was almost refreshing to see a society where this was the norm.
The place certainly merits a longer and more wide ranging exploration than this fleeting visit allowed me and I’d like to think that it won’t be too long before I’ll be able to go back.