The Emirates’ Seat of Culture
Curiously, the United Arab Emirates’ history is essentially a modern one when you consider where you are. In 1853 the British, in their inimitable way, drew some lines in the shifting sands fashioning something called the “Trucial States”. Until then the Emirates, along with neighboring Bahrain and Qatar, had existed as a collection of leftover territories between Oman and Saudi Arabia known colorfully as the “Pirate Coast”.
Having created some semblance of order, at least on the map, for the collective sheikdoms had no real cooperative relationship, the British administered disputes between the states for the next century or so. Some say their influence is felt throughout the region even today.
Oil, “discovered” in 1958, literally became the lubricant that greased the skids for the states to take charge of their own destiny. Abu Dhabi and Dubai formed a union, wrote a constitution, and invited the rulers of the other five emirates to join them, and when the Trucial Treaty expired on December 1, 1971, the new oil kingdom was born. Since then it’s been a story of developing, each in its own way, the petro-wealth buried beneath their dunes.
While much of the developed world regarded the newly created UAE as a collection of third world tribes, they were instead a force to be reckoned with guided by modern, educated leaders. Each articulated a separate vision for his emirate then set about creating that reality with knowledge of advanced economic, political, and social planning gleaned from the world’s leading universities. While Dubai envisioned becoming the Duty Free Zone of the Middle East (a vision that will be brought dramatically to life when you visit Dubai in the next few days), Abu Dhabi decided to become the cultural hub.
Culture and Architecture
Abu Dhabi is the product of modern city planning with wide boulevards, high-density commercial and residential towers, as well as manicured parks and gardens scattered about. Unfortunately, the city was planned for 600,000 inhabitants and there are currently 900,000 and counting. The result, therefore, is a bit of vehicular and pedestrian chaos tainting the planners’ dreams. Even so, a drive along the Corniche from the port to the Emirates Palace Hotel will still leave a very positive impression of this capital city.
Did you know that Abu Dhabi is the wealthiest of all the Emirates? Quite surprising, really, when you get a glimpse of Dubai. The hypothetical net worth of each citizen is $17 million*. A little oil does go a long way. The GDP per capita is behind that of only Luxembourg and Norway. In fact, Abu Dhabi’s Sovereign Fund is the second largest investor in the world. The state-owned Abu Dhabi Investment Authority controls a staggering $875 billion in assets from excess oil revenues and manages the country’s $500 billion oil reserves. The fund recently invested $7.5 billion in Citigroup, making it the largest shareholder in the world’s largest bank.
Sights And Sounds
Abu Dhabi rings with a cacophony of foreign tongues. Eighty per cent of the population is expatriate workers from India, Pakistan, Egypt, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines, as well as white-collar expats from the west. This tower of babble includes Tagalog, Tigrinya, Amharic, Bengali, Urdu, Hindi, and Malayalam along with English, the European languages, and Arabic, of course. Fortunately, English is the common language in this pot of linguistic stew.
While it’s never easy to dream of how the super-rich leaders of oil-producing states must live, a visit to the lavish Emirates Palace Hotel will give you just a taste. A cup of spiced tea under the marble dome, the resident harpist nearby, completes the tableau. The nearby Marina Mall is as contemporary as any in the west while the Grand Mosque is among the most sumptuous in the Arab world and definitely worth a visit even though it’s still under construction.
For a glimpse of something closer to reality, a quick walk or drive through the fishing port offers some less luxurious but richly textured photo opportunities. The overland drive to Al Ain lets you experience the environment this glittering metropolis was carved from only a few decades ago. The camel market and oasis in Al Ain will carry you even further back in time.
The future, though, shines for Abu Dhabi’s entitled citizens. They’ll study at a locally funded campus of New York University in 2010 as well as view exhibits at the latest Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum in 2012. And even if their wells ran dry or gas went back to $1.25 a gallon (not!), their lifestyle would live on. Conservative investments and wise planning have left these people less and less dependent on oil reserves. They have invested heavily in worldwide assets and have held internal growth to a measured pace — something you’ll find in wild contrast to their cousins in Dubai.
Karyn L. Planett