"Diamond in the Desert" by Jo Tatchell (New York, N.Y.: Grove/Atlantic, 2009)
I'll admit right off that until a young relative took a job in Abu Dhabi, I wasn't sure where it was, other than in the Middle East. I had to rush to my atlas to find that it's the capital of the United Arab Emirates, a federation of seven emirates on the eastern side of the Arabian peninsula at the entrance to the Persian Gulf.
In the 1960s Abu Dhabi was a seaside fishing village with sand and palm trees. Then came oil. Today it is one of the world's richest cities and the capital of the United Arab Emirates. The city, which is on an island, has exploded skyward with luxurious high-rise hotels, oil company headquarters, embassies, government offices, and a Formula One racetrack. Parks and gardens surround the buildings. Based on population and national income, the estimated net worth of each Abu Dhabian is $17 million.
Author and journalist Jo Tatchell went there as a child of three in 1974, when her father was transferred by a British-owned catering company. Much of her childhood was spent in Abu Dhabi. In 2008 she returned to document the changes and to examine some of the challenges facing it.
Tatchell was able to spend time with friends she or her family knew when she was growing up, members of the ruling sheik's families, fellow journalists and newly met acquaintances – all of whom provided her with material for this very readable book.
Abu Dhabi's enormous wealth has led to plans for a future cultural explosion, including branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums, to open in 2013. New York University plans an extension.
Despite the life of ease in the ruling class, there is a huge disparity in the way hordes of migrant workers are treated. Laboring Filipinos, Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and others have few rights, and decent treatment is at the whim of the employer.
Throughout the book, the lure and the peril of the desert is present, and Tatchell's affection for it is strong. At one time she complains to a friend that everything is now tiled over, and takes spontaneous delight in shedding her shoes to walk through some sand.
Her frustrating attempts to research the National Archives validates her observation that Abu Dhabi is part first world, part third world. Finding the archives turns into a sometimes comical wild goose chase. She approaches building after building. Hours of phone calls on her behalf just result in more names to call. Whenever she seems to be getting closer to what she is looking for, a blind alley looms.