By Jo Tatchell
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Additional info for A Diamond in the Desert: Behind the Scenes in Abu Dhabi, the World’s Richest City
The next generation of decision-makers observe no such limits. In the four years following Zayed’s death there has been more construction than there was in the previous forty. For Khalifa and Mohammed nothing is too audacious or expensive. The country is rich enough – 420,000 citizens with an average net worth of $17 million each. And a whole lot more oil money goes undisclosed. My father used to say the sudden arrival of money was like everyone in rural Cornwall winning the lottery overnight. Barely two generations on, families who scarcely scraped a living from fishing, camel-rearing, date-farming and goat-herding have become sophisticated consumers of the very finest and most expensive lifestyle the world has to offer.
I sweep back the curtain. Twenty floors up, a rush of vertigo turns my stomach. Below, the lights of looming cranes are losing their shimmer as the sky brightens on the horizon and the city begins to wake. I can see a strip of the Corniche through a gap between two high-rise buildings and just make out the pit where the bustling souk once stood. They have razed it to the ground. A cluster of skyscrapers with a space-age bazaar on the ground will take its place. Such wanton destruction of their own heritage cannot be called progress – all that atmosphere: the smell of frankincense, the thrilling chaos of traders and customers bartering, the flip-flop of rubber sandals across sand, the angle of my mother’s head when she was being respectful but firm as she bargained, and the hands touching my brother’s yellow hair as we passed.
There is a snapshot of the three men standing at Birkat al Mauz, a picturesque village in the interior of Oman, like three elderly tourists at the gates of history. In his twilight years, Thesiger conceded that change had always been inevitable. Though he chose to live in solitude and without electricity in a small house in Kenya, he accepted that life in the modern world had been a welcome advance for most Arabs. He called modern Abu Dhabi a place of dignity and beauty. Given the choice of whether to rise out of disease and extreme hardship, his treasured race had run for the prize and never looked back.