Ivan Morris Column - Abu Dhabi: A lovely place to be in January

Limerick Leader golf columnist Ivan Morris
The Limerick Leader golf columnist Ivan Morris is enjoying his trip to Abu Dhabi.

The Limerick Leader golf columnist Ivan Morris is enjoying his trip to Abu Dhabi.

I’ll say one thing in favour of being here in the Gulf States in January. You are guaranteed glorious sunshine and temps in the mid to high 20s.

As part of the large overseas invasion at the Abu Dhabi National Golf Club this week for the HSBC Championship run by the European Tour, I couldn’t help but think that the palm tree-lined golf course surrounded by ‘lush green’ was a strange juxtaposition! I shouldn’t have!

In Abu Dhabi, golf courses exploit an ingenious waste treatment system to recycle undrinkable, wastewater to keep the grass growing in a desert climate.

Sand and golf have always been interlinked and the best golf courses have always featured sandy terrain. Terrain shapes the game and nothing is easier to shape than sandy soil. That’s why golf fits the Abu Dhabi landscape perfectly. In the desert of Abu Dhabi, the ‘big trick’ was how to get the grass to grow.

At Yas Links and the Gary Player-designed Saddiyat Beach, for example, there is more water and sand than grass in play. Of course, if you decide to play a game at Al Ghazal near the airport, there is no grass at all, not even on the oil and sand based ‘greens.’

Once you have seen a fraction of the pro golf tournaments that I have seen, you can easily become bored. That is why I spent most of my time away from the golf exploring the different history, sights, sounds and culture.

It’s hard to believe that within 50 years, Abu Dhabi has changed from being a sleepy, seaside village of not much more than 1,500 souls living a subsistence lifestyle to being one of the wealthiest, most luxurious and stylish places on Earth.

Livlihoods that primarily depended on the sea, Abu Dhabians either worked as boatbuilders, fishermen and seasonal pearl divers or they eked out a frugal existence as roaming Bedouin Tribesmen pursuing an itinerant agricultural lifestyle going from oasis to oasis in the desert.

Permanent shelter, proper medical care, electricity, roads and schooling were but pipedreams for the vast majority of Abu Dhabians right up to the late-1960s.

With the exception of a few prominent merchants and the ruling family, who had the luxury of homes made of earth and clay, all lived in barasti houses made out of the large, leafy branchs from palm trees that included its own unique, air-conditoning system; shade from the sun and enough ‘holes’ to allow the wind to blow through.

Despite its small size, since the early 1970s Abu Dhabi has played a significant role in world energy markets.

A population that was estimated at one million and a half in the early 1990s, with less than one third of the total population being resident natives, has doubled since then. The elevation of Abu Dhabi above its fellow UAE states dates back to the middle of the nineteenth century during the fifty-four year tenure of Sheik Zayed bin Khalifa.

A dispute in 1868 over land borders was settled by adversary Sheiks ‘settling matters’ in a brutal handfight to the death. This gruesome victory settled once and for all Abu Dhabi’s unbroken primacy.

It is easy to say that Abu Dhabi’s prosperity was guaranteed when oil was discovered in 1962 but that is not the full story. Devising an equitable water ownership scheme, which allowed for the expansion of plantations and green areas for agriculture, was almost as crucial.

In the second half of his reign, Sheik Zayed adopted Brian Boru’s tactics and began unifying competing states.

In 1952, before a drop of Abu Dhabi oil was discovered, Sheik Zayed with very little personal wealth to sustain him was offered an unimaginable sum of $42 million by the Saudi’s to give up his sheikdom. He declined because he said he would never sell his people’s birthright.

In August 1966, Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan ascended to the leadership. Aided by a willingness to welcome strangers as equals and relate with his fellow-tribesmen was founded in his devotion to the principles of a Bedouin lifestyle.

Zayed’s ability to negotiate contracts made all the difference to future prosperity. As soon as the oil revenues began to flow they were used to expand agricultural development, build roads, schools and hospitals that would directly benefit all of the people, not just the ruling clan.

After a long and fruitful reign, Sheik Zayed died in November 2004 at the age of 86 and was succeeded by his son, Sheik Khalifah.

Through his foresight, Khalifah is making sure all of Abu Dubai’s development projects are chosen wisely and that his Kingdom remains a wholesome place.

The time will come, a century from now, when almost 10% of the world’s proven oil reserves and 4% of its gas production will run out.

While the laid-back atmosphere may ultimately change, the traditional, easy-going and friendly feel should remain for the foreseeable future and I am enjoying it as much as the warm January sunshine with daytime temperatures averaging 25C, while I can.

Of course, in a month or two temps will rise into the 40s – definitely not the place for an Irishman.