By BRUCE DENNILL
The hotel we’re in for the junket is lovely. But it’s miles from anywhere, a round of golf costs five hundred million dirham and there’s only so much of the course you can walk around, simply passing the time before a stern Chinese man in a red shirt leaps into a golf cart and races across the fairways to cut you off.
There’s also a schedule, and the hole that needs filling in that itinerary is small enough that getting into central Abu Dhabi and back, or into the desert for some unspecified exploratory activity, is not a practical consideration.
The company throwing the shindig quite reasonably doesn’t cover taxi fare for us to venture out between assignments, so it becomes a bit of a word sum: “If a man travels towards Al Raha at 80km/h and is paying per kilometre in a foreign currency he hasn’t yet quite got his head around while being constantly aware that he’s operating on a tight timetable, how long will it take for him to forget to say ‘This is where I need to get out, please’ in Arabic?”
Fortunately, I’m not the only sap in such a quandary, and on the way out to meet the taxi I connect with a fellow guest with more or less exactly the same idea: head to the Al Raha Mall, purely because it falls in an affordable travel radius and whatever it offers will be preferable to re-reading the brochures in the room another four times.
My colleague and I arrive at the mall, unsure of whether we took the shortest possible route to get there but confused enough by the various on- and off-ramps that we’re willing to take the driver’s word for it. We forget our calculations as we get out of the car and snap our heads up at the giant coin, balanced on its side across the parking lot from the shops. The Aldar – a major property development company – headquarters building is impressive for many reasons. There’s the incredible, how-did-they-do-that shape, the vast expanse of glass and the fact that, for the moment, it’s the dominant structure in the area – though that may change soon in the permanent construction site that is Abu Dhabi.
But perhaps the most satisfying thing is that the calculation used to figure out how to keep the edifice from toppling over is based on the “golden ratio”, in use in one way or another since Pythagoras’ time. The modern city is still an infant in historical terms but that all the new shiny stuff being built using ancient formulae makes it feel less manufactured and more authentically tied to the Bronze Age culture that existed in the area two-and-a-half centuries BC.
The building’s security is less warm and fuzzy than the pleasure of noticing this link to the past, so we can’t get inside the Aldar centre to experience the views. Back to the mall, which is … locked. It’s 9.30am, and it’s a shopping mall: capitalism means the place has to be operational, surely? Except that it doesn’t. We wander around the back, where there is a verandah overlooking a man-made beach alongside a man-made channel, with a hotel situated at the far end of the raked sand area. It’s a pretty spot, if still tinged with the nagging synthetic feel that the city has throughout,
Eventually, after 10am, the doors to the mall open and we join the dozen or so other shoppers heading inside. The feeling of having missed a memo somewhere doesn’t go away, though: several of the shops have no tenants, and the range of options on offer is not terribly exciting, unless you’re in the market for some mainstream clothing designs or some cheap jewellery. We do find a spot to buy some pretty Christmas baubles (probably not the festival they were designed for, given the context) for our wives, but after that, and a wander through the ghost town that is the venue’s cineplex, we decide that the most prudent use of our time is probably heading out to that verandah for some coffee prepared in the traditional style.
Given the delivery on our expectations to this point in the outing, we’re not massively surprised when it transpires that the restaurant we take a table at doesn’t serve coffee, and the closest we can get to a traditional beverage is Moroccan tea. We concede and order a couple of pots, feeling there’s at least something exotic in the experience; a detail we couldn’t conjure up at home.
It turns out there’s more in that niche to come, and it’s considerably less predictable.
We’re chatting over our tea, trying to figure out how to make the least possible mess when pouring through the elegant but very narrow spouts, when the first of them appears: a portly middle-aged man, hairy barrel chest thrust out and wearing a tight red Speedo, walking purposefully along the strand, peering into the middle distance.
That one guy on his own is not particularly strange: he’s likely a businessman in town for some meetings, taking the air, seeing the sights, keeping in shape – inasmuch as a stroll along a 200m-long beach is keeping in shape. What’s odd is that, a couple of minutes after the first bloke loops around under our viewpoint and heads back to his sunbed, there’s a replacement figure heading towards us: a portly middle-aged man, hairy barrel chest thrust out and wearing a tight red Speedo, walking purposefully along the strand, peering into the middle distance.
It’s a different guy, though we can only confirm that when he’s right below us again. And when he’s gone, there is, inexplicably, a third replica, pacing up and down, not looking at anyone, just silently circling. It’s like looking through the bars in a zoo, watching a bear repeat a circuit around its cage ad nauseum. Perhaps it’s thinking about triumphs past and future – bringing down a stag in its prime, perhaps (that’s the bear, by the way, not the businessman); or maybe it’s enjoying the cool breeze and simply having nothing to do (that’s more likely the businessman than the bear).
Whatever the case, it’s like watching a giant, bizarre mobile swing slowly about in front of us as we slowly sip Moroccan tea. It’s almost hallucogenically relaxing, and, with our deadline for sourcing a cab for the return journey looming, we celebrate finally achieving our goal – finding a unique, impromptu moment in a tightly planned, corporate agenda – and chuckle about the combination of factors (giant coin buildings, slumbering shopping centres, bear-men and imported tea) necessary to create it.