Why Abu Dhabi is better than Dubai

Andy Phillips
Abu Dhabi's Grand Mosque
Abu Dhabi's Grand Mosque
"Dubai can keep its artificial ski slopes; Abu Dhabi has so much more to offer."
Andy Phillips

It is the Melbourne to Dubai 's Sydney , the San Francisco to their neighbours' LA.

Abu Dhabi might have grown up in the shadow of glitzy Dubai, but things are changing. A raft of attractions — all built or started in the past decade — is helping the city carve out a niche as the cultured, grown-up alternative. Take in any of the following sights and you'll understand why Abu Dhabi is staking a claim as the true jewel of the Middle East.

The Emirates Palace

A trump card in the rush to build the most extravagant hotel possible, the Emirates Palace makes Dubai's Burj al-Arab look like a social housing project. The cost of construction for this gold-leafed homage to wealth is estimated at US$3 billion ($3.2 billion). Take a walk along its cavernous corridors or peek into an ultra-luxury suite and you'll understand why.

Sprawled across a 1 million-square-metre plot of beachfront land, the complex includes its own water park (with lazy river and slides), a 1200-seat theatre and a golf-leaf dome larger than London's St Paul's Cathedral. There are 104 lifts and more than 12,000 pieces of signage, and chauffeured golf buggies to take visitors from one end of the hotel to the other — a journey of more than a kilometre.

Wildlife watching

Dubai can keep its artificial ski slopes. One of the largest islands in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, Sir Bani Yas Island is home to thousands of rare animals as well as millions of plants and trees.

Formerly the private nature reserve of late ruler and UAE founder, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, this 87 square-kilometre park boasts the world's largest herd of Arabian Oryx (extinct in the wild) and cheetahs. Yes, cheetahs! An ongoing conservation project of the Emirati rulers, the island is also a bird sanctuary, and can be explored on a jeep safari, by kayak or on a mountain bike.

World's first Ferrari theme park

Petrolheads have a better reason than many to visit Abu Dhabi, as the city is building a theme park dedicated to the Italian racing giant. Ferrari World Abu Dhabi is due to open in 2010, and promises to boast more firsts than an F1 champion.

Among the 20 rides will be the world's fastest roller-coaster (to be called the F1 Coaster) and a journey through a Ferrari engine. The entire complex will be housed under a bright red roof in the shape of a classic Ferrari GT racer — one that's big enough to make it the world's largest indoor theme park.

Golf in the Gulf

It might seem more like the world's biggest bunker, but Abu Dhabi is not letting ecology get in the way of its golfing ambitions. Abu Dhabi's Yas Island is the location for the Middle East's first links course, which has been designed by Californian Kyle Phillips — the architect behind St Andrews' Kingsbarns Course.

The 6.8km effort, due for completion in early 2010, follows the mangrove-filled coastline, with the shoreline coming into play on eight of the holes. Also coming into play in 2010 is the Gary Player-designed Saadiyat Beach Golf Course, which has freshwater and saltwater lakes, all designed in a figure-of-eight formation. It promises to be the Middle East's first pay-and-play course — perfect for those visiting for just a few days.

World-class art

Fancy getting a glimpse of Da Vinci's Mona Lisa without having to go all the way to Paris? That might soon be possible, as the first outpost of the Louvre is being built as part of a 270-hectare "cultural district" on Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island. The district has been designed by some of the world's top architects.

Also being built is another Guggenheim Museum, designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, who masterminded the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. Set for completion by 2012, plans are on exhibition in a corner of the Emirates Palace, open to public viewing.

Desert life

While convoys of four-wheel-drives head to the desert outside Dubai for a bit of bush-bashing Middle Eastern-style, the same experience can be had outside Abu Dhabi — without the crowds.

Arabian Adventures runs sundowner tours which take visitors desert driving over dunes near Sweihan, followed by camel riding and dinner under the stars. Sightings of snakes and scorpions are common, while Arabian gazelle inhabit the area. Abu Dhabi is the gateway to the ancient fort town of Al Ain, an inland oasis giving an insight into traditional Arabian life.

Grand Mosque

One of the strongest symbols of Abu Dhabi's difference to Dubai, the white domes and towering minarets of one of the world's largest mosques are a must-see. With a design that is part-Moroccan and part-Turkish, the mosque has 80 domes decorated with white marble, and is filled with treasures.

Among them are the world's largest hand-woven Persian carpet, and a prayer hall covered with 20,000 handmade tiles embedded with semi-precious stones. It is stunning and traditional — which is Abu Dhabi down to a tee.

How would you compare Abu Dhabi to Dubai? Tell us your thoughts below.

Related: ninemsn Travel's Insider's Guide to Dubai
User comments
Abu Dhabi and Dubai are completely different places ... it's like comparing Brisbane with the Gold Coast (but a much more modern and safer version). If you are after an established, traditional look at the U.A.E and it's people, go to Abu Dhabi. If you are after pizazz, fantastic architecture, great dining and shopping, then go to Dubai. Both have lovely beaches and are on the doorstep of beautiful deserts. Some people want to look at the authentic middle east (ie Abu Dhabi or Muscat) while others want the bling of Dubai which is hardly middle eastern but definately an amazing city to visit. Both lovely but comparing them is like comparing apples and oranges!
Why suffer the empty glitz of Dubai or Abu Dhabi when the neighbouring Sultanate of Oman, an unsophisticated jewel of the Middle East, is an easy drive or short flight away. Follow the trail of more than 500 mostly Portugeuse-built castles and forts or experience nature, unspoilt still, in the wadis and deserts and pristine beaches and mountains.
Lived in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, currently in Kuwait. Yes, Dubai has the glamour, but Abu Dhabi has always had the feel of the middle east. Both cities have their own personal charm, and depending on what you expect, each has their attraction as do all the emirates in the UAE.. Daz of Brisbane - all cities have their grumbling rude arrogant taxi drivers. They usually respond to grumbling rude tourists (or expats). I am female, always travel by myself, and even have broken down on that 12 lane freeway and was given help by several courteous locals. I am pleased that at long last AbuDhabi is making the tourist push.Have been trying to tell my friends for years that this was going to happen.
Daz, you have certainly loved too long in australia, go out there and experience the world. Dubai is beautiful, the people lovely and the taxi drivers polite. Maybe you were just an arrogant aussie wanting to be noticed. Pathetic
i lived in abu dhabi and dubai , yes there is alot of tall buildings i feel like , littlepeople and so much concrete, and no trees , and soooo much traffic in both emirates, i would only do a stop over for a few days other then that , australia europe and asia still rate highly when it comes to NATURAL beauty!! rock on sydney!!!!
Forget about comparing Abu Dhabi and Dubai. They are a minor 1 hour drive apart and offer some of the most amazing insights into the Arab world that you could experience. Quite often people try to make out one city is better than the other but both have their advantages. Most expats who work in AD actually live in Dubai thanks to the 12 lane freeway between the two cities and watch this space for an extension to Dubai's metro system and a rail system in the not too distant future. The UAE has come a long way in its first thirty years compared to Australia's 200 years and while life here has its challenges its what makes it such an interesting place. The "can do" attitude of the UAE as a country is something that the rest of the world should admire and I am sure will stand the test of time!
In response to Daz - my self & my teenage daughter got a taxi on our own - it was an Indian taxi actually - had no probs at all - I actually gave him a large tip as he got us there so what if they dont speak english - if you want english...stay at home. I felt completely safe seeing the sights without a "chaperone" and provided you follow the dress rules, no-one is rude. Maybe the locals were responding to your attitude? Of course there were cultural differences - thats why we were there!!! Sounds like you need to find some tolerance - 6 out of 7 comments loved the place!!!
We lived in Bahrain in the 90's and visited the UAE regularly. Back then Abu Dhabs was much more popular. Emirates Airlines was just starting to make a name for itself and Dubai was not on the map (they still had that awful airport and were just about to embark on the building frenzy - it was actually quite peaceful!). It's amazing what lots of money does - and cause. Abu Dhabi was well and truly left behind but obviously now has plans to reverse the trend again. After all, they have installed their airline (Ethihad) - let the building begin!
If it is a choice between Abu Dhabi and dubai chose Abu Dhabi (I lived in Dubai for 3 years and it is an awful place). If it is a choice between abu Dhabi and the Rest of the World don't choose Abu Dhabi. It has little to compare to the wonders of Europe or Asia
Lived there for 2 years, never regretted a moment. EVERY city has problems, and places that do not look good-Abu Dhabi included. There are rules for visiting every City-Abu Dhabi included. If you go to a Muslem world and you are female, you have to be aware of the rules. But in a comparison war between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, AD wins hands down!! Clean, the people are friendly (if you are not an arrogant tourist), you are safe to walk around, there is much to see and experience - you just have to take the time. Time is always the killer of the tourist-if you want glitzy and no substance, go to Dubai (but NEVER in summer) if you want to experience the 'Arab world' then my choice by county mile would be AD!