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Abu Dhabi: boom to bust?

Doubters are asking if the Gulf’s £1.2 trillion construction boom is built on sand

The leading role taken by speculators in the Gulf’s construction boom (comprising an estimated £1.2 trillion of projects) has provoked much meta-speculation as to how sustainable this pace of development can possibly be. Lynton Jones, who set up the Dubai International Financial Exchange in 2003, describes the simple process as: ‘You create buildings to be able to sell them.’

But the production of architecture isn’t itself an economy, nor can it single-handedly create a city. The boom may stimulate enough activity to fuel itself for a while – construction workers flood in, as do consultants and lawyers, who all need maids and taxi drivers and so on – but, at some point, people do actually have to come, and do things as quotidian as work in the new offices, and live in the new homes.

Beyond raw property play, there is a genuine case for the Gulf wanting and needing a global metropolis. The UAE is strategically located as a hub – a seven-hour flight from Europe, and 10 hours from the Far East. Moreover, it is within a three-hour flight of some two billion potential workers, who are currently languishing in stifling and underproductive environments (much of the Middle East, Pakistan, Sudan and so on), and see the UAE as an opportunity to get away from turbulence at home, and enter the globalised economy.

For these people and their business talents, Abu Dhabi represents a liberal, pro-growth, stable and eminently tax-efficient place to work. Already the UAE is astonishingly international, with Emiratis accounting for less than one fifth of the population and under 10 per cent of private-sector jobs. The rest is made up of Arabs from neighbouring states, high-salary expats and schools of cheap labour (from emerging economies such as India), who man the construction teams, cook, clean, drive and massage – a demographic assemblage characterised by architect Rem Koolhaas of Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) as ‘the pampered and the pamperers’.

Leveraging their output, Abu Dhabi has ambitions to become a financial centre, a trade hub, a conference nucleus, a manufacturing base, and even an international media voice. It is almost a miniature 19th-century America, calling out to enterprising workers of the East to partake in its structured abundance – an abundance not of fertile land, but of thoughtfully crafted urban and business environments.

Part five: Building in a vacuum

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