While Dubai is the largest city in the United Arab Emirates and the best known internationally, Abu Dhabi, the national capital lying 150 km south-west of Dubai, is well on the way to matching the profile of its precocious sibling.
In terms of wealth, Abu Dhabi – which means ‘father of the gazelle’ – is already well ahead. It is the largest of the seven emirates that make up the UAE and has 80 per cent of the oil reserves of a nation that provides between nine and 10 per cent of the world’s supply.
With its population approaching 900,000, Abu Dhabi city has narrowly eclipsed Sharjah to become the second most populous city in the UAE. By 2030, Abu Dhabi is expected to reach three million inhabitants. Like Dubai, a substantial majority (up to 80 per cent) of Abu Dhabi’s population is made up of expatriate workers from Asia, the Middle East and the West.
Abu Dhabi seems unlikely to sit back and rely on its rich fossil fuel reserves, discovered in 1958, to drive its development. In recent years the Abu Dhabi government has developed long-term roadmaps for the Emirate’s future economic and urban development. The Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 and The Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 call for economically sustainable development, respect for the natural environment and a renewed emphasis on Abu Dhabi’s Arabian cultural values.
No less open to the outside world than Dubai, Abu Dhabi is nevertheless keen to emphasise its identity as an Arab city. Ultimately, this old-meets-new duality has the potential to make Abu Dhabi an even more appealing destination than Dubai.
City of culture
Abu Dhabi is eager to stake a claim as a city of international cultural standing. The first international versions of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums are under construction on Saadiyat Island. They will form part of a cultural precinct that will also include a national museum, a performing arts centre, a maritime museum and various arts pavilions.
At the same time, the city maintains local cultural traditions such as souks, traditional markets selling everything from jewellery and carpets to spices and fresh food. If you are in the market for a slightly bulkier souvenir, a trip to the camel souk in Al Ain, 150km east of Abu Dhabi city, is a must.
Possibly the most imposing symbol of Abu Dhabi’s cultural and religious heritage is the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Grand Mosque, the third largest in the world. Completed in late 2006, the Grand Mosque (right) draws comparisons with the Taj Mahal for its breathtaking opulence. It features the world’s largest Persian carpet at over 7000 square metres and gold-plated chandeliers made up of thousands of Swarovski crystals.
The Grand Mosque is named after Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the late father of the current president of the UAE and ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The mosque is a potent symbol of Abu Dhabi’s desire to maintain its connection to Muslim cultural traditions, but it also welcomes non-Muslim visitors from Saturday to Thursday and guided tours are available.
The UAE is known for being more open and tolerant than its neighbours, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Women do not face the same restrictions encountered in some Muslim countries – for example, they are able to drive and go out in public unescorted. But at the same time, visitors ought to be aware of key customs and rituals in Abu Dhabi’s Muslim society.
Five times a day the call to prayer can be heard emanating from mosques throughout the city. On Friday, the Muslim holy day, most shops and businesses close. Alcohol is only served at licensed venues connected to hotels and at a few clubs. It is not permitted in other restaurants and the practice of bring-your-own alcohol does not exist here, either. During the holy month of Ramadan – from late August to late September in 2009 – non-Muslims are expected out of courtesy not to eat, drink or smoke in public during daylight hours.
Foreign investment opportunities
Abu Dhabi’s desire to diversify its economy and reduce its dependence on oil revenue is among the stated aims of its economic vision for 2030. This means a variety of opportunities exist for foreign investors as the emirate seeks to promote the development of small to medium enterprises and to attract direct foreign investment, especially in high-technology sectors.
When it comes to doing business, Abu Dhabi offers the same drawcards as its much-feted neighbour, Dubai, including low taxation, good infrastructure and effective protection of intellectual property. In addition, Abu Dhabi’s diversified development strategy may see it weather the global financial crisis better than Dubai, where a significant downturn in the property market appears to have set in already. Indeed, some reports suggest expatriate businesspeople are already fleeing Dubai in droves.
Abu Dhabi is also reflecting international interest in corporate social responsibility. Work has started on the world’s first zero-carbon, zero-waste and car-free city, Masdar City, to the west of Abu Dhabi. And US social responsibility think tank Ethisphere has named Abu Dhabi as one of the world’s top 10 sustainable cities, based on environmental and sustainability practices, health and recreation, economic and business environment, regulatory framework, and innovation and investment.
International businesses wishing to learn more about opportunities in Abu Dhabi will find that the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and Industry (www.adcci-uae.com) provides a range of useful online directories and links.
But it’s not all business. Abu Dhabi has plenty to offer as a tourist destination as well. The city is part of an archipelago offering a string of white sandy beaches where visitors can swim and snorkel in the brilliant blue waters of the Persian Gulf and divers can marvel at an abundant array of marine life.
Al Futaisi is one of the more established island destinations in Abu Dhabi. Here visitors can enjoy rich birdlife, ride purebred Arabian horses and camels and stay in chalets and suites at quite reasonable prices. Other islands are being swept along by Abu Dhabi’s advancing tide of development, too. For a resort holiday, you can’t go past the Al Gurm Resort nestled amongst 1.8 square kilometres of tranquil mangrove. This five-star eco-resort has everything you could ask for, including three restaurants, a bar, swimming pools, sports facilities and an exclusive spa centre.
The city centre also offers plenty of luxury accommodation. Major international names like Hilton, Sheraton and InterContinental all have a five-star presence here. But the ne plus ultra of luxury would have to be the Emirates Palace Hotel. Reported to have cost $4 billion to build, the hotel’s vital statistics are staggering: eight stories high, one kilometre long, 850,000 square metres of floor space.
If a starting price in excess of $1000 a night is beyond your accommodation budget, you might opt for a day visit to the Palace to admire the acres of marble, crystal and gold.
Golfers are well catered for in Abu Dhabi. There are courses everywhere – in the city centre, at the airport, even at the racetrack – with more currently under construction on the islands. For something different, try one of Abu Dhabi’s ‘brown’ courses, where smooth putting areas are created out of a compacted mixture of oil and sand.
There’s fun and games for fans of motorsport, too. Off-road rally drivers churn up the dust in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge each year. In November 2009, Formula 1 will make its first appearance in Abu Dhabi at a newly built circuit on Yas Island, alongside a motorsport theme park called Ferrari World. Tennis, too, is attracting a major following in the city, thanks in part to the new season-opening Capitala World Tennis Championship in January – further evidence that the UAE is determined to use the world’s love of sport to its advantage.
In 2007, Abu Dhabi was rated the richest city in the world. The subsequent decline in the price of oil and the wider impact of the global financial crisis may have dented its financial clout, but in terms of ambition it remains in a league of its own.
And whether as a tourist or business destination, this former fishing village that just 50 years ago comprised of mud huts and palm-frond fences is rapidly becoming a must-visit location.
UAE FACT FILE
The United Arab Emirates was formed in 1971 by the federation of the former Trucial States – Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al Qaiwain – after independence from Britain. Each state retains a large degree of independence, while the UAE itself is governed by a Supreme Council of Rulers made up of the seven emirs, who appoint the prime minister and cabinet.
Before oil was discovered, the economy depended on fishing and pearling. Abu Dhabi became the first emirate to export oil, in 1962. The first national elections – for an advisory body – were held in December 2006.
Full name: United Arab Emirates Population: 4.5 million Capital: Abu Dhabi Largest city: Dubai Area: 77,700 sq km Major language: Arabic Major religion: Islam Life expectancy: 77 years (men), 81 years (women) Monetary unit: 1 Dirham = 100 fils Main exports: Oil, gas GNI per capita: US $23,770 (World Bank, 2006) Internet domain: .ae International dialling code: +971