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Jo Tatchell Goes 'Behind The Scenes In Abu Dhabi'

A Diamond in the Desert: Behind the Scenes in Abu Dhabi, the World's Richest City

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.

And what happens when the oil money runs out?

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.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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