Oil's well in Abu Dhabi

There is a saying among the Bedouin people, so I heard long ago, that it is possible to sustain yourself through a three-day desert journey with a single date. On the first day, you suck the date. On the second day, you eat the flesh.
On the third day, you suck the pip.

That might work well enough in the Sahara, but you would need at least two dates to get across the lobby of the Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi. Especially as, when you finally arrive on the other side of this vast, frictionless expanse of marble, you would have to have heatstroke to pay the going rate of 60 dirham (£11.75) for a sandwich.

I’m not staying here, mind. I’m in town to attend the International Prize for Arabic Fiction and, having a few hours off, I’ve simply come to gawp. The hotel itself is a tourist attraction. Someone I met reported that guests get their own butler, beds are sprinkled daily with rose petals and you could fit London’s Savoy Hotel in the atrium alone.

You probably could. It’s not built to human scale.

Ali Smith’s fine novel Hotel World is one of those books whose title resonates. I seldom stay in business hotels, still less smart ones in Abu Dhabi, but there is a hotel world, isn’t there, with its own international vocabulary—the lobby’s lingua franca of marble and water; the minibar’s Esperanto of Toblerone, Pringles and miniatures of Johnnie Walker Red.

The scale gets bigger, the marble shinier, the density of itinerant waistcoated musicians and square-footage of gold leaf higher (the Emirates Palace, being the prime hotel in a city built with mind-stretching oil wealth, is like a Brobdingnagian mosque designed by Bulgari) but the aspiration is identical.

A visitor’s impression of Abu Dhabi is like the fulfilment of a prophecy, the prophet being JG Ballard. It’s like Las Vegas, a city from nowhere; like Los Angeles, a city without pedestrians—except for the more or less invisible migrant workers who, you suspect, are incorporated into the concrete where they fall, like Qin Dynasty slaves working on the Great Wall.

From the sea-level terrace of the hotel I’m staying in, I counted 80 cranes. Eight zero. Toiling away through the night building more skyscrapers, more hotels. It’s like an industrial version of those old stop-motion films showing wheat growing—or a paper flower blossoming instantly to 30 times its size when hydrated. Just add money.

“That wasn’t there last year,” old hands kept saying as they noticed another thicket of glass buildings. “That wasn’t there last year,” one of them said as we arrived at the vast exhibition centre housing the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. The hanging at one end of the atrium—a space styled like the poop deck of the Starship Enterprise, only 100m high—welcomes you to “the Gulf’s largest exhibition centre”. It alone is the size of a normal exhibition centre.

Abu Dhabi is an odd place to visit amid global economic catastrophe: it feels like a high-water mark. Exhibition centre indeed. If the recession ever really catches up with this place, the cranes fall still and it becomes a ghost town, it will instantly qualify as one of the wonders of the world.

Oh and the International Prize for Arabic Fiction went to Yusuf Zeydan’s Beelzebub—a poetic, metatextual novel about fifth-century Coptic Christianity by a manuscript scholar at the library of Alexandria and expert in Sufic philosophy.

The prize-winning author was remarkably polite, considering that he was asked in an interview about points of comparison with Dan Brown.—

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