The palms lining the roads in downtown Abu Dhabi have dates growing on them in giant bunches. “In a few weeks they will be ripe,” says Zahoor, the driver who is taking us into the desert to drive crazily up and down the dunes. Anyone can pick them, like blackberries in the English countryside. There seems to be more attention devoted to central reservations in this country than the British devote to their public flowerbeds. From 8am until at least 5pm there are overalled gardeners tending to the palms, lawns and rockeries by the roadside.
“Over there,” Zahoor says. “Can you see those houses? The government builds them, free of charge, for each citizen. When they have children, and the children grow up, they will have a house built for them, too. Good, isn’t it?”
You cannot take cameras into the carrefour (supermarket). “I don’t have a film,” I say. Indeed, that is why I am going there in the first place. I show them the empty camera. The attendants point to the signs. No cameras or recording equipment, they say. I hand it over. When we leave the supermarket – which, incidentally, has an aisle devoted to prayer mats – I ask Zahoor why. Perhaps it is because they don’t want people to come in and record what prices they are selling things for, he suggests. They could just use a pen and paper for that, I say. Zahoor shrugs.
I was prepared for the heat in Abu Dhabi. What really gets you is the humidity. Leaving the air-conditioned environment of the airport was like walking into a shower. My glasses steamed up. It was 8am. It was a balmy 30 degrees celsius, but you can’t stay outside for more than a minute without getting drippingly hot.
“Now I get out to let down the tyres,” Zahoor says. We are going dune bashing – off road driving over and along the sand. Anthony, a man from the Guggenheim Foundation sitting in the back, is unprepared for this. We hare up and down 45 degree slopes and turn sharply in the fine sand so that the back slides out and plumes of peach-coloured grains flare up outside the windows. We stop at a camel farm, or, more prosaically, a small barbed wire enclosure housing 20 to 30 camels. One or two have knitted camel bras to suport their udders. One is being milked as we approach. We are each offered a tureen of warm, foamy milk with unidentified flecks floating on the surface. What the hell, I think. I try some. It tastes very similar to rice pudding, one of the five or so puddings I was served as part of a massive ceremonial lunch. The lunch, a large affair attended by at least one member of the royal family, was bereft of booze. Puddings, I suppose, are the next best thing.