Abu Dhabi is signposting its past as it heads towards its future

Installing plaques at landmarks is key to documenting the emirate's history as its popularity increases

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You might expect a good number of both international and domestic tourists to have their interest in Abu Dhabi’s Empty Quarter piqued by the movie release of the “generational classic” Dune: Part Two in February, which provides a stunning perspective of this magical expanse of desert in the UAE.

As director Denis Villeneuve told The National during a promotional tour after the film’s Middle East premiere, the UAE desert served as a unique inspiration: “It’s not only fantastically beautiful, but you feel the power of nature. There’s a presence to this landscape that I didn’t find anywhere else.”

There is no doubt that every time a major movie production is filmed in the emirate (or high-profile sporting event is staged in the country), it serves as an excellent entry point for, and informal selling platform to, overseas audiences and as a reminder to residents of the country’s many charms and interesting locations.

Who didn’t feel a tinge of jealousy when Tom Cruise ran across the roof of the new Terminal A of Zayed International Airport in the latest installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise last year, or wonder when they too could fly to or from the futuristic terminal as he had done last summer? The answer to that question arrived late last year, of course, when the new terminal opened to more regular human beings than Ethan Hunt, although I’d imagine it will always be an impossible mission to run in the footsteps of Cruise on the building’s rolling sand dune roof.

The Empty Quarter, however, might get a little busier with film fans over the next few months, with people eager to see for themselves the inspiration for Dune and other films, such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

The greatest strength of the list of Abu Dhabi's landmarks is its diversity and willingness to reach beyond the most obvious choices in identifying points of interest

The tourist trail to that stretch of desert is punctuated by the Emirates National Auto Museum about 40 minutes from Abu Dhabi and then by the crossing of the Tropic of Cancer, which is another 50 minutes down the road to Liwa. As the late Peter Hellyer noted in a column in 2019, approximately 337 kilometres of the latitudinous northern hemisphere line that forms the tropic fall within the UAE’s borders. All of those kilometres are also within the Abu Dhabi emirate.

The east-west crossing point of the Tropic of Cancer on the north-south Hameem Road has been marked, in recent years, with a brown tourist information sign, making it a great talking point en route and place to pause for a photo for travellers into Al Dhafra region, particularly as the tropic cuts through an array of countries around the globe, including Mexico, India, China, several African nations, as well as two other Gulf states, Oman and Saudi Arabia, and the Bahamas.

It is the kind of initiative and signposting that the country has become really good at, continually expanding the tourist trail to include multiple smaller points of interest and attractions, alongside the constellation of museums, hotels and theme parks that international visitors might instantly think of before they travel to this country.

At the start of this month, Abu Dhabi began installing plaques at dozens of modern heritage sites across the emirate. For the curious visitor or civic proud resident, the plaques provide a patchwork tour of the city as it used to be.

As we reported, the first plaque was recently inaugurated at the Cultural Foundation. Most of the landmarks on the list date back to the 1970s and 1980s and will be registered on the emirate’s Historic Environment Record.

They include places such as the Chamber of Commerce, the Central Bank, Al Ibrahimi Tower, Zayed Sports City and the Main Bus Terminal. Residents will all have their favourites, but the greatest strength of the list is its diversity and willingness to reach beyond the most obvious choices in identifying points of interest. The Niqa bin Ateej water tank and park in Khalidiyah is, perhaps, the most shining example of that trait.

I advocated for this form of signposting on these pages in a 2019 column, which makes me happy to see a scheme of this nature being brought into being.

The Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi’s Urban Treasures scheme, which recognises the cultural significance of longstanding shops, restaurants and cafes, is another good example of how to encourage visitors and residents to sample some offbeat and truly authentic parts of the city. The same applies to the Michelin Guide, now in its second edition for the city, which recognises a range of restaurants, from upmarket to budget.

What binds these lists together is the continual expansion of the range of attractions for visitors to intersect with. Long gone are the days when within a few hours the visitor could get a comprehensive sense of the city or the country. The experience continues to grow – for those who are curious and for food lovers, fun seekers and heritage buffs alike.

But more than that, plaques and schemes of this nature signpost the past and provide a framework for investigation of the urban landscape.

And each one of those desertscapes presented in the cinema provides a perfect reminder that the naming convention for the Empty Quarter is a misnomer. Far from being a void, it is a place of both extreme serenity and powerful beauty.

Published: March 01, 2024, 4:00 AM