Abu Dhabi is built on oil but the supply is not without a bottom. As a result, the city is morphing into a technology, and culture superpower. But who are the visionaries on the ground turning dreams into bricks and mortar?
It’s water towers in New York, strobe-lit banks in Hong Kong, favelas in Rio. The signature of the Abu Dhabi skyline is the crane. It’s been estimated that 30 per cent of the world’s cranes have at one point graced this Arabian horizon. A 95 per cent stake in the richest oil fields in the world has allowed the capital of the UAE to redefine “boomtown”, to belittle that title.
It can’t last forever, though. Preparations for a post-oil Emirate have been in the pipeline in earnest since 2002 when the Abu Dhabi government founded the Mubadala Development Company to help steer the Emirate’s economy away from oil into energy, aerospace, real estate, healthcare and tech. And culture.
A yearning artistic ambition is evident in the plans for Saadiyat Island, a spit half the size of Bermuda that will house the world’s most concentrated square miles of culture, architecture and design. It’s Band Aid with propelling pencils instead of Stratocasters; an international supergroup of architects with Norman Foster on the Sheikh Zayed National Museum, Frank Gehry on the Guggenheim, Jean Nouvel on the Louvre, Zaha Hadid on the Performing Arts Centre and Tadao Ando on the Maritime Museum. Rocking!
But the fab five’s creations have only been the most eye-catching items on a long, long list of projects. Masdar City will be a zero-waste, zero-carbon, car-free city for 40,000 people set for completion in 2016. Yas Island, a residential and hotel development with a 32km beachfront is expected to bring in money from golfing, horse-riding, sun-loving tourists from 2014. The Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 project is concerned with making a city originally designed for 600,000 in the 1970s to accommodate 3.1 million in 20 years.
Effortlessly absorbing a Formula One circuit (November’s maiden Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will round off the 2009 season) and a Ferrari-themed entertainment park into a well-rounded, well-designed, environmentally plausible future city will give critics ammunition: can even an oil-fired leopard afford to change his spots? In the comic strip of its brief life as a first-world city, Abu Dhabi’s thought bubble imagines a sustainable centre for tourism, finance, culture, education and a celebration of its own pre-petrol heritage. Whether the emirate turns out to be Batman or the Joker depends on the sands of time. That and faith in largesse.
Communications manager, The Office of the Brand of Abu Dhabi
“Ever since college, I’ve been obsessed by brands and branding and most of my friends work in TV, advertising or the government. It’s a new generation. The Abu Dhabi brand is built on respect, something already embedded in Emirati culture – our challenge is that as Abu Dhabi grows and diversifies, we need to make sure that our national identity is preserved and protected – and that the rest of the world knows what it is. As an Emirati, I’m proud to work in an office with the responsibility for managing a unique brand like Abu Dhabi. I haven’t had time to get back to my painting recently, it’s busy in a very good way.”
Provost, New York University Abu Dhabi
“I was asked to do the start-up leadership for NYU Abu Dhabi two years ago. We’re interested in this amazing crossroads of the world and there’s a happy alignment between Abu Dhabi’s ambitions to become a capital of culture, education and research and our interest in trying to build a full liberal arts and science enterprise here. We have “study away” sites where students can spend a semester or year across Europe, Buenos Aires, Accra, Shanghai and Tel Aviv but nothing like how extensive NYU Abu Dhabi will be. The challenges of building a new university are the same here as anywhere else, it’s about hiring the best – 60 per cent of those will be new recruits, the rest are queuing up to come from New York. All the funding will be supplied by the government of Abu Dhabi while NYU brings the know-how, expertise and a big commitment to the long-term.”
Art & cultural advisor, Tourism Development & Investment Company
“I came in 1999 from Beirut. I was only the 15th person in the office when I started in September 2006 and we announced Saadiyat in January 2007, so it was busy right from the start. My first task was presenting this to the world – the largest single arts and culture project in the history of mankind. Yes, it’s daunting but you don’t have time to worry! The Louvre and Guggenheim were requests from Abu Dhabi itself. The Guggenheim was requested largely due to the “Bilbao Effect”, that’s how it all started. Why would you come to the Louvre Abu Dhabi instead of the Louvre in Paris? If you want to go to Paris, go – but if you want to see a new vision for the 21st century, a universal museum starting with the archeological to the present, come here. I think I’m lucky because I choose my work as my passion. It’s seven days a week, 18 hours a day. That’s why I’m so glad I lost my phone today!”
Deputy chairman for Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage
“I came to Abu Dhabi about 42 years ago, in 1967 and settled here, I’m originally from Jerusalem. I studied at Cambridge and graduated just as the Six-Day War broke out so I came to Abu Dhabi where Sheikh Zayed had just become the ruler. Everyone was coming here because they felt it was going to be the new Eldorado. Rather than doing business, I did a little journalism – writing as a stringer for Reuters and AFP – that’s how I met Sheikh Zayed.
This was a small village; everybody met everybody. I took a British TV team to interview him and did the translation, that’s how I became his interpreter and his director of press and information. Look at the first 40 years of Abu Dhabi and we were putting in the infrastructure. It’s not just down to money and oil; look around the region in Africa or the Middle East and you see a string of failed states but look at the UAE and things work and people have the opportunity to have a prosperous life and live in a normal, sensible way.
I had to fight against the stereotype of the wealthy, uneducated oil sheikhs. Sheikh Zayed and his group were in a hotel room in Spain in 1968 when the first man landed on the moon. The Sheikh’s people all said this was impossible but he said that God made man capable of anything he wanted. Sheikh Zayed was brought up in a society which still believed the world was flat but he knew his country could not go back to tribal ways.”
Deputy director general of arts & culture, ADACH
“I’m Lebanese, have been in Abu Dhabi permanently since 2006 and see a special situation – it’s changing, it’s setting new standards in building, urban planning, design and cultural development. I’m in charge of making heritage and the contemporary meet. Culture has a significant impact on way of life, on people, on society, quality of life. Other countries in the region do not have the institutional or financial resources to develop the cultural sector so we’re responding to the need. You can’t pretend that 200 years ago in Europe culture was not institutionalised. It’s also important to get private money – galleries, artists’ patrons, stage an art fair in Abu Dhabi – this is the long-term plan. It’s not really about making a lot of noise about projects. People want to be more in touch with their heritage, to touch and feel it. Streamline Emirati culture and make it accessible to everybody. It’s cultural diplomacy, it’s soft power.”