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Abu Dhabi: Too fast, too curious

Abu Dhabi: Too fast, too curious

Abu Dhabi’s ambitious development plans are attracting investors worldwide. But Mishaal Al Gergawi asks if the emirate’s residents understand the consequences of drastic growth.

October 22, 2009 4:01 by

Since the union of the UAE, Abu Dhabi has chosen to be viewed as the conservative capital of the UAE in comparison to its more commercially driven neighbor Dubai. This did not mean that the capital was by any means behind Dubai in a realistic sense, but that the government’s own will was the only driver for development, as opposed to a thriving private sector.

Essentially, there was no private sector of notable mass there. The capital had realized that after approximately 35 years of relative obscurity on the international stage – baring discreet fund managers in Geneva, London and Tokyo – there was little international brand equity in the name of Abu Dhabi.

And so, approximately five years ago, the emirate made a strategic decision to change not only the way it was being perceived by cities and nations from around the world, but also by its own inhabitants.

Through several interviews and press releases, the capital laid out its plans. In some of these interviews the terms ‘cultural tourism’ and ‘getaway resorts’ were used. The message was clear; Abu Dhabi would approach its urban development plans differently from Dubai. It would be more selective in its tourism plans, not to mention its plans to attract residents.

An impressively long array of projects have since been launched; ranging from cultural development (Saadiyat Cultural District), automotive sports and entertainment (Ferrari theme park, Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, and the Formula 1 race – occurring next month), renewable energy (Masdar City – reportedly the world’s first carbon-neutral, zero-waste city), media (TwoFour54) and healthcare (Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi and Imperial College London Diabetes Centre, among others).

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  1. Mi on October 22, 2009 6:39 pm

    “Dubai’s nationals, had historically been fishermen and traders – trades that demanded interaction with others- found the emirate’s development bewildering, how will Abu Dhabi’s nationals, who historically were farmers and sheep herders trades that demanded little interaction with others – find their city’s development?”

    Okay I have to start with this: that is total FISH!

    LOL seriously Mr. Gergawi? Now your whole interesting article with all its facts, figures and numbers poured down to that very question that shows how improperly educated you are with no awareness and no willingness to research a simple topic as the historical differences between Dubai and Abu Dhabi?


    First of all, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and all of the emirates and cities had similar backgrounds: a tribal system, and people went up and down the map following water resources mainly. This tribal system is extinct but the tribes (families) still exist in case you have no noticed, and each family carry & transcends values to its inheritors, no matter what city they chose to live in after the union.

    Secondly, in every emirate, there’s a simple system where people went to the sea for pearlhunting, trading and exporting, e.g. from AD: Albumhair, Qubaisat, etc.

    Most would own a land in the non-coastal cities, like Al Ain, Hatta, and Liwa for summer, and in winter they return to the gulf. For example, a family in Dubai will have a summer house in Al Ain, and will be visiting once per year.

    There are big names from both cities who were known for successful trading businesses reaching Iran and India, like Khalaf bin Abdulla bin Otaiba, coming from Abu Dhabi, and some successful names in Dubai today come originally from Al Ain, like Al Futtaim. Plus more big family nameswho had been successful in the UAE: Abu Dhabi & Dubai came from Iranian backgrounds.

    Thirdly, who said that historical terms can determine whether a man will succeed in a trade or not? That is basic naivity Mr Mishal.

    “Interacting with others”?  poor Abu Dhabi government, they didn’t consider that.

  2. Mishaal Al Gergawi on October 23, 2009 1:04 pm


    You may cherry pick certain families in Dubai and Abu Dhabi that support your argument, but the reality is the following: the people of Abu Dhabi and Dubai have had a different trajectory which in turn has formed their identities, culture and the level to which each may acknowledge of the notion of “the other”. That furthered with Abu Dhabi’s excellent economic climate has lead even further differences in the approach to trade.

    “Thirdly, who said that historical terms can determine whether a man will succeed in a trade or not? That is basic naivity Mr Mishal.” History does, historical terms are the reasons that countries like Holland and Norway, for example, remains a leader in European innovation due its large ocean access and the recognition of trade – which is why they’ve had one of the world’s most open migration policies until recently. The point is history matters because it gives you context and creates a process of social evolution.

    More importantly, what you raise is not the actual core of the article but only supplementary analysis on why I expect the transformation of Abu Dhabi into a metropolis to be even more challenging for Abu Dhabi’s populous than it has been to Dubai’s.

    Finally, if you are from Abu Dhabi, I want to make it clear beyond any doubt that Abu Dhabi’s plans are not in question – I support them wholeheartedly as an integral component of the development of the UAE and the GCC – but it is the speed of the process that needs to be reviewed… like I said in the end: “In short, Abu Dhabi may have attracted the world’s attention with its development plans, but it still needs the backing of its own people. Some might say that’s already occurred; humor me, and let’s just make sure.” Will you humor me Mi?


    P.S. FISH? LOL? Is this a chat room?

  3. Sultan Mansour on October 23, 2009 4:02 pm


    I think you have cherry picked what you wanted to support your argument. If you have done very little research in terms of developing UAE National (across the UAE and Abu Dhabi) you would have definitely found out that the development in the Emirate goes hand in hand with other developments in Abu Dhabi.

    As you mentioned, the approach in Abu Dhabi is to sustainably develop the Emirate with a plan until 2030. This does not only give the economy the opportunity to absorb what is going on, it also gives big advantage to prepare leaders, change mind sets, behaviours and whatever constraints the government might face in order to diversify its economy from depending 60% on Oil to depending 40% on Oil.

    Going back to your argument, who said that what our grandfathers and fathers were historically going has a major say in what is going on? If Abu Dhabi in late sixties could strongly change the mind sets on the old generation from living in the desert, commuting by camels, drinking from Water Wells or even living on very small jobs to living in modern houses, drinking clean water, use electricity and go to regular schools and university, I believe Abu Dhabi now is able to change the current generations mind set to the extent it wants. If you have done very little research or read the Abu Dhabi 2030 plan, you would have definitely felt and seen how Abu Dhabi wants to diversity its economy. It is unfair to compare what went in Dubai head to head to what is going in Abu Dhabi.

    The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi approach is very unique in terms of changing the mindset of the locals in Abu Dhabi. One of the ways I really admired was that not only inviting first line leaders in Abu Dhabi to attend the Executive Council meetings, but also invited the second line to come and attend to get the word from His Highness and to listen themselves to what the Council would like Abu Dhabi to be.

    In my opinion, you supported your argument with very weak judgment that people in Dubai, Nationals and Expats, were ready for the big change, but the question here is that to what extent were they ready? I believe Dubai did not have to undergo all those major constructions in diversifying it economy away from Oil? Dubai could have decided to what degree it wants to diversity its economy, but it chose a way a lot of people in Dubai and the UAE think was not the proper way. But humor me and tell me that people in Dubai are happy, satisfied or even still with the same spirit in what is going on, not only their feelings now, no, even before the crisis.

  4. Mishaal Al Gergawi on October 24, 2009 1:01 am


    A couple of clarifications:

    1) I am for the Abu Dhabi 2030 plan and see it as an integral part of the UAE’s plans for a diversified and sustainable project. Not sure where you go the impression that I am not.

    2) HH the Crown Prince’s involving of 1st and 2nd line leaders in government is a great initiative. The people who I am most worried about being bewildered by change are the regular people with regular jobs. We have seen this exactly happen in Dubai i.e. there was a group of executives who, through the leadership program and access to the ruler’s court, were able to comprehend the vision of HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid in Dubai but the regular Emiratis and expats found it difficult at times to comprehend the pace. Is it not fair to expect at least similar hurdles – though I expect even more – in Abu Dhabi? I commend your optimism and faith in ability of people to change but I think it’s too much.

    3) Again, not sure where you got the impression that I believe Nationals and Expats of Dubai were ready for the incredible transformation which Dubai went through, they were not; I only imagine it will be even harder for Abu Dhabi’s people that’s all.

    4) While you say that 2030 is time enough to absorb such incredible change (I disagree), there is much change already occurring and occurring very soon.

    5) It is very important that this opinion piece as not seen as crossing some imaginary border from Dubai to Abu Dhabi. I am a UAE national and want to see each and every square foot of it developed and improved from Fujairah to Abu Dhabi.

    Finally, I hope I’m wrong for the sake of Abu Dhabi and the rest of the Emirates but somehow I am not convinced by what you’ve said.

  5. Mi on October 24, 2009 3:51 am

    Well I am from Dubai. But some side of my family come from Abu Dhabi. There are also some hints coming from Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain.

    Now will this give more or less credit to my argument?

  6. M Jacob on October 24, 2009 4:49 pm

    The UAE is a remarkable country. It’s wonderful Emiratis are finally leading and not being led.

  7. Sultan Mansour on October 24, 2009 5:30 pm


    Before I continue here, I need to clarify that I am not against the point you are trying to raise, I actually understand where you are trying to come from to support your point.

    The argument I posted was not to convince you that Abu Dhabi Plan 2030 is great or not, the reason I was referring to the plan is that, the plan was referring to the importance of Abu Dhabi culture to the future development.

    As I previously mentioned, Abu Dhabi could change the mindset of Abu Dhabi’s people from being 100% budwain society to 100% modren civilised society, women went to schools, work and now we see them in very high positions in the emirate. And that was in the sixties, so the expectations are built from today not from the sixties.

    In the plan, Abu Dhabi listed Human Capital as one major areas of measure of success. This shows you how committed Abu Dhabi is to prepare and change the mindset of its people to equip them with the right tools to develop the Emirate.

    For example, it came to my attention that Abu Dhabi Municipality has organised few training courses (short and long term) to prepare Health & Safety Assessors. If we looked at that areas couple of years ago, you would never see people talk about Health & Safety in the Emirate, but now things have changed.

    Another example is transportation, which takes big part of the development of the Emirate, the Transport Department has made an agreement with the High College of Technology to award UAE Nationals a degree in Tranport Development.

    One unique thing about Abu Dhabi Development is that the public and private sections across all fields is involved in the development.

    I am not saying your argument is wrong, but I believe that officals have made arrangments to close any gap in developing human capital and developing the Emirate.

    Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Approach in involving 2nd line in attending the meetings is not similar to running leadership courses. The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi wanted the 2nd line to be involved, to hear things themselves.

    You are not convinced, that is something you need to do more research about, here I tried to come up with things I live and experience in Abu Dhabi and supported it with evidence from the plan and what really goes on in Abu Dhabi.

    The issue here is not that whether you are convinced or not, the issue here is that “are people excited about the steps Abu Dhabi taking to develop the Emirate and the UAE NAtionals” I think be trying to find the answer for this question, you will either stick to your point or change it.

    But throughing the argument like that with no spport from the history in the sixties or current efforts, is very weak.

  8. Mishaal Al Gergawi on October 24, 2009 6:11 pm


    I said that to ensure that you understand that this is not a Dubai-biased view. Both are cities with great potential and both need to be critic-ed by their own people accordingly to ensure that this propensity is realised.


  9. Mishaal Al Gergawi on October 24, 2009 11:11 pm


    I understand what you’re saying. What I am saying is that regardless of specific expertise training (transport, health and safety etc), I am more worried if the people are willing to accept how liberal their city will be the arrival of so many foreigners who will work in Saadiyat, Yas and Masdar city among others. It is that I imagine will be hard for them to stomach and even if they could then it is that I imagine they will stomach with great difficulty. What I am talking about here is dramatic change in the social fabric of a society.

    This is not a research based argument, this is a wait-out point of view. I believe this specific challenge is harder than perceived.


    P.S. and I really still see – unfortunately – lots of similarities in the execution method of a lot of initiatives that are coming up in AD today to Dubai. I really hope I’m wrong bro, but I don’t think so.

  10. rb on October 25, 2009 7:03 am

    I do not feel that the pace in AUH is the same as witnessed in Dubai .AUH is taking a more measured approach . What is required is comprehensive legislation / laws on real estate protect interests of developers &
    RERA had announced cancellation of 27 projects in Dubai but until now list has not been released .Large no of Investors funds are blocked where as they are entitled to full refund on these ‘cancelled ‘ projects.

  11. Sultan Mansour on October 25, 2009 12:20 pm


    Here you are basing your discussion on assumptions! Which does not really help? But as I said, I agree on the basis why the question was raised?

    I really would like to hear your comments about how Abu Dhabi could change the mindset in the sixties, from living in the desert, limited use of electricity, using camels to living in modern houses, going to work, women go to work and study in regular schools and universities, and also travel abroad to study!

    Dear, you need to focus on your argument and support it with things that you experienced or saw. If you know something please share it, if you heard something please tell us but what I read here is that you are saying something for the sake of saying it.

    As I said, the topic is nice, the point you are trying to raise is excellent, but you are taking your argument as granted! Which is absolutely fine with me, but when I read your comments I just feel you do not want to listen.

    Any way, it was good talking about this with you.


  12. Andrew on October 26, 2009 12:25 pm

    It’s good to see people engaging in conversation on this issue, I do however share Mishaal’s concern that it might be somewhat overwhelming.

    As an expat who’s spent a large portion the last 16 years here, I too find the pace of development and change overwhelming. It’s safe to say that the city I first came to no longer exists, both literally and figuratively, in addition to physically and mentally.

    As someone that’s live around the world a lot and is used to change, I wonder what others make of it.

  13. Sultan Mansour on October 27, 2009 3:50 pm


    I enjoyed talking to you here, and I have your email.

    We will be in touch soon.


  14. M Gupta on October 28, 2009 8:19 am


    The views shared by Mishaal are very true and not biased or exagerated.


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