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Abu Dhabi: cashing in

The emirate’s rulers have masterminded a merger between business and politics, and expect a return from any investment in architecture

As huge as the sums involved in these projects seem to architects, they are comparatively reasonable to oilmen. Sheikh Khalifa could, if he chose, buy dozens of Gehry Guggenheims a year. Indeed, against Abu Dhabi’s reserves, both of cash and oil, creating a global metropolis is distinctly affordable. And after decades of return-driven global equity investing, Abu Dhabi has a keen business sense, and is by no means uncritically bankrolling its development.

For all the apparent excess of Abu Dhabi, there is an underlying congruency to its actions, much akin to a company operating in alignment with its core aims. All projects are justified on a commercial basis: the cultural centres are evaluated against projected tourism revenues, and environmental measures are all subjected to rigorous financial discipline. The drive toward specifically cultural tourism is explained by Barry Lord, cultural consultant for Saadiyat Island: ‘Cultural tourists are wealthier, older, more educated, and they spend more. From an economic view, this makes sense.’

What the wealth of Abu Dhabi facilitates is a next level of ambition in terms of real estate investment and coordination – not a leap into loss-making, or what in the West would be called ‘government spending’. The private sector is a co-investor on the terms and according to the plans of the state. As Marcos Rosello, associate director of PRP Architects International states: ‘The government is heavily involved in design and procurement, as they hold the final decision.’ (PRP is currently working on a 250-room courtyard hotel for Marriott, which includes 29,750m2 of offices over 10 levels.)

This peculiar hybrid of government intervention and for-profit initiative infiltrates every level of project work in Abu Dhabi, leading to what de Graaf describes as ‘the complete merger between business and politics’. Jones interprets the position of an Emirati sheikh as something akin to a CEO – restructuring a company with the aim of diversifying revenue streams, reinvesting profits in capacity, taking on new staff (immigration), tunnelling money into research and development (educational and scientific institutions) etc. The conflation of public and private interests and activities allows for strong partnerships, and for the seamless acceleration of processes.

Yet the more corporate and joined-up the Abu Dhabi approach appears, the more it instigates a sense of nausea. The 2030 masterplan is almost too smooth, with its noiseless allocation of uses, and its solicitously programmed environments. The deliberate way that the cultural areas are separated out from the government and business areas forecloses the dynamic possibility of creative spaces scattered throughout the city. What would London be like if you gathered up the Tate, the Royal Opera House, the National Gallery, the British Museum et al, and dumped them out on the Isle of Dogs? Lord’s observation, in particular, provokes a repulsively neutered vision of moneyed geriatrics shuffling through air-conditioned galleries, sipping desalinated water, eating antibiotics and hydroponic tomatoes.

Part seven: The instant Middle East

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