For years, Abu Dhabi stood in the shadow of its high-profile neighbor Dubai. But flush with 95 percent of the U.A.E.’s oil, the lesser-known emirate is building its own iconic skyline. Renowned architects are helping to reshape the capital city’s image from a business center to a cultural hub of the modern Middle East, with a souk from Norman Foster and ambitious museums, such as the upcoming Frank Gehry–designed Guggenheim and an outpost of the Louvre by Jean Nouvel, among others. No less awe-inspiring is the new crop of luxury hotels and resorts, whose bold and innovative structures are becoming architectural landmarks.
The contemporary hotel boom began with the arrival of what is now the Viceroy on Yas Island in 2009, an audacious departure from the city’s traditional palace-style hotels. Known for its futuristic, curvilinear design, the 499-room property, conceived by Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture of Asymptote Architecture, is shrouded in a lattice-like skin made of 5,096 diamond-shaped steel panels. It famously hovers over a Formula One racecourse.
A 10-minute drive from downtown, on Saadiyat Island, future home of the Guggenheim and the Louvre, the seven-month-old St. Regis is the brand’s entry into the region. The cream-colored beachfront retreat was built to evoke a Mediterranean palace with Arabian-meets-Art Deco décor that pays homage to both its Persian Gulf location and New York origins. On the same stretch of sand sits the rigorously contemporary Park Hyatt, which rises along the island’s 18-hole golf course. Hidden behind the low-slung, angular walls you’ll find a marble-lined interior with courtyards and intricately filigreed wall panels. To debut on Saadiyat in 2014: a Mandarin Oriental.
In downtown Abu Dhabi, the eight-month-old Jumeirah at Etihad Towers is a stomping ground for petrodollar dealmakers. Housed in a sky-high glass-and-steel sculptural tower that overlooks the Corniche, it has a clubby 24-hour lobby-lounge where business travelers rendezvous until the wee hours. The new Rocco Forte Hotel is decidedly more whimsical, with a highly modern wavy blue-and-green exterior and rooms decorated by London-based interior designer Olga Polizzi, who incorporated colorful mosaics and work by local artists. Equally memorable is the gleaming Hyatt Capital Gate, a free-flowing organic glass structure that tilts 18 degrees to the west (more than four times the lean of the tower of Pisa). More is yet to come in the city center, from an outpost of Paris’s Le Bristol to a Ritz-Carlton and another Anantara resort. With budgets as expansive as the desert, Abu Dhabi’s future is only getting brighter.