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Abu Dhabi ambitions

Abu Dhabi ambitions

Abu Dhabi’s trajectory has been a lot more gradual than the steroid induced growth spurt that was Dubai’s development, but recent reports suggest the capital might still be making mistakes.

December 14, 2010 3:58 by



For someone who has lived in Dubai for the past 20 years, recognizing the booming cultural capital that Abu Dhabi has become takes a certain amount of effort. There is a degree of arrogance you develop when living in a city that has the biggest, largest, flashiest and every-other-superlative of everything.

But for a couple of years now, Abu Dhabi has been sneaking into the news for all of its (fine, I’ll say it) impressive efforts to establish itself as the cultural capital of the Emirates, if not the region. From the eco-friendly plans to build Masdar, the creation of ‘branches’ of the Guggenheim and the Louvre, the publication of the Emirates’ best newspaper, and the inclusion of international educational institutes like the Sorbonne and NYU, to the completion of the Emirates first real theme park – Abu Dhabi has transformed itself from the sleepy Emirate it once was.

I remember a slight sense of resentment ebbing through me as I drove down to YAS Arena  last month for the Nelly Furtado concert; resentment, because I can very easily remember the days when it was people from Abu Dhabi doing the 2 hour drive to get to concerts and events.  And though my loyalties still lie with Dubai, I’ll be the first to say it lacks the culture and sophistication of its neighbour.

The trajectory of Abu Dhabi’s progress has been a lot more gradual than the steroid induced growth spurt that was Dubai’s and, if we are going to be honest, a lot classier. While Dubai boasts of the largest mall, largest tower, largest aquarium glass panel (not always the most reasonable achievements), Abu Dhabi has been working to develop itself into the model of a global responsible city: one that is green, conservative, traditional, and respectful of the arts. It seemed Abu Dhabi had learnt from Dubai’s larger than life mistakes.

Or have they? Articles in this week’s Gulf News and National report the findings of property broker Cushman & Wakefield, which predicts Abu Dhabi will soon have the heaviest concentration of shopping centers per capita in the world, outshining even Dubai.

In the next five years, the amount of retail space in Abu Dhabi is likely to increase to 1.8million square meters. That figure would give Abu Dhabi 1,690 square meters of shopping space per 1,000 residents, significantly higher than Dubai’s current record of 1,385 square meters (the highest in the world). Dubai is closely followed by the United States of America with 1,028 square meters per 1,000 people – much higher than Europe’s 231 square meters per 1,000. Given that Dubai already has a possibly unsustainable oversupply, surely this is bad news for the capital?

So, has Abu Dhabi not learnt from Dubai’s ambitious but erroneous blunders? Maybe it is too early to tell, but I can’t imagine why Abu Dhabi would need so much more shopping space than Dubai (which itself is over served). Maybe we should consider differences in disposable income, but even so these record-breaking construction plans and retail-focused ambitions seem at odds with the capital’s ethos.

Though I am a Dubaian at heart, for the sake of the beautiful capital of the Emirates, here’s hoping Cushman & Wakefield’s predictions turn out to be wrong.



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