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Abu Dhabi: the instant Middle East

From sex on the beach to US foreign policy, tensions between Western and Middle-Eastern traditions could disrupt Abu Dhabi’s bright future

So much of what urbanists dislike about ‘Abu Dhabi: Instant Global Metropolis’ is that it is a pure piece of urban design. This says little for our belief in urban designers. By contrast, and unsurprisingly, the architects and planners who are actively involved in Abu Dhabi tend to be imbued with an almost messianic enthusiasm. The levels of money and support available, and the bareness of the desert on which they draw, create singular conditions and facilitate otherwise impossible projects.

Abu Dhabi has answers – at least on paper – to almost any question asked of it. However, one intractable crease remains: a globally unresolved East/West divide. By the standards of the region, the UAE is extremely liberal and westernised. At the same time, it is an inveterately Arab city.

Questions are already mounting regarding the display of nudes in the Saadiyat Island galleries, and on a social level, the potential for collision between sober Middle Eastern decorum and buccaneering Westerners – tourists and professionals alike – is considerable. July’s sex-on-the-beach incident in Dubai – where two British expats were imprisoned for indecent behaviour and drunkenness in public – may offer a foretaste of incipient clashes. And it goes both ways. I was surprised to find a book entitled The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem on display in the Abu Dhabi Co-operative Supermarket.

Should the US invade Iran or the situation in Israel flare up, things in Abu Dhabi could become, in the words of de Graaf, ‘very, very tricky’. At the same time, friction between cultures, and indeed among the farrago of nationalities that comes with an 85 per cent immigrant population, is perhaps Abu Dhabi’s most promising spark. In an otherwise generated city, diversity may be the one thing that can’t be bought or sold off-plan.

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