But Abu Dhabi is starting to come into its own, with small but pretty beaches, excellent watersports and, of course, a healthy dose of Gulf glamour in the form of swanky bars and restaurants.
Inspired by old Arabic markets, the high ceilings and wooden latticed walls here mean cool air can flow through the building, even at the blistering height of summer. Not that it matters what season it is – the air-con is always ramped up regardless.
11:00 Hire a jet ski from the Hiltonia Beach Club (£30 for 30 minutes) at the Corniche for a giddy adrenaline rush and the chance to view Abu Dhabi’s skyline from the water.
Jet skiing is the favoured sport of many of the wealthy twentysomething local guys, so the water often gets crowded at the weekends.
12:30 Time for one of the UAE’s greatest indulgences: brunch. These all-you-can-eat extravaganzas are almost always held in hotels (drinking alcohol elsewhere is largely forbidden) and you’ll find free-flowing booze and endless piles of food being served, from sushi to roast dinners.
You’ll find good value in the Friday Bubbly Brunch at Crowne Plaza Abu Dhabi (£37pp, ichotelsgroup.com), which is on between 12.30pm and 4pm.
16:00 Abu Dhabi’s most magnificent sight is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (entrance free).
The courtyard has a cool, white marble floor covered in intricate floral patterns, all made from colourful semi-precious stones. Ladies need to wear a full abaya to visit, but these are provided for free. Gents shouldn’t wear shorts.
18:00 If you fancy a few nibbles at this point, visit one of the many Lebanese restaurants in town for a selection of mezze.
Usually served as a starter in Middle Eastern meals, these bowls of dips and salads are delicious and relatively healthy.
For some of the best houmous in town try Awtar (Al Bahria Street, +971 (0)26 441 551, mains from £6) – if you’re really hungry, go for the mixed grill.
20:00 Smoking shisha somewhere scenic is one of the best ways to while away an evening in Abu Dhabi.
At Le Boulanger (Breakwater Road, +971 (0)26 818 194, shisha pipes from £5) you’ll find families smoking, snacking and playing cards until the late evening. Get here earlier in the evening to secure a seat on the water’s edge.
9:00 Fancy a ride on the world’s fastest roller coaster? Head to Yas Island’s Ferrari World (ferrariworldabudhabi.com, entrance £38).
The car-themed rides here are great fun, but call ahead as they’re not always operating.
13:00 Stop at Saadiyat Island, where a handful of five-star hotels opened last year. The beach clubs here are pricey, but for now it’s the only way to access the island’s white sands.
Nab yourself a day pass from Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi (from £33.50pp if four share a private changing room) and soak up some sun. Watch out for the hawksbill sea turtles that sometimes wander by.
16:00 For a real sense of the region, book a desert safari (eatours.ae, half-day desert safari £48pp), which includes dune bashing in a 4×4, a barbecue, riding on camels and belly dancing.
There’s nothing remotely authentic about this trip but it’s a great way to get out and see a bit of the desert.
20:00 The enormous Indian and Pakistani expatriate population in Abu Dhabi means that some of the finest subcontinental food you’ll ever taste can be found in Abu Dhabi’s backstreets.
Eating at one of these downtown curry houses, such as Ruchi (Hamdan St, mains from £5, +971 (0)26 333 434), is also a lot cheaper than dining at many of the more upmarket restaurants around town.
22:00 You can’t avoid a visit to the gilded Emirates Palace before you leave.
The OTT opulence of this hotel might not be to everyone’s taste, but most people still can’t resist checking out the gold vending machine, which lives up to its name by dispensing pieces of solid gold instead of money.
The lobby cafe serves “camelcinos” (cappuccinos made with camel milk), topped with gold leaf at £8.40 a pop.
23:00 There’s a branch of Hakkasan (hakkasan.com, from £8.40 a drink) at Emirates Palace, too. Stop in at the beautiful bar, which is flooded with blue water-effect lights, for a suitably exotic cocktail.
Etihad Airways flies direct from London Heathrow to Abu Dhabi.
Return flights from £408 etihad.com
Photos: Getty, Thinkstock