The United Arab Emirates is a small country, made smaller because the vast majority of it consists of boiling desert where the temperature frequently reaches the mid-40s during summer. It’s a dry heat at the moment, but when the humidity comes, you can be drenched in sweat walking from your front door to your car.
Not that this has put off anyone coming to live here: more immigrants than Emiratis live in the UAE: a large chunk of them here from Asia to work on the unceasing construction around Abu Dhabi, while the rest are professional Europeans.
The Irish, of course, are everywhere.
But what’s most striking is the wealth. Within a few decades, the people of the UAE have been transformed from desert nomads and pearl divers to some of the richest people on Earth. Not too long ago, to get to the town of Al Ain took five days by camel. Now, it takes an hour-and-a-half by car. A large, very expensive car.
A bit like during the Celtic Tiger, the ostentation is everywhere (this hotel seems to employ people whose only job is to open doors), yet beneath is a vague sense that something has been lost. There are Emiratis today enjoying the most blinged-up lifestyle in a city resembling Manhattan, yet whose parents were seasonal nomads.
And there is occasional embarrassment, too, when some — just as in Ireland — display more money than sense.
At lunch, today, we were told stories about one person who had the largest-ever Dodge pick-up specially made (it’s the size of a house); another who had a canal dug to spell out his name, in letters so large it can be viewed from space.
We asked whether or not the world economic downturn has affected life here and our hosts shrugged and said, ‘yeah, you can see it in small ways.’ But then they failed to think of any.
Just before I boarded my flight to here, (and on Etihad airlines they give you a seat that turns into a bed and feed you grub as good as anything you get in a restaurant), a friend told me that he noticed his old house was for sale.
Through luck rather than design, he had bought this house and sold it at just the right time, making a multiple of what he had originally paid for it.
But the people he had sold it to were now putting it on the market for half of what they had paid him. This is how the world is changing.