If you want to learn more about UAE’s luxury shopping scene, you will be disappointed by the conclusion of my expat-era-inspired series. The nation’s many malls, some of which house indoor skiing slopes and massive aquariums, are well documented by now. Instead, this finale is devoted to some of my favorite cultural landmarks in Abu Dhabi Emirate.
My flat was across the street from Qasr Al Hosn, the museum and annual festival sharing its name. Abu Dhabi’s oldest structure, Qasr Al Hosn was built in the 1790s to monitor incoming sea traffic from Gulf waters. It later became a home to the ruling family and a seat of government. Today, the fort’s interactive archives tell the story of UAE’s economic evolution from pearling and fishing to technology, education, and (what I worked in) healthcare. Guests learn about the country’s humbler roots while surrounded by shiny skyscrapers and a luxury mall with Arabesque decor (the same mall where Bagel Factory is located). The structure was a must-see anytime that I hosted relatives from the States - as was the Grand Sheikh Zayed Mosque, which I drove past daily en route to work.
About two hours from downtown Abu Dhabi by car, Al Ain is the birthplace and home of UAE founder Sheikh Baba Zayed. Known as Al Ain Palace Museum, the grounds served as Baba Zayed’s chief residence until 1966. The home has been open to the public since 2001, providing visitors a glimpse of royal life during the mid-century. I lived and worked in UAE long enough to know that business gets done over food and drink. I’d spend hours at the UAE Ministry of Health in downtown Abu Dhabi eating cookies and sipping tea to conduct routine administration, and errands that might have taken about 10 minutes back in the States (once you reached the front of the queue). I can only imagine that many talks of great significance were initiated from the plush cushions in Baba Zayed’s receiving room as guests enjoyed strong coffee.
In the 1990s, archeologists discovered the remnants of a Christian monastery on Sir Bani Yas Island. They believe that the structure, dated circa the 7th or 8th century AD, represents the earliest Christian presence in UAE. The monastery remained in operation as Islam grew to be the dominant religion in the country, pointing to an early history of religious tolerance in the UAE.
Back to the present and downtown Abu Dhabi: Warehouse 421 offers locals and expats a taste of modern art. I remember thinking that perhaps I had the wrong address when approaching the building, which could have been an airplane hangar or a mechanic’s garage from the outside. But no, Warehouse 421 is situated in an industrialized section of Abu Dhabi, a literal oasis in a sort of junkyard (or at least, it appeared that way in 2016). The gallery opened in 2015 to host exhibitions and film screenings, and to offer a common space for creatives to gather. Like the rest of modern-day Abu Dhabi, it’s a place where the East meets the West and where history meets modernity.
In a discussion of the Emirate’s cultural institutions, I must also mention Louvre Abu Dhabi (which opened in 2017 after I left UAE) and New York University in Abu Dhabi. It’s one of only three degree-granting locations within the university’s system, in addition to New York and Shanghai. As an NYU New York alumna, I took pride in visiting the Abu Dhabi campus for various events and volunteering in its women’s mentoring program. More importantly and beyond little old me, I appreciate the fact that students from around the world, but particularly the States, get much-needed exposure to the region if they attend NYU Abu Dhabi or participate in a study abroad semester there.
My time in the UAE was my own version of a study abroad program; it was an informative and growth-catalyzing three-year season of my life. I encourage any young person who has it in their dreams to live abroad to make the leap (and why not in UAE?) before life catches up to them.