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BBC Capital

Business Traveller

Gold-dispensing vending machines, CEOs and high culture

  • City in sand
    British explorers retraced a trek across the Empty Quarter desert to Abu Dhabi. (Joseph Capellan/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Golfer's delight
    Despite the desert climate, Abu Dhabi boasts lush courses and hosts major golf events. (David Cannon/Getty Images)
  • Beauty at night
    Use your free time away from business meetings to visit local landmarks. (Thinkstock)
  • Mosque beauty
    Sheikh Zayed mosque, named after the founder of the UAE is the third largest in the world.(Marwan Naamani/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Gold rush
    Vending machines dispense 24-carat gold in one, five, 10 gram and one ounce bars. (Ebrahim Adaway/AFP/Getty Images)
  • High culture
    Construction on the Louvre Abu Dhabi. It is France's largest overseas cultural project. (Marwan Naamani/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Artist view
    Venus and Nymphs Bathing is part of 130 artworks to be in the museum's permanent collection. (Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Sandy oasis
    Abu Dhabi is becoming a big draw for business travellers and major conferences. (Thinkstock)

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Flashy Dubai dazzles visitors with gleaming skyscrapers and giant shopping malls, but it is sister city Abu Dhabi that is the real engine-room of the country’s economy and home to the multi-billion dollar energy industry.

The United Arab Emirates is made up of seven kingdoms run by Emirs, and as the country’s government hub, Abu Dhabi is the place to press the flesh.

Business people are everywhere, hoping to ‘see and be seen’ in their meetings with high-ranking local and regional officials and oil company head honchos. The city is a popular central meeting point for businesses from across the entire Middle East, Asia and increasingly North and Central Africa, thanks to efficient air links, political stability and an efficient visa system.

The enormous Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Centre (ADNEC) is a big draw: this cavernous venue can hold three or four international conferences simultaneously. The city is also home to the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship yearly, which attracts some of the game’s greatest players and big business. The annual Abu Dhabi Media Summit also draws global leaders and companies to the region.

Away from the office, there are stunning beaches, world class golf and of course the desert dunes. By next year, the city will also have its very own version of the Paris’ Louvre gallery, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel and located on the newly-developed Saadiyat Island. A Guggenheim Museum is due to open in 2017.

Airport

The airport, located almost 40 kilometres outside the main city, is a hub for award-winning, Etihad Airways, which offers business travellers numerous perks such as an on-board nanny and jet-lag beating reclining seats. The airport itself is easy to navigate and immigration queues move quickly. Still, frequent travellers complain about the lack of food and drink choices inside the departures area so try to get lounge access where possible.

For quick access to the town centre take a metered tax; a trip that shouldn’t cost much more than AED110 ($30). Many hotels can arrange complimentary limousine pick-ups, so ask when you book your room.

Money matters

The UAE currency in the Dirham, or AED, pegged to the US dollar. There are plenty of banks and scores of ATMs or cash machines available, most of which take international cards. Larger shops and restaurants will also take international credit cards, though smaller, independent places may ask for cash. Money-changing houses are everywhere and most stay open late and at the weekends.

Easy cash is essential for business travellers as Abu Dhabi is an expensive location. Restaurants with alcohol licenses are pricey, as is alcohol. Standard hotel-fare with a glass of wine, can easily cost AED220 ($60). So if you’re trying to make your per diem last, seek out one of the many non-alcohol licensed Indian, Pakistani or Lebanese cafés that serve up spicy curry or kebab meals for as little as AED55 ($15).

When it comes to getting around, taxis are probably the best option for business travellers. Don’t always expect your taxi driver to know where he is going, or for him to speak English, but be patient and he’ll get you to your destination in the end, even if it involves phoning a friend.

Cultural know-how

Arabic coffee is served (usually with dates) at business meetings. Be careful as it is considered impolite to refuse even if you don’t drink coffee. You should hold the small handle-less cup in your right hand and don’t put it down in between sips. You’ll be offered at least two top-ups by a server, who will stand by, until you twiddle the cup from side to side to indicate you don’t want any more.

Women should avoid short skirts and sleeveless or low-cut tops in public places like shopping malls and on public transport. It’s a good idea for female travellers to carry a light scarf with them, not least because there is so much air-conditioning inside buildings, particularly in conference venues. Swim-wear, including bikinis, is acceptable on the beach, but never sunbathe topless, and always cover up walking back to your hotel or taxi.

Hotels

The city is scattered across 200 islands — big, small, natural and man-made — and is full of international five-star hotels. Many hotels have private Arabian Gulf beach access, so you may be tempted to leave your conference a few hours early, or stay on for a few days after your meetings.

The Intercontinental is one of the best-known landmarks in Abu Dhabi. It is a nice spot to watch the sun set during the cooler months and is a good place to pick up a boat for a city tour. A room with a sea view however will start from AED588 ($160) and breakfast is extra.

Worth a visit, even if you can’t afford to stay, is the dazzling Kempinski-operated Emirates Palace Hotel, with its domes, chandeliers and gold, mother of pearl and crystal interior. You can expect to pay AED2571 ($700) a night for a room, more for a suite or sea views.

Dinner for one

Abu Dhabi has plenty of first-class restaurants, many of which are owned by celebrated chefs, including Gary Rhodes (Rhodes 44 at The Regis), Michelin-starred Antonio Saez’s “Catalan” at The Rosewood Hotel and AlMaz by Momo. Reservations are advisable but if you’re in town with short notice, it’s worth trying for a cancellation.

One of the most recent additions to the city’s dining scene is Rainer Becker’s contemporary Japanese restaurant, Zuma, at The Galleria, on Al Maryah Island.

For something a bit different try “Quest” on the 74th floor of the Jumeirah Etihad Towers Hotel, which offers an unbeatable view across the city. Nine floors higher still, “Observation Deck at 300” serves Abu Dhabi’s highest “high tea”.

Off the clock

Time your visit right and you may catch a Formula 1 race. Failing that, Yas Marina Circuit offers packages that allow you to drive yourself around the track in some of the world’s fastest cars.

For something a little calmer, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is definitely worth a visit. One of the world’s largest and most beautiful mosques, it has space for 40,000 worshippers. It also boasts more than 1,000 columns, 24-carat gold gilded chandeliers and the world's largest hand-knotted carpet. It is one of the few mosques in the UAE that is open to non-Muslim visitors and there are daily tours.

Temperatures permitting (if you can avoid visiting between late May and October when it is unbearably hot and humid) Abu Dhabi is also a great place to enjoy the outdoors. The eight-kilometre Corniche, which winds around the city is popular for walking, jogging, hiring a bike, or just sitting with a cool drink for some people watching.

Or spend an afternoon on a traditional dhow, sailing through the mangroves as part of The Abu Dhabi Pearl Journey, which will teach you about the UAE’s history of pearl diving (its main resource pre-oil). Also included in the AED 500 ($136) ticket are snacks and the chance to open an oyster and keep the pearl you find inside

Also ask your hotel concierge about desert safaris and 4x4 dune trips. Many tour operators will collect and drop you off and provide a meal under the stars, often with a belly dancer for entertainment.

Shopping is a national past-time in the UAE and there are plenty of malls. Abu Dhabi has a mix of designer boutiques and international brands for all budgets. These air-conditioned and always spotlessly-clean centres are a lifesaver during the stifling summer months and many have cinemas and bowling alleys.

Gold lovers are well-served in Abu Dhabi. Gold is even available from vending machines (Gold To Go) and you can have it sprinkled on your cappuccino in some hotels. Those in the know head for the Madinat Zayed Gold Centre, next to the mall of the same name, where haggling is expected.

Special considerations

Morning rush-hour traffic can be heavy through the centre of town, so leave plenty of time for early appointments.

The working week in the UAE is Sunday to Thursday. Friday is the holy day and most traditional markets and shops will be closed until the afternoon. Bear in mind it will also be harder to get taxis on a Friday morning (as many drivers will be at Mosque) so it’s worth booking in advance if you have an early flight or appointment.

While internet access is speedy in Abu Dhabi, with nearly all restaurants and cafes offering wi-fi, you may find certain websites and news portals blocked. If you’re worried about accessing certain pages, make sure you can access a virtual private network (VPN) on your computer. Skype is now available in the UAE, though without a VPN, the signal from Skype to phones is weak.

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