MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:
When the British writer Jo Tatchell was a girl back in the '70s, her family moved to a small town in the Middle East. Jo Tatchell remembers it as a disheveled, dusty place, a desert outpost. That outpost was Abu Dhabi. And needless to say, Abu Dhabi has changed a lot in the 35 years since Tatchell first arrived. Her new book, "A Diamond in the Desert," describes just how radical the growth has been.
JO TATCHELL: The growth has been unequaled, I think, in history. In the '60s, when people in Bahrain were already sort of progressing into a more materially sophisticated lifestyle, people in Abu Dhabi had no shoes. And suddenly, as that oil wells began to trickle through, investment really took off.
LOUISE KELLY: Paint a little bit of a picture for us, for people who have not been to Abu Dhabi. It is on the coast, on the Gulf, but it is in the middle of the desert.
TATCHELL: It is a flat island about the size of Manhattan, and it has exploded upwards very, very quickly. You have sands that have been covered in concrete and very, very well sculpted parks and sort of scenic areas. And 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.
LOUISE KELLY: You write that Abu Dhabi, depending on how you calculate it, may well be the world's richest city at this point. One image I couldn't get out of my head was the scene of you arriving at the very glitzy Emirates Palace Hotel, ordering the cheapest thing you could find on the menu, which was a chocolate milkshake...
LOUISE KELLY: ...which you write still cost more, probably, than the average daily wage for a construction worker, and arrived with actual flakes of edible gold sprinkled on top. It's such a vivid image of some of the over-the-top extravagance of this city.
TATCHELL: It is. And there's a sort of pace and glamour to that, but there's also an extraordinary disparity. The city has been built by immigrant workers, and that they are not in a position to share in the good fortune of Abu Dhabi. Forty percent of the population is made up of kind of Indian nationals are migrant workers - the same with Bangladesh with Pakistan, the Philippines. While comparatively everybody's income might rise by taking a posting in a place like Abu Dhabi, overall, the inequity and the lack of rights place them very far back on the world stage.
LOUISE KELLY: What happens when the oil money runs out?
TATCHELL: Yes. I've asked myself that question a lot. Will Abu Dhabi exist in 200 years? If it was just down to oil, I would say no. It has an ambition to leverage itself onto the world stage by providing a bridge between East and West, a middle point between the Far East and Western Europe and onwards to the States. What I think, at this point, is a very interesting sort of embryo of a future are its investments in alternative energy, and chiefly solar power, because while it has lots of oil, it's also got lots of sun.
LOUISE KELLY: Hard to imagine, though, that alternative energy solar power will ever equal the money that has just rolled in in terms of oil. Do you see an Abu Dhabi that has perhaps reached the apex of what it's going to be, that's reached the limits of its expansion right now?
TATCHELL: I think it would say absolutely not. And I think - this is part of the plan, vis-a-vis its cultural investments in investing billions and billions in a huge cultural district that will include a Guggenheim and a Louvre and various other huge national museums. It is putting a shoe in the door to begin to ensure a longer-term future wherever that future may be.
LOUISE KELLY: A fascinating glimpse of a city. Thanks so much.
TATCHELL: And thank you.
LOUISE KELLY: That's Jo Tatchell. Her new book is "A Diamond in The Desert: Behind the Scenes in Abu Dhabi, the World's Richest City."
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LOUISE KELLY: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.
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