Abu Dhabi: Rags To Riches Transformation

Proud men and women clad head-to-toe in dishdashes and abayas float effortlessly along the palm tree-lined corniche, framed by a futuristic landscape and skyscrapers reflecting off the azure waters. And there are just as many turbans, saris, shalwar-kameezes and barong tagalog (Philippines) filling the bustling malls in the United Arab Emirates.

It's the most talked about winter sun holiday destination this year and appears the ultimate symbiosis of modernity and traditional Arabian customs.

Abu Dhabi is the largest of the seven emirates that comprise the United Arab Emirates. The capital of the emirate and the country is Abu Dhabi city, a lush modern metropolis sitting on a low-lying island a stone's throw from the mainland.

Walking through its burgeoning streets, it's almost unbelievable that only a relatively short time ago Abu Dhabi was little more than a desert island inhabited by nomadic Bedouin tribes living in palm huts ("barasti"). Its sole income was from pearl diving, fishing and date palm cultivation.

The Rush for 'Black Gold' is on

The UAE was born in 1971 when Britain withdrew from the Gulf region. When "black gold" was discovered here in 1980 and the country realized it laid claim to 10 percent of the world's proven oil reserves, development began at a break-neck pace and the citizenry began accruing and embarrassment of wealth.

The country now produces 2.5 million barrels of oil a day and boasts one of the world's highest per capita incomes at $55,000 annually. It is a country aspiring towards superlatives and only the biggest, fastest and best will do.

Ex-pats from other countries are flocking to take advantage of the newfound tax-free wealth, and incredibly a melting pot of 200 nationalities live in harmony relative harmony in the UAE. And there's no end in sight. By 2030 Abu Dhabi's gross population is projected to surge to 3.1 million from the current figure of 930, 0000.

Locals only make up 20 percent of the country's population but are given a government incentive of 70,000 dirham, or about $19,000, to marry an Emirati, not to mention a house being thrown in along with electricity and gas. They are of course extremely lucky as the housing demand is outstripping the supply, sending prices sky-high.

Emirates' Palace, Abu Dhabi – Fit for a King

I lunched at the prestigious gargantuan Emirates Palace Hotel, where in January President Bush met UAE's President Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan, as part of his Middle East tour.

The palace is reputed to be the most expensive hotel ever built. At a cost of about $3 billion it is shamelessly opulent, and there are even separate floors reserved for Gulf royalty and visiting world leaders.

Khalifa treated Bush to a visit to the $27 billion tourist development on Saadiyat Island (Arabic for "Island of Happiness"), which will host the satellite museums from the Guggenheim and the Louvre -- evidence of the drive to deliver a blossoming arts scene to cater for Abu Dhabi's diverse and demanding palates.

However if you are more keen for a flavor of bygone days, before the rags to riches makeover, the heritage village is an authentic replica of a Bedouin encampment. This was the brainchild of the country's founding president, HH Sheikh Zayad bin Sultan Al Nahyan, to remind the locals of their history.

One exhibit recreates farming life in an oasis, ancient irrigation systems and wind towers which provided early air conditioning, while another highlights the lives of coastal fishermen, traders and pearl divers.

Fancy a date sweetie?

If want to experience something truly reminiscent of the Emirates' trading past, head to the Al Meena souks in Abu Dhabi where you'll find a fish market where you can peruse the catch of the day and definitely buy some local Hammour fish for dinner. There are also fruit and vegetables from Africa and without a doubt more dates for sale than any greedy Emirati could hope to consume during Ramadan!

Finally it is also worth paying a visit to the Dhow Harbor to soak up the atmosphere created by the traditional dhow boats, which are still used for trade in the Gulf region and Indian Ocean and often have some quite exotic cargo.