When the British writer Jo Tatchell was a little girl in the early 1970s, her family moved to a small town in the Middle East.
Tatchell remembers it as a "disheveled, dusty place."
"A desert outpost" that was home to "a few medium-sized mosques, corner groceries" and a fledgling airport, she tells NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.
That dusty town was Abu Dhabi. It has changed a lot in the 35 years since Tatchell first arrived — just how much it has changed is the subject of her new book, A Diamond in the Desert.
"The growth has been unequaled, I think, in history," she says of the investment in the city since the 1960s, when people in Abu Dhabi had no shoes.
The city is on the coast, but in the middle of the desert.
"It is a flat island about the size of Manhattan," Tatchell says. "And it has exploded upwards very, very quickly. … It's extraordinary to look at because if you were to land bang-slap in the middle of it, you'd have no idea you were even in the desert."
Abu Dhabi's wealth is apparent when Tatchell arrives at the Emirates Palace Hotel and orders the cheapest item on the menu — a chocolate milk shake sprinkled with flakes of edible gold that costs more than a construction worker's daily wage.
"There's a sort of pace and glamor to that, but there's also an extraordinary disparity," Tatchell says. "The city has been built by immigrant workers, and they are not in a position to share in the good fortune of Abu Dhabi."
Forty percent of the population is made up of Indian nationals and migrant workers from Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Philippines, she says.
While migrant workers' income might rise if they took a job in Abu Dhabi, their lack of rights in the city "place them very far back on the world stage," Tatchell says.
hide captionIn her book, A Diamond in the Desert: Behind the Scenes in Abu Dhabi, the World's Richest City, Jo Tatchell looks at the economic explosion of the desert city.
Courtesy of Grove/Atlantic
In her book, A Diamond in the Desert: Behind the Scenes in Abu Dhabi, the World's Richest City, Jo Tatchell looks at the economic explosion of the desert city.
Courtesy of Grove/Atlantic
Tatchell says she wonders if Abu Dhabi will exist in 200 years. "If it was just down to oil, I would say, 'No.' "
The city has the desire to become a world player by creating a bridge between the East and West.
"What, I think, at this point, is a very interesting embryo of a future are its investments in alternative energy and chiefly solar power because while it has got lots of oil, it's also got lots of sun," Tatchell says.
Abu Dhabi has not reached the apex of its expansion, she says, especially considering its cultural investments. The city has invested billions of dollars in a cultural district that will include large national museums, she says.
"It is putting a shoe in the door to begin to ensure a longer term future wherever that future may be," she says.
Excerpt: 'A Diamond In The Desert'
A Diamond in the Desert: Behind the Scenes in Abu Dhabi, the World's Richest City By Jo Tatchell Paperback, 291 pages Grove/Atlantic Publishers List Price: $14.95
The final disillusionment
You can't see the whole city from the air, But as the plane sails in over the sea I squint through the window and catch glimpses of a million golden lights shimmering in the night haze. In the distance, red beacons flit on and off atop the great glass super-towers, marking the boundaries of a new skyline on the flat desert terrain. It is sixty years SINCE Edward Henderson first set foot on Abu Dhabi's soil, and thirty-five since my own parents arrived. I wonder what they would have made of this ocean of lights. Would any of the three recognise the old Abu Dhabi in the sprawling metropolis below me? The small fishing community they knew grown into a city.
As I stepped down onto the Tarmac, people rush past me onto the shuttle bus. I walk slowly, feeling the first puff of desert warmth on my face and bare arms. Then it's a step up, and we're off to the climate-controlled cool in which people live here.
Inside the spherical terminal building there are people everywhere. My heels tap across the sparkling marble floors as I head for the immigration hall. Frankincense wafts behind two women in flowing black abayas, the scent of old Arabia. A robed woman in a wheelchair sits in the doorway of the female-only prayer room and Filipino attendants, with buckets and huge grey mops, wash the floors.
Men in immaculate white robes and headdresses, the kandura and guthra, slide past. The women are as mysterious as night, floating past in black capes and decorated shaylah headscarves. They look untouchable, like idealised human forms, not quite real.
Haven't they always said here, 'Say what you like, but dress as others do'? I feel grimy and under-attired as I slink into the 'Other Passports' line and wait my turn.
We are a motley lot. Three exhausted Filipinas, a weary French couple, a Lebanese family with a hyperactive child, and a couple of lone businessmen in short-sleeved shirts stretched over thickening middles. An officer patrols the line. He has round eyes and a neatly trimmed beard – like a plump version of George Michael. His green uniform is pristine, stiff with epaulettes and buttons. For a moment, as he waits to send people to the desk, he looks as though he is about to cry. He calls me to him with a flick of his finger.
'Where you coming from?'
'London,' I say, with a quiver in my voice.
'Why you come here?'
'I used to live here. I want to see how much has changed.'
He arches his eyebrows. 'When you were living here?' He makes it sound like an accusation.
'The 1970s. I came when I was a small child and I've not been here since the millennium.'
He howls like a dog. 'Whoo-hoo.' The sound echoes off the marble and people in other queues turn to look. 'Many long time. Long time.'
He sings, 'Abu Dhabi very big now. Very cool. You will not know anything from then. All is change.' He directs me to the booth on his right and mutters in Arabic to the immigration officer.
Excerpted from A Diamond in the Desert: Behind the Scenes in Abu Dhabi, the World's Richest City Copyright 2009 by Jo Tatchell. Excerpted by permission of Grove/Atlantic. All rights reserved.