Ahlan wa Sahlan, welcome to Abu Dhabi airport

I had thought I still kept a soft spot for Abu Dhabi, both the city and its airport, as a legacy of the two years I spent living and working in that hot, dusty town. Many an hour I waited under the stylised green-turning-to-sky-blue date palm which formed the central pillar of the terminal (as it then was). Back then in the mid-Eighties, the Arabian (Persian) Gulf lay at the fag end of transcontinental schedules; long haul flights arrived long after midnight, and the bleary-eyed passengers were outnumbered by night-shift officials and staff.

But now, arriving with a sceptical spouse, I see the Gulf, and Abu Dhabi in particular, through new eyes. Both the city streetscape – disrupted, as ever, by roadworks of dubious utility – and its much-enlarged airport are barely recognisable. It is mid-year and the outside temperature hovers around 40 degrees; the air is hazy with dust and sand. Stopover, anyone?

Abu Dhabi, the pre-eminent emirate of the UAE, has been a late player in the game of ‘let’s build a national carrier from the ground up’. Etihad is the third new Middle Eastern airline in recent years to seize a share of the long-haul Australia-Europe traffic, alongside Qatar Airways and Emirates. (After all, Australia’s national carrier has left the opportunity wide open for others to win hearts and fill seats ex-Melbourne). It follows that the new carrier’s hub, Abu Dhabi, needs to offer passengers a smooth and tolerably transit experience if the so-called national carrier is to win business.

After experience two round trips in successive northern summers, we found that both the airport and the airline need to try much, much harder if we are to repeat – or to recommend – the experience.

Abu Dhabi’s old Terminal 1 is now crowded with both passengers and shopfronts. The mosaic palm tree has acquired a clutter of awnings gathered around its once-imposing trunk. All this is dwarfed by the new Terminal 2, uncluttered and tastefully decorated with much-enlarged period images of earlier times in the Gulf (thatch huts, mudbrick forts, sailing dhows, camel trains… before the black gold came gushing forth). But what on earth is achieved by confronting disembarking passengers with X-ray screening as they step out of the shuttle bus and into the building? Or by inconveniencing departing passengers – freshly cleared by immigration officers – with repeated passport checks en route to the departure lounges? OK, the two teams, standing just metres apart, are clearly employed by different organisations, but so what – couldn’t they stand side-by-side and do it just once?

It gets worse. On four separate occasions we have now been corralled outside the departure lounge entrances, waiting for half an hour or more before the security screening equipment and staff were ready to receive us.

Anyone arriving from Europe will find the retail outlets sorely disappointing at Abu Dhabi International (leaving aside the usual pointless bling). Prices are uncompetitive, the food is a jumble of not-quite-European, not-quite-junk bits and pieces – why not offer a taste of something genuinely Middle Eastern or Indian? And if you must charge eight dollars and more for a single drink, do have the good sense to soften the blow with a complimentary dishes of nuts or other snacks.

We had spent the previous weeks exchanging pleasantries with countless European café and bar staff, stakeholders in their own enterprises. Such a let-down now, to be confronted with the “don’t ask me, I just work here” attitude of guest workers. The only stake these people have in the operation is to hang on to their meal ticket – nobody dares make waves.

One thing has not changed in the Gulf, and perhaps never will. Beyond the customs/immigration barriers, the white-robed Emirati nationals are nowhere to be seen. The economies of the Gulf States still rely totally on expatriate staff, whether as contract managers or as night-shift cleaners. Abu Dhabi’s window on the world, the showcase hub of its national carrier, is in the hands of disinterested expatriates. Commitment is one of those things that money just can’t buy.

Back on board the aircraft. Looking forward to a hand towel, something to read… but nothing forthcoming, certainly not without asking. Doesn’t anybody realise we do have a choice: these small things are taken for granted aboard the Asian carriers.

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