The United Arab Emirates has consistently broken records for developing faster than any place in history. In the last couple of decades, the capital city, Abu Dhabi, has transformed into one of the most glamourous metropolises in the world, going from a tribal desert peninsula to a luxury business, education, and tourist destination for the wealthy. This is how travel to Abu Dhabi has changed in the last 20 years.

In 2001, less than half a million people lived in Abu Dhabi. Today, that number has tripled. The city's economy and infrastructure have expanded to attract and accommodate over a million and a half residents. However, more than residents, the city is overwhelmingly filled with tourists and visitors from all over the world. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Abu Dhabi saw around 12 million visitors a year. What exactly are these millions of people flocking to see, and how did a formerly obscure city in the desert become such an attractive tourist hub?

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The summers in Abu Dhabi are oppressively hot. This is the foremost challenge facing the city. All over the Middle East, the solution to the heat is the presence of malls. Since being outdoors is close to impossible in the summer months, residents and visitors retreat to the air-conditioned bliss of ornate shopping malls. Malls in Abu Dhabi are architectural and cultural landmarks, acting as an oasis for luxury dining, thrilling activities, and lavish accommodation in addition to retail shopping.

The first two major malls in Abu Dhabi were built just twenty years ago. The Abu Dhabi mall and Marina mall are glittering staples of the capital city. This was the first step in engineering the metropolis to become a global hub.

In 2003, the UAE operationalized its ultra-successful airline - Etihad Airways. Headquartered in Abu Dhabi, the airline connected the city with the rest of the world, making it significantly cheaper and easier to visit than ever before. Today, Etihad is ranked as part of the top 20 airlines in the world.

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Capitalizing on the momentum, the first major luxury resort was opened in Abu Dhabi in 2005. The Emirates Palace is a five-star hotel with opulent rooms, complete with whirlpool hot tubs and butler service. This palatial resort has a private beach, tennis court, spa, and pretty much everything an ultra-wealthy tourist could think of.

  • Hotel: The Emirates Palace
  • Address: West Corniche, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
  • Price per night: $602 a night for the Coral Twin Suite; $10,600 a night for the three-bedroom Palace Suite

In 2007, one of the most iconic places of worship was built in Abu Dhabi. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is an architectural masterpiece, attracting millions of tourists and pilgrims every year. It is the biggest mosque in the country and houses rare books on the topics of theology, calligraphy, and science. The mosque was built with precious stones from all over the world, including thousands of Swarovski crystals in just one of the chandeliers alone.

The following year, in 2008, to make transport within the city easier, the first public bus service was operationalized. Before this, visitors and residents were entirely dependent on cars and taxis. For the first year, the bus was entirely free and served the central business district and surrounding suburbs. It also connected the various islands that make up the capital city.

By then, the city had established enough infrastructure for mass tourism, so in 2009, Abu Dhabi hosted the Grand Prix, making it the center of global attention. That same year, construction began on the Abu Dhabi Louvre, a sister to the iconic museum with the same name in Paris. This counterpart museum boasts rare artworks from depths of history, all housed in one of the most unique architectural structures in the world. It is described as France's largest cultural project abroad.

The following year, capitalizing on the influx of tourism, Ferrari World was opened. The Italian sports car company created a sprawling campus, displaying the true power of the Ferrari brand. It functions as everything from a high-end marketplace to an amusement park.

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In 2011, in yet another extraordinary feat of globalism and economic success, the Guggenheim Museum was opened in Abu Dhabi. This is the overseas version of the iconic museum in New York City, competing with the original in terms of cultural value and style.

The same year, Abu Dhabi erected a post-modern architectural homage to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The Capital Gate tower is the neon, futuristic Leaning Tower of the Middle East, endowing the region with a landmark that will symbolize its rise to success for centuries to come.

In 2014, one of the largest and most expensive universities opened a campus in Abu Dhabi. New York University partnered with the government of Abu Dhabi to expand the educational significance of the Middle East, hosting prominent professors and academics from all over the world. Over a thousand years ago, the Levant was a global hub for commerce and tertiary education. The opening of NYU Abu Dhabi is a symbolic revival of that lost legacy and status in the modern world.

One could argue that the most significant event to commemorate the transformation of Abu Dhabi occurred in 2019. The country, and region as a whole, have been defined by its Islamic identity for centuries. When Pope Francis visited Abu Dhabi, this changed. It marked the first time in history that a Pope visited the Arabian Peninsula. With the establishment of official diplomatic recognition by the ecclesiastical leader of the Catholic West, Abu Dhabi officially became a global economic and tourist hub, on par with major cities like New York, Hong Kong, and London.

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