By Karina Longworth
The flight from JFK to Abu Dhabi was twelve hours, non-stop. Once I figured out how to recline my sleeping pod seat, I slept for eight of them. I spent the rest of the flight exploring the on-board entertainment system. I watched an episode of Mad Men, an E! Special on sexy celeb style or some such that bent over backwards justifying Audrey Hepburn to the youngsters, and part of Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom, which was coincidentally the opening night film at the Middle East International Film Festival — my hosts in Abu Dhabi — last year. Every selection on the on demand video server on Etihad Air (“the national airline of the UAE”) was preceded by an ad for TDIC, the Tourism Development Investment Corporation of Abu Dhabi. After seeing this promo several times, I partially memorized the accented-English voiceover: “The foundations for Abu Dhabi’s future development have been with us for generations,” the voice boomed. Attracting Western tourism and business, it promised, would reveal “the next treasures in Abu Dhabi’s bright future.”
As the plane descended into Abu Dhabi, the entertainment system locked, and each seat back screened a short promotional film that made the boosterism of the TDIC trailer seem mild. As soothing music played, the film offered a series of titled tableaus depicting what would ostensibly await us on the ground. Title: “True Arabic hospitality.” Image: four-top filled with what look to be Europeans, lunching at an outdoor cafe. Title: “Desert adventures.” Image: A camel crosses the screen from right to left, revealing an American-looking couple lounging in a sand dune, laughing, champagne glasses aloft. Title: “Understated luxury.” Image: The camera pans up to the interior of a domed ceiling, adorned with tilework that would’ve made Gaudi blush.
So much of any in flight experience is about distracting the passenger from thoughts of the worst case scenario. This landing film, shown to a captive audience of passengers who clearly have reason enough (business leisure, or … other?) to travel halfway across the planet to the UAE, seemed to be about allaying any residual fears of the culture shock/conflict awaiting them in this foreign land. This film seemed to say, “Put your nightmare stereotypes about Arab hostility against your way of life aside — we love capitalism!”
Above: the view from my room at the Intercontinental. Yes, that’s smog — thanks to its desert clime and the absurdly high standard of living of its elites, Abu Dhabi reportedly has the biggest carbon footprint of any city in the world. That’s why they’re aiming to build Masdar City, an experimental “carbon neutral ecotopia” within the city by 2018.
I have to run to get my press pass now. More on my first day in Abu Dhabi, and the opening night festivities, when I return.