Life in the 'Fast' Lane in Abu Dhabi

One writer traveled across the globe to find that 'Fast and Furious' isn't just a movie series—it's a lifestyle choice.

The 'Furious 7' crew on the steps of the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi. (Image via Universal Pictures)

Time is a wave. You either swim with it or let it wash over you completely. I’m sitting at Gate A3 in the International Terminal of JFK Airport on maybe the hottest afternoon of the summer, doing a little bit of both. On the one hand, I did agree to go on this trip to Abu Dhabi months ago—someone said “Fast and Furious” or maybe just “Tyrese” and I blurted out, “I’ll do it.” But on the other hand, I am just sitting here, and the minutes keep ticking by, and something that once seemed so far away is now just moments from happening. I’m about to go to a city—no, a country, wait no, an entire region of the world—that I’ve never been to for the sole purpose of riding in fast cars and spending six days like I’m Brian O’Connor or Dom Toretto while hanging out with Roman Pierce. Well, Tyrese. But aren’t they the same thing?

It’s not like I’ve never traveled before—I’ve been around, big time—but this time it feels different. It is 14 hours or so to Abu Dhabi, a fact that’s definitely hanging over me. I don’t sleep well on planes so this is basically a guarantee that I’m going to be awake for more than 24 hours straight. But I don’t know if it’s totally that, just those nerves. I think it really has to do with the notion that I really don’t know anything about Abu Dhabi, and my imagination is being mostly informed with an ingrained preconception of the Middle East. Should I be this scared? Is this a fear-for-your-life situation, or am I overreacting out of obliviousness? It really doesn’t help that no one else at Gate A3 looks like me, a feeling that I, a white 26-year-old male, don’t experience often.

“As of now the relatively empty city is a playground for the best and fastest cars
in the world.”

Abu Dhabi is the capital city of the United Arab Emirates, a collection of seven city states (or, emirates) spread across the southeast end of the Arabian Peninsula. It’s a country born (just over 40 years ago) out of necessity. Before establishing itself as an independent country, the UAE was merely a leftover territory from British imperialism—with a ton of oil reserves. When the British government, logistically and financially no longer able to oversee the seven emirates, announced that they would be withdrawing from the region, the UAE was left vulnerable, sitting on a ton of oil without an army to protect it, or any governmental infrastructure for that matter. It hardly took any time for Iran to invade and lay claim to an island off the Persian Gulf coast. The ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, a visionary whose face is still emblazoned on street corners and hotel lobbies across Abu Dhabi, understood the peril his region—and by extension, his city—faced, and so formed a union, first with Dubai, and then with the other five emirates to establish the UAE. This was in December of 1971. To put that in perspective, while Abu Dhabi was becoming a capital city everyone in America was listening to “Maggie May” by Rod Stewart.

Imagine the United States coming out of the Revolutionary War, already one of the wealthiest countries in an already advanced modern civilization. It’s a total paradox. But that’s what Abu Dhabi is. The Etihad Towers—five shimmering, sailboat-shaped skyscrapers—and the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque—a true marvel of religious architecture, a Muslim, modern equivalent to St. Peter’s Basilica—are the city’s two defining structures, and neither existed before 2007. It’s a city clearly entranced by modern pop culture, and yet its legal system is still largely influenced by Sharia law. Generosity and inclusion were virtues extolled to me by local residents at every turn, Westernization being something they look forward to, and yet the shroud of traditional Islam culture remains prevalent as well—a loudspeaker still blares morning prayer across the city at 4 a.m. Women accessorize their full-body-covering jibabs with Apple Watches. 

There’s a gravitational pull between older and younger generations in Abu Dhabi—something that exists everywhere, but that feels more obviously pointed there. Forty years later, Abu Dhabi feels like it’s in a state of “If you build it, they will come.” They have spectacular, opulent and modern architecture, gorgeous beaches, a state-of-the-art waterpark, and a theme park run by Ferrari, but everything feels and looks empty. Part of that is certainly because it was between 105 and 115 degrees every day that I was in Abu Dhabi—if you’re outside, you’re a sucker—but even indoors you get the feeling that there’s a disproportionately small amount of people enjoying what an awesome amount of wealth has built. The contrasts that make up Abu Dhabi do make visiting perplexing, but in a more profound way they lend the city an air—not a haze, which Abu Dhabi has plenty of—of otherworldliness. It seems closer to Cloud City than anything else that exists on Earth.

The highways are mostly empty too.

There’s no traffic in Abu Dhabi—there definitely will be in the years to come, but as of now the relatively empty city with a full infrastructure of roadways is just a playground for the best and fastest cars in the world. Like a massive Formula One Grand Prix track (which Abu Dhabi also obviously has). There is a speed limit, and the satellite technology to nab anyone who violates it, but I was told that getting caught is a risk anyone with a Ferrari or a Lamborghini—as prevalent there as Hondas are here—is willing to take. Wealth, an attraction to flashiness, and open road—it makes total sense why the city of Abu Dhabi is so car-obsessed. The Abu Dhabi police force’s fleet consists of Aston Martins, Aventadors, and a Lykan Fucking Hypersport for Christ’s sake.

“We live in a society where people love cars. Look at the cars,” Stefan Fuchs, general manager of Jumeirah Hotel at Etihad Towers, says. “Yesterday we needed a sports car for Tyrese and in most of the countries I’ve worked it’s not so simple to get a sports car. Here, you want a Lamborghini? A Ferrari? No problem. ​You could go to any house in the local community and they would say, ‘You know what? Take mine.’”

After dipping into the street racing cultures of Los Angeles, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro and London, of course the Fast and Furious franchise had to come to Abu Dhabi, a city that really captures Furious’ current maximalist vibe better than the rest. Which, right—Fast and Furious. Let’s not forget why I made the trip.

In Furious 7, the crew—sorry, the family—heads to Abu Dhabi to get their hands on a tool that hacks into every mobile device in the world to provide super awesome surveillance. You know, the usual James Bond spy shit that’s embodied this franchise post-Fast Five. They drive in from the desert, blowing past camels in Dodge Chargers, Lambos and Bugattis. I came in on a plane, using a ticket paid for by Universal Studios.

Released on April 3 of this year, Furious 7 made over $1.5 billion worldwide on its way to becoming the fifth most successful movie ever. But because there’s always money to be made—and because there’s obviously plenty of money to spend—Universal decided to bring me and a small group of other journalists (and Tyrese!) to this city to celebrate (and yeah, promote) Furious 7’s DVD release on Sept. 15. Usually studios will just send you a free copy of the DVD—but when you make $1.5 billion, you can do a little extra. And thus, I got to come as close to being about that Furious life as I ever will be.

“This is the nicest hotel in the city, I think,” my cab driver tells me, pointing up to the highest points of the Etihad Towers. Walking into Jumeirah, which takes up the entirety of one of the towers, is good enough evidence to back up the cabbie’s claim. The lobby is massive and wide open, its back wall made wholly of glass, giving full view to the hotel’s private beach. But in terms of Furious 7, what was on the first level of the tower didn’t interest me nearly as much as what was on top. In the movie, that tool I mentioned before is locked away in a Lykan Hypersport… which is locked away in a safe room of a billionaire’s penthouse… at the top of one of the Etihad Towers. Obviously unable to extract the device from the car in a timely matter, Dominic Toretto guns the Hypersport out of its safe room. “Nothing sadder than locking a beast in a cage,” Dom says minutes before driving it through the tower’s window. It floats dramatically, 100 stories above the ground, before crashing through another of Etihad Towers’ glass walls. The Lykan’s brakes apparently shot from a not-usually-advised tower-jump, Dom drives it through another window, landing it in an art gallery before he and Paul Walker’s Brian O’Connor finally bail, while the car breaks through another tower facade before tumbling to the ground. It’s maybe Furious’ most iconic stunt, and we’re talking about a series that dragged a gigantic vault through the streets of Rio

I go to the observation deck, 74 stories up. Everyone’s having tea. It’s hot, air conditioning not really a match for the sun at this height. I press my face against the glass and stare up at the adjacent towers, trying to work out in my head where the Lykan came from. I think they fudged some of the physics, but you can’t blame them for seeing these five towers gleaming atop Abu Dhabi and deciding to throw a car through them. 

I seemed to be the only person on the observation deck trying to reimagine Dom’s immaculate leap, which is weird, because everywhere else all anyone wanted to talk to me about was Fast and Furious. “Furious? Soo good,” a local waiter said to me after hearing why I was in the city. With wide eyes, he launched into an unprovoked argument about how the movies got better after Fast Five. He was right. Another man, a student with a part-time job as a traditional dancer, similarly seemed like he had been dying to be around people he could talk Furious with. He liked the movies before, but when Brian, Dom and the squad dropped into Abu Dhabi, they became legends to him. After talking, he asked if he can follow me on Instagram. I gave him my account, and he immediately liked the last 16 photos I had taken—while I was still standing next to him.

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It took less than 24 hours after arriving in Abu Dhabi before I was allowed to get behind the wheel of a sports car myself. The plan at first was for us to ride shotgun in a drag race and while a pro drifted through a slicked down course, but the night before we headed to Abu Dhabi’s Formula One track they told us all we had to do was sign a waiver and we could drive! Easy decision.

Lined up next to a drag track were four Chevy Camaros—two silver, two black. Track employees give me a helmet to strap on, and little directions aside from: “When all the lights turn on—go.” So there I was, having never hit triple digits in a car (one time I was hung over so I didn’t realize for a little while that I was going 85 MPH; it was scary), waiting for that light tree to flash. “Am I really qualified to do this?” I ask myself before—boom. Lights on. Pedal down. Before I even have time to think the speedometer’s at 160. My fists are white-knuckling the steering wheel, cemented at 10-and-2, my arms are locked and fully extended. This is adrenaline. This is furiousness. This is why all these guys keep making these movies. Scared as I was before I accelerated, I’m breaking into “0 to 100” as I turn back towards the starting line. On the nose, I know—but I’ve never felt more confident so you can’t tell me nothing. It’s weird how in control I feel during the second run—the Camaro feels glued to the track, and whatever fear I had is converted into euphoria. I feel infinite. 

Between topping out at 160 miles per hour and drifting in a little Toyota—which felt surprisingly less epic than it looked—I’m hit by a big difference between me and Vin Diesel or Tyrese. Those stunts are fucking crazy and have a high level of difficulty, sure, but what matters more on a deeper level is that those guys (and girls, and their stuntmen) have the balls to take those risks. I was scared as shit being handed the keys to a machine that can hit 200 MPH, but a once-in-a-lifetime attitude forced my foot down on that pedal, and now the experience is mine to keep. That’s what the Fast and Furious lifestyle is about, as corny as that might sound—it’s about the feeling just after the roller coaster crests over its first hill, but it’s also about facing the anxious fear you get waiting in line and just telling it to fuck off.

The Fast life doesn’t slow down, that’s why Tyrese is so god damned exhausted for our interview. Late to our interview by over an hour, Instagram tipped me off that he had been out until 6 a.m. cruising in a black Lamborghini Aventador convertible, his traditional keffiyeh—which he opted to wear for his entire stay in Abu Dhabi—blowing in the wind as they blew past the Grand Mosque. With his eyelids barely open, I present him a little greeting gift: two bottles of Corona. About three days ago I convinced myself that this was the perfect way to start our interview. It’d break the ice, because that’s what alcohol does, and it’d show that I knew the Furious movies. Aside from fast cars and unbelievable heists, what defines the Fast and Furious series most is Corona. It started in the original movie, when Dom out of nowhere tells Brian, “You can have any brew you want, as long as it’s a Corona,” and has continued to the most recent movie, in which Kurt Russell’s character whips out a branded bucket of Coronas while the camera goes in for a close-up. “This will make Tyrese’s day,” I told myself. But taking one of the bottles, Tyrese looks confused. Maybe he’s just so speechless because of this thoughtful offering. “Man,” he finally says. “I can’t believe you were able to bring this on the plane.” He places the Corona on the ground next to his chair, and I decide not tell him that I didn’t smuggle two bottles of beer across that world; that we are in a hotel, that does have room service, with a menu that does include Corona.

More than anything, the time I spend with Tyrese takes me out of the Fast and Furious fantasy I had been in. Everything had been running so smoothly—I was staying in the hotel Dom Toretto drove through, I was dragging and drifting somewhat successfully, I was having meals next to the egg white Bugatti that was in Furious 7—but Tyrese is nothing like Roman Pierce; nothing like the animated jokester who once said to a woman, “Nice legs… what time do they open.” He’s quiet, serene, and extremely careful with his words. Maybe he’s just tired from whipping around with sheiks until the sun rises. We never see Roman hung over in the movies, so maybe this is exactly what that would look like. 

Abu Dhabi is also having an effect on him—it’s a city with deep meaning for him. This was the first place he traveled to after Paul Walker died in 2013. “When Paul Walker died, I ran here. It was my first time smiling [since his death],” Tyrese said. "I love it here, I'm happy here. I love the people, I love the culture, I love the traditions. And to my surprise, it is nothing like any of the images we see on CNN and FOX every day."

Abu Dhabi is this place that's hard to pin down. It’s not what you imagine, and it’s hard to find any comparisons. But its nebulousness feels ethereal, inherently spiritual (again, I think the heat has something to do with this), and it allows you to bestow your own form of discovery onto it. It helped Tyrese come to grips with the loss of a brother, to keep moving on. And where I thought I was just going to gawk and drive fast cars and ball out in a five-star hotel—a fantasy built into most adventure/action movies, including the Fast and Furious series—Abu Dhabi made me realize that even as time flies by, even as you lose your sense of control, sometimes the most important thing is just forcing yourself to get on the plane.

On one of my last days in the city, I’m walking down the steps of the Emirates Palace, making up my own personal re-creation of the scene from Furious 7. I’m not wearing a tux and Michelle Rodriguez’s red dress isn’t whipping in the wind next to me, but I still feel like I’m moving in slow motion. I look up to the nearby peaks of the Etihad Towers, and imagine Dom Toretto’s Lykan Hypersport flying between the buildings one last time. 

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