Abu Dhabi: Gleaming and glistening on the Abu Dhabi skyline, the Qasr Al Watan beckons from a distance. Hailed as one of the latest Emirati landmarks in Abu Dhabi, there are also numerous treasures within its walls that are worth a much closer look.
This summer, Gulf News took an exclusive tour of the Presidential Palace in order to reveal the many hidden gems housed inside.
What is the Qasr Al Watan?
Qasr Al Watan is an Arabic term that translates to Palace of the Nation.
It is a Presidential Palace, meaning that it serves as a working palace, and not as a place of residence. The facility is therefore used for ceremonial events and state visits, and the grounds house offices for the UAE President, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, for Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and the ruler of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and for the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
Following its completion in 2017, the Palace was reserved for official state visits, notably hosting Pope Francis, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In 2019, the facility finally opened its doors to the public.
Its granite and lime façade is coloured white to symbolise purity and peace.
How to visit
Arriving at the Palace, visitors are received at the Visitor Centre, where they can purchase tickets and get a map for the facility.
A short bus ride then takes visitors to the main palace building, which houses the Great Hall and two other wings. Along the ride, a recording reveals interesting facts about Qasr Al Watan, including the fact that its construction took 10 years, from 2010 to 2017.
Neatly manicured lawns, rows upon rows of palm trees, and blue pools stretch all the way until the Palace buildings in the distance. In the winter, a visit to just the lawns can be a treat.
The Great Hall
The shuttle drops visitors off at the main courtyard, which itself is a picturesque spot, with the white and golden façade of the palace building in the background and a series of arches leading the way to the gates.
Beyond this is the main building that is open to visitors. During a state visit, it is here that ceremonial events are held. Behind it are the presidential offices, but these areas are closed off to visitors.
Stepping through the imposing wooden main gates, one enters the Great Hall, the largest space in the palace building which leads off to other zones. Many visitors will recognise the hall from televised ceremonies held during state visits to the UAE.
The walls, ceilings, domes and floor are all decorated in a choice of intricate patterns. Our tour guide, Dalya Alshawa, tells us that there are 5,000 different patterns, each derived from geometry and nature. The patterns are crafted in four symbolic colours.
“The white symbolises purity and peace, whereas the brown echoes the Arabian desert sands. The light blue is symbolic of the sky, whereas the dark blue stands for the waters of the Arabian Gulf,” Alshawa said. The patterns themselves follow an Islamic art design scheme, in that there is no representation of people or animals.
Stretching into the heights, right at the centre of the Great Hall, is the main dome, spanning 23 metres in diameter. The distance from the floor to the peak of the main dome is a whopping 60 metres, about thirty times as tall as an artificial Christmas tree.
Split off from the Great Hall is the East Wing and the West Wing, each with its own set of attractions.
East Wing: The sculptures
Off the Great Hall, at the beginning of the East wing, is a mesmerising spherical golden sculpture, part of a series of works by Emirati artist, Mattar bin Lahej, who also designed the exterior of Dubai’s Museum of the Future. The works at Qasr Al Watan encapsulate wise sayings by UAE’s founding father, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, written in connecting Arabic script.
“Wealth is not money or oil; wealth lies in people and it is worthless if not dedicated to serve the people,” is the quote that stands within the palace building. Visitors love to step into the six-ton sculpture for a picture, while tour guides tell them about the insightful words surrounding them.
Two other works by bin Lahej are placed outside on the grounds.
“Science and history walk side by side. By using science, man can record his history and preserve it for generations to come, so others may learn from it and come to know what their ancestors achieved,” say ones.
“The education of our people is a great wealth. We are proud of our educated nation because through knowledge and science we will open the horizon to a glorious future,” reads the others.
East Wing: Qasr Al Watan library
A massive library, operated by Abu Dhabi’s culture sector regulator, the Department of Culture and Tourism, takes pride of place in this east wing of the palace. A towering entrance hall sees dozen of works shelved up to the ceiling, with the rest of the books housed in rooms branching off the entrance hall.
A kindly librarian said the library houses 50,000 printed books with most focused on the UAE and the Arabian Gulf. The library also lends out the books, as long as the borrower has a DCT library account.
There are also digital works that visitors can access.
There are a total of 12 wings in the library, with each having its own collection of books and study rooms.
A pair of cases in the entrance area display some of the most valuable works at the library, and must not be missed. ‘The Zoology of the Voyage of the HMS Beagle’ shows illustrated, expert descriptions of the flora and fauna specimens collected by evolutionary biologist, Charles Darwin, and a plaque next to it says the book is from the collection of Sheikh Khaled Bin Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, member of the Abu Dhabi Executive Council and chairman of the Abu Dhabi Executive Office. Another case houses early photographs of the holy Ka’bah, dating back to as early 1885
A closed-off room in the library houses 2,000 rare books and manuscripts. An exclusive peek into the room revealed famous orientalist works like the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, penned by British colonel TE Lawrence about his time serving as a military adviser to Bedouin forces during the 1916-1918 Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks, and the Edward William Lane translation of ‘One Thousand and One Nights’. The tomes are massive and fragile, and carefully preserved in this temperature and light controlled space.
East Wing: House of Knowledge
The House of Knowledge is possibly one of the most beautiful and interesting spaces at Qasr Al Watan. It highlights the Arab Era of Enlightenment, from the mid-8th to the mid-13th century, which saw Arab scholars make progress in the fields of mathematics, cartography, science, astronomy, architecture, literacy and medicine.
A key piece of interest here is a map from 1835, developed by Italian cartographers, that is the first to name Abu Dhabi. This, too, is from Sheikh Khaled’s extensive collection, as is the tiny book entitled ‘Journey of the Eastern Indies’. This little book is an account by Gasparo Balbi, a Venetian jeweller who travelled to India and the East between 1579 and 1588 to view pearling sites. It is reportedly the first printed mention of the Bani Yas tribal confederation, from which the ruling families of Abu Dhabi and Dubai — Al Nahyan and Al Maktoum — emerged.
In the ‘Medicine in the Golden Era’ section, there are 10 texts and manuscripts. One can’t afford to miss the first edition of the ‘The Books of The Canon of Medicine’, a medical encyclopedia completed in 1925 by the father of early modern medicine, Ibn Sina.
‘Understanding the Universe’ is dedicated to astronomy, and includes 12 items. In display is an astrolabe, and a volvelle — early astronomical tools used by explorers — as well as other works used by early explorers.
In the ‘Culture in Dialogue’ section, the focus is firmly on Arabian culture and literature, and a classic English translation of the Arabian Nights by Richard F Burton will be easily recognisable to nearly all visitors. Among the eight items are also a collection of Arabian instruments like the oub and the rebabah.
A 17th century translation of Niccolo Machiavelli’s political treatise ‘The Prince’ is utterly captivating in the ‘Art of Guidance’ section, which focuses on political thought and leadership. Also on display is a 15th century Spanish translation of Greek philosopher Plutarch’s ‘Parallel Lives’, with 23 biographies arranged in pairs to highlight failings and virtues of the men they describe.
East Wing: Presidential Meeting Room
A grand meeting room is the last place of interest in this wing of the palace, with a long table stretching across the room to accommodate leaders and their entourages. Tour guides tell you that the room is arranged based on the needs of the meeting.
West Wing: Presidential Banquet Room
At this banquet hall, scores of tables are fully set with tableware and cutlery, ready to host world leaders and other guests. Our tour guide, Alshawa, explained the room can be rearranged to suit the tastes of guests, with room for mealtime entertainment.
West Wing: Spirit of Collaboration Room
Up a series of escalators is the massive circular room that hosts meetings for the Federal Supreme Council, the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council. The aura and majesty of this room is immediately palpable: this is a space where massive national and regional decisions are made. A video reel of Sheikh Zayed immediately adds to the ambience here.
West Wing: Presidential Gift Room
Our tour guide said the Presidential Gift Room is where visitors spend most of their time, and it is easy to see why. From crystal sculptures to art works and presidential medals, it feels like an honour to see these sumptuous works presented to the UAE by various states.
A more careful look makes the displays even more fascinating. A falcon sculpture bears a plaque saying it is a gift to the UAE President, Sheikh Khalifa, from Her Majesty The Queen of England. A piece of the cover of the Ka’bah, the kiswah, is displayed in another case, alongside a bag that was once used to store the key of the Ka’bah. There are also dozens of vases, each with distinguishing craftsmanship that demonstrate a variety of indigenous skills.
Visitors can get guided tours around Qasr Al Watan, and have a picture taken at a dedicated Media Room off the Great Hall. A relaxing visit takes at least an hour.
A spectacular light and sound show, projected on the palace façade, is open to Qasr Al Watan visitors on weekend evenings, highlighting the journey of the UAE. To attend the 15-minute show, visitors must first purchase tickets.
There is also a souvenir shop at the Palace, and a kiosk with snacks.
Tickets are priced at Dh60 per adult, and Dh30 per child, aged up to 17 years.
For just the Palace in Motion show, tickets cost Dh25 per adult, and Dh12 per child up to 17 years.
Children below three years can enter free. Visitors can also buy an additional Dh20 Architectural Craftsmanship Tour to learn about the architectural details of the palace.
10am — 5pm: Sunday — Wednesday. Qasr Al Watan closes at 6pm
12pm — 6:45pm: Thursday — Saturday
8:15pm: Palace in Motion show on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Last tickets are sold at 7:45pm