Saturday, September 02, 2006


The coastline of the emirate of Abu Dhabi is incredibly malformed--that is, rather than a defined shoreline, it consists of a long line of irregularly shaped islands, islets and sandbars, closely aligned and interspersed with water channels. At ground level the extent of this mess is not recognizable. There are beaches, lagoons and waterways separating the land formations. There is even a large mangrove swamp opposite one side of the island that forms Abu Dhabi city.

Thanks to Google Earth anyone can get a spaceman's view of this deformed coastline. (See Abu Dhabi coastline from 47 miles above.) In the image one can see that except for Abu Dhabi city the islands are mostly barren.

Saadiyat island is one of these barren formations. It is roughly adjacent to the island that hosts Abu Dhabi city and about one third its size. It has housed in recent years small military installations, including the UAE's Naval College, a private resort and a few piers. In line with the recent popularity in the region of creating massive island and shoreline developments, Abu Dhabi has decided that the Isle of Happiness--as Saadiyat is translated into English--will be one of its feature development projects.

High Hopes

To compare favorably with other large developments, particularly Dubai's, the project's developer has planned world class facilities, including a Guggenheim museum, only the sixth of this prestigious institution's worldwide editions. The extent of the development is described in the following press release excerpt:
Saadiyat will have six distinct districts delivering a multitude of experiences with complementary environments and all connected by a palm-lined arterial freeway. The island will have 19 kilometers of white, sandy beach, two golf courses, 29 hotels with over 7,000 rooms, including an iconic 7-star property, three marinas with berthing for 1,000 vessels, over 8,000 private villas, resorts set on spectacular beaches, over 38,000 apartments and eight iconic string of pearl architectural landmarks housing museums, a concert hall, art gallery and major cultural offerings.
Despite announcements as such, it is warranted to be skeptical as to whether Saadiyat island will indeed turn out as planned.

First Impressions

My own perspective is rather jaded having spent four years on the island working at the Naval College. For my colleagues and myself the island represented a no man's land--a kind of Albatross. Our daily commute to and from the island involved a combination of car, walking, boat ride and bus. Rough seas, reckless boatmanship and driving, broken down boat or bus and sitting or standing in the desert heat waiting to go was typical fare. To us, Saadiyat was a daily joke.

Four years ago, word was that Saadiyat would be developed into an international banking and finance center, to take its place along side New York, London, Tokyo and Singapore. The idea was fanciful and seemed highly unlikely. Although there were some published articles detailing the plans, the story quietly disappeared.

Now in 2006, the new plans for Saadiyat, while still fanciful, have some precedent. Dubai, after all, is in the process of not only developing islands, but building them from scratch. Abu Dhabi city and the island it rests on were themselves, a few decades ago, little more than barren desert, no different from Saadiyat today. So one could make an argument that the current plan for Saadiyat is doable.

Reason for Doubt

I remain skeptical, however. Abu Dhabi, over the past three decades has grown out of necessity. The oil industry was being established and along with it came the infrastructure and personnel needed to support it. Today, new development on the scale being proposed will require an influx of residents and tourists far beyond the requirement and experience of the region to date. The if you build it they will come dictum may play out in Dubai, but Abu Dhabi is not Dubai.

This distinction is important. Some see what is happening in Dubai and assume that with all its oil wealth there is no reason why Abu Dhabi cannot do the same. There are, however, fundamental differences between the two emirates particularly with regard to how things work. Dubai is being built upon a philosophy of economy first. Whatever is good for the economy is good for Dubai. Abu Dhabi, by contrast, works above all else on a philosophy of wasta. That is, ultimately whatever happens is closely tied up with someone's ego.

Abuse of Power & Endless Delays

By way of illustration, you will have in Abu Dhabi a developer working on a project. If at some point one of the influential powers that be has an issue with even a small detail, the whole project could be scuttled, regardless of what economic impact doing so would have. It is ego, not practicality (even economic practicality) that rules the day. This poses an inherent risk, more substantial than in Dubai, to not only private developers and investors, but also to government entities under the direction of a competing sheikh or clan.

This method of doing business is apparent in ways small and large throughout Abu Dhabi, and something which longtime residents constantly experience frustration over.

At a town called Shahama on the main road into Abu Dhabi from Dubai, there was a small stretch of highway under construction in some form or other for over six years. This meant dangerous and annoying speed bumps, lane merging and detours on what is arguably the most important artery in the country. Only this year was an overpass finally completed.

It is much the same for other roadworks across the city. Unneeded renovations are regularly performed and needed ones take years to complete. Bureaucracy on all levels follows this pattern. When one is involved in an auto accident for example, whether routine or serious, it can take weeks or months just to have a police report issued. A simple procedure or request often involves one having to plead to someone with wasta--read inflated ego--to have the task performed.

Equaling a Challenge

There is not only Saadiyat, but several other major development projects in the pipeline in Abu Dhabi. Some of these will get built but not without added layers of frustration and politics not seen in Dubai. Ultimately, however, many will not succeed and like the earlier Saadiyat plan they will quietly and mysteriously disappear.

To give some credit where it is due, there are spectacular successes in Abu Dhabi. Arguably Abu Dhabi's most impressive landmark, the massive Emirates Palace Hotel, was constructed in a span of only two years. Yet, an equally prominent landmark, the grand Sheikh Zayed mosque at the entrance to the city is progressing slowly after more than six years of fits and starts. Similarly, even before one enters the city lies the soon to open Al Raha Beach Mall. Al Raha Beach development, still in its early phases, is Abu Dhabi's answer to Dubai Marina. Its signature mall has been standing unopened in an apparent state of readiness--construction work complete--for almost a year.

Will Saadiyat island follow the example of the grand palace hotel or the grand mosque? Most likely it will fare somewhere in the middle, taking much longer to come around than planned and falling short of designs. The project will, however, gain impetus from a need to avoid falling too far behind Dubai's lead. The overwhelming success of the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, for example, gave added determination to the builders of the Emirates Palace Hotel to come up with a prestigious hotel property, at least equal in stature. The same sense of competitiveness may save the current Saadiyat island plans from fading into oblivion.

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Dubai-Informer said...

Hey, nice Blog. Finally I (as a Dubai-an) can learn a bit more about Abu Dhabi ;-)

BD said...

As an Abu Dhabi resident and frequent visitor to Dubai, I find the differnces between the two cities and emirates palpable. It's sort of a gut feeling, but I think if one cares to study it they will clearly find a basis for it.

Daniel Costello said...

Hurry up and wait!

Muhammad Amjad said...

Abu Dhabi is a unique city city of UAE and it full of oil wealth and also many 7 star hotels.
Abu dhabi tourism