This spring, I spent ten days in the UAE with a friend who recently moved from Brooklyn for a professional engagement in the art department at the new NYU Abu Dhabi campus. The place fascinated and scared me.
Living is good in the Emirate capital of Abu Dhabi — at least what I experienced as a Westerner visiting other Westerners. Expats make up about 90% of the city, and they are generally well to do. They come and go on contracts, in waves. By my unscrupulous measure, half are academics, diplomats, military; and some portion of the other half are the attendant spouses, along for the ride, and thus, seemingly lounging full time. Every brunch is a soirée. Every happy hour unfolds at a four- or five-star hotel. (Under Sharia Law, only the tourism industry wrangles liquor licenses.) Several art museums of international repute are on the brink of opening their doors: a branch of the Guggenheim, a branch of the Louvre.. Oases of flora burst forth from the highway medians like magic. The government makes clouds sometimes, so there might be rain to water them. It’s very, very hot.
Most of Abu Dhabi unfurls on man-made islands – Saadiyat, Al Maryah, Yas. A short drive outside of the city, east toward Oman or south toward the center of the Arabian Peninsula, the medians grow less lush. A sprawl of malls fades into vast red and tan dunes. Sand dances across the highway in blinding sheets.
There are more construction cranes in the UAE than in any other country in the world, I heard, and I believe. The pristine new university campus is cut through with green walkways and miniature, decorative fountain-canals. A grove of palms stands outside the student center, exotic Eurasian hoopoes flitting between the fronds. Enrollment is ramping up, but for now, the population feels sparse.
Sitting at a long studio table in the cavernous arts facilities, I felt a rumbling. It was familiar – what a New Yorker might feel sitting in a building built over the subway. It sustained.
“Is it an earthquake?” I asked my friend.
“It’s the sand compacting,” she told me. In a construction site somewhere nearby, sand was removed from the ground, and the desert was rearranging itself to fill its place.
In luxury skyrises built on sand, we drank Bombay and tonic. We rode in self-driving, electric cars past spaceship-shaped skyscrapers, artificial rainclouds hovering above. There is an eerie feeling of impermanence to this opulent pocket of civilization at the edge of the Empty Quarter, the world’s largest desert. It is hard to understand whether Abu Dhabi is advancing toward something, or leaving something behind.
In collaboration with the impeccable Laura Schneider