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Abu Dhabi: the sheikhs mean business

Abu Dhabi’s ambitious rulers have a plan to restructure their entire country.

Part 1 of a seven-part special report by Adrian Hornsby
Part 2: 2030 Masterplan
Part 3: Development frenzy
Part 4: Boom to bust?
Part 5: Building in a vacuum
Part 6: Cashing in
Part 7: Instant Middle East

Wandering the streets, there is little to suggest that Abu Dhabi is the richest city on earth. In fact, it is surprisingly shabby. There is much ageing concrete and browning mirrored glass. Many of the buildings are featureless, though a number incorporate blocky geometric motifs into their facades, less reminiscent of Islamic intricacies than of factory carpets from the 1970s. Plumbed-in palms articulate the boulevards, with the occasional one dead, like a blown bulb on a line of street lamps.

Behind wide roads are smaller streets, with tatty stores and rubbish piled in steel carts. Rare openings lead into Pakistani markets crammed with bolts of fabric, rice sacks and baskets of squashed shoes. Kaftans hang from nails in the wall. In a corner café, a few men sit on plastic chairs, smoking hookahs and watching the TV on top of the Coke fridge. The native Emiratis are mostly aloof from the urban humdrum. They are just too fabulously wealthy. You see them occasionally – in the lobbies of marbled hotels, or crossing the street in their cotton ghutras, gliding like white wands in the blinding sun.

There is some construction, but it’s not as intense as one might have expected. For the most part, you’d never conceive that a squall of high-end world architecture was about to break across the coastline.

Abu Dhabi built its first paved road in 1961 – three years after striking oil, at a time when the city was no more than a fort and a scrabble of pearl-fishing huts. Abu Dhabi Island (roughly the size of Manhattan) was developed over the following decades by ruler Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and bears the marks of both the car-town planning era and Zayed’s personal love for England and all things green. The island-city became the capital of the freshly founded United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 1971.

Over the years, a gentle programme drew nomadic Bedouins from the desert into low-density Emirati villages, where they were provided for with schools, mosques and mansions. Oil revenues continued to welter as the extent of the reserves became apparent: over 100 billion barrels, an income of tens of billions of dollars a year for well over a century. With everyone now generously housed and driving Chryslers, enormous surpluses mounted up, which were mostly invested abroad – what else to do with them?

Then in 2004, Zayed died, and his son, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, acceded to his position as ruler of Abu Dhabi and president of the UAE. It was at this point that, as Joe Tabet, head of architecture at Atkins Abu Dhabi, puts it: ‘Everything went whoosh.’

Gerard Evenden, senior partner at Foster + Partners, remembers going to Abu Dhabi three years ago to find an unassuming little town with a few people saying: ‘This is going to be big – bigger than Dubai, bigger than anything else.’ The next day, Evenden found himself driving a 4 x 4 across the desert to reach the site where Foster’s colossal Abu Dhabi World Trade Centre (WTC) is now under construction. The WTC (see case study) is the flagship project in the 10km Al Raha corridor of coastal expansion, slated to comprise over half a million square metres of office and retail space, plus a string of 25-storey residential towers and 2,000 hotel rooms.

A few kilometres away from the WTC, Foster’s Masdar City (see case study) is also under construction, set to complete in 2016. The six million square metre, zero-carbon, zero-waste, mostly solar-powered eco-development is going up next to a 20-million-passenger-per-year airport terminal by KPF Architects. Bundled together, the WTC, Masdar City and the airport represent less than 10 per cent of the new build envisaged under the Urban Planning Council’s Plan Abu Dhabi 2030.

Part two: Abu Dhabi 2030 Masterplan

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