Under Construction in the Emirates

During my trip to the Emirates, one of the main things I wanted to do was drive out into the desert and see the dunes. I grew up in a desert, and I’ve traveled around the deserts in Egypt a bit, but they’re not the same. I still had never seen that super-duney, English Patient kind of desert up close.

Abu Dhabi is the largest of the United Arab Emirates, and in addition to being a pretty slick and functioning city proper, it stretches way out west into the desert, up to the undefined border with Saudi Arabia.

So I drove way out to Liwa, which is a little cluster of settlements along some oases. And because even when I’m not working on a guidebook, I’m pretty curious about fancy hotels, I decided I’d drop in to the Anantara Qasr al-Sarab resort for lunch.

There are only, like, three roads in Abu Dhabi, but I managed to get lost. My Google GPS told me to turn down a dirt road, and I did. Just about the time I was realizing that a rustic approach to a luxury hotel was one thing, but this road was clearly not right, I passed a ghost town.

A mirage on the horizon

I parked my car and hiked down to the trailers. Just like in a good Western, there was a door blowing in the wind, creaking and slapping against the tinny side of a double-wide.

That was spooky enough, but then I heard the faint sound of voices. As I got closer, I realized it was a radio or a TV. Somehow, an inhabited ghost town is even creepier than an empty one.

But it was just one guard, watching TV to pass the time. He said it was fine if I took some photos.

Toilets. Lots of toilets.

Click to see full-size, for the drawing on the wall.

The trusty guard. The only other living thing around was a bird, also yellow.

Virtually everything in the Emirates has been built by guest laborers. Thousands of people can work on a major construction project–the Burj Khalifa in Dubai employed some 10,000 people. This often calls for an independent workers’ town, with bare-bones housing and other services. Smaller projects still often have an adjoining workers’ camp.

This is what I’d driven past, on this wrong road. The guard confirmed my guess–this had been the workers’ camp for the Qasr al-Sarab, which was just over a couple of dunes ahead. It was slowly being dismantled–the good parts, like the toilets, salvaged, and the trailers carted away on trucks.

I said thanks, and then drove off back down the washboarded road and back to the highway. One kilometer farther along was the proper entrance to the resort, with a perfectly smooth black surface curving through the dunes. No eyesore trailers to be seen. The resort, when I got there, was astoundingly beautiful. The construction workers did a fantastic job.

The entrance.

Every construction project in the Emirates has its own ghost town, a negative form that’s destroyed once the real sculpture is created.


  1. Christina says:

    What a fascinating examination of creation and destruction. I always thing of destruction leaving _something_, but this is so strange in its nothingness. Weird. Great post.

  2. Zora says:

    Thanks, Christina–glad you liked it! This is one of the cooler things I saw on my trip. Not that my trip was that bleak–just lots of things to think about.

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