Abu Dhabi, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – This tiny Middle Eastern country sitting on one-tenth of the world’s oil is experiencing a building boom as the sheiks who rule the United Arab Emirates are spending their petrodollars on a series of projects and charities that reach out to the West.
The Gulf’s latest landmark is the Emirates Palace, a luxury hotel that’s effectively a monument to oil wealth. Thirteen types of marble were imported to make floors fit for a sultan, and silk was shipped in for wallpaper.
The Rulers’ Suites, the hotel’s most expensive, are open only to presidents and kings of Gulf Cooperation Council countries. The Palace Suite, which recently housed Tony Blair, is more modest — just $15,000 a night.
There’s also a special icing on the Emirates Palace cake. Pastry chefs use 1,000 pounds of gold each year just for decoration, and cappuccinos come sprinkled with gold dust instead of the more traditional chocolate shavings.
And while money can’t buy happiness, Abu Dhabi is hoping to build it, launching a $30 billion project off its coasts on Saadiyat Island, which is Arabic for "Island of Happiness."
The project is intended to bring Western culture to the desert state, including extensions of the Louvre, Guggenheim and New York University.
“It’s a hub where all cultures will be communicating, using a universal language that is art,” said Mubarak al-Muhairi, general director of the Abu Dhabi tourism development and investment company.
There’s already lot of excitement over the project in Abu Dhabi, as tourists and students flock to see models of the development even before building has begun.
But as it waits for the museums to go up, Abu Dhabi has broken relatively new ground by bringing to town a Picasso exhibit that includes nudes. The paintings are mostly abstract, but in a region that covers its women, it is a bold display.
Even as it brings Western art to its own shores, the Emirates' leaders have been extending a hand to overseas charities. The country gave $100 million to victims of Hurricane Katrina, and the children’s charity Dubai Cares has received $1 billion to support education in the Third World.
Yet the oil princes have not always shown the same generosity within their own borders, as millions of East-Asian guest workers in the United Arab Emirates toil in 100-degree heat, earning just hundreds of dollars a month as they work on the billion-dollar government projects.
Even so, the country is working to promote stability in the sometimes shaky region, canceling the entire $7 billion debt owed it by Iraq.