The first time I visited Emirates Palace, I arrived directly from the Corniche beach: flip flops, backpacker, “salt-n-sand -like- a-cotoletta” – exhausted for the outside temperature.
It was clear, I didn’t book a suite, I was there only to take a look. Nevertheless, and despite my look, I received a “royal” welcome, from the beginnings to the end of my visit: from the kind attendant who opened the door, with a large smile and bowing slightly, to the angel who, at the end of my visit, made me sit on a couch, in the cooler, where I could check on a big screen the arrival of the taxi.
Okay, I know, may be they all are sophisticated customer service techniques. But I like to think there is something more. And I think it has to do with the story of an enlightened ruler and a brilliant British architect.
Emirates Palace: the Sheikh’s dream and the British Architect
Emirates Palace opens to the public between 2005 and 2006. A “pharaonic” work created by 20,000 workers over three years.
The projects is by the British architect John Elliott , a specialist for projects in the Middle East, co-founder and managing director of Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo, architects and designers specialized in five stars buildings. Just to know who we’re talking about, these guys are the same architects who designed the Atlantis in Dubai, the Royal Opera House in Muscat, luxury resorts around the world for clients such as Hilton, Ritz, Hyatt, Le Meridien and Crown.
I try to imagine when Elliott arrives for the first time in Abu Dhabi. It’s 1967, he is 28 years old.
Abu Dhabi is practically nonexistent: 4000 inhabitants, about 40 expats, some buildings, a few mosques, perhaps a single paved road.
The ruler at that time is His Highness Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the nation: for the UAE, Sheikh Zayed is and will always be “Our Father Zayed”.
His Highness wants to build Abu Dhabi, but he doesn’t want a typical city “oil and desert”. His Highness wants a city for families, with parks and trees, despite the desert and the climate. A city safe, clean, liveable and hospitable. The young Elliott had worked in Finland and Sweden, where he had planned cities people-friendly. His Highness and Elliott were on same wave length.
His Highness has clear ideas on the new Abu Dhabi, and describes his city to the young British architect, speaking of his dream and tracking marks on the sand with his inseparable camel stick. Elliott knows how to listen to those signs and words, and translates them into plans and designs: Elliott becomes the first “official planner” of the new Abu Dhabi.
The design of Emirates Palace comes almost forty years later, in 2002. Elliott is in his sixties, he has a career as an architect of luxury hotels and lavish buildings in the UAE and in the Middle East. And a long fellowship with His Highness.
Emirates Palace has to be a representative palace to welcome heads of state and dignitaries, with a conference center and two wings of the luxury hotel managed by Kempinski, until January 2020, then by the Mandarin Oriental Group.
Elliott must have considered that: as an official building, Emirates Palace was first to convey the image of the host country, its culture and its values. Elliott and his designers succeed in the difficult task of harmonizing shapes, colors and materials in an elegant style, which expresses opulence without falling into vulgarity of ostentatious luxury.
But mostly I like to think that the years of attendance and intense friendship with His Highness have brought the British architect to express in Emirates Palace, at least in part, perhaps unconsciously, the concept of the munificent hospitality, typical of the Bedouin culture, where the guest is warm welcomed, with all the respect and honor. To amaze the guest is considered a way to homage him.
Now, I’m immune to the charms of luxury. But I’m not insensible to the harmony of elegance, and this is one reason why I often return to visit Emirates Palace.
However, I’m not impressed by the marble, the gold, the Swarovski and the arabesques.
What amazes me most at Emirates Palace are just the kind hospitality and pampering that you receive only because you are in that building, and which make you feel a guest, before than a credit card holder.
And I like to imagine that thanks to a sort of spiritual legacy of the great Sheikh, Emirates Palace will remain a temple and an example of the legendary hospitality of the UAE.