Saturday, May 5, 2012

Richest City in the World

                 Did you know Abu Dhabi is the richest city in the world?  Not Dubai, as most people think.
                The city boasts world class hotels, hospitals, universities, and museums—namely the 7 star Emirates Palace (the only 7 star hotel in the world), Cleveland Clinic  and John Hopkins, Sorbonne and New York University, the Louvre and Guggenheim are currently under construction. 
                Most people can’t find Abu Dhabi on a map.  They’ve heard of Dubai---the Palm islands, the opulence, the money, the largest skyscraper in the world.  They see Dubai on television, read about it in magazines as a luxury playground for the rich and famous.  Abu what?
                All that has changed in the last five years, and more will change in the next five to ten years as Abu Dhabi’s Development Authority puts into play the plans for 2030---an elaborate well-thoughout city design plan to build up Abu Dhabi and literally put it on the map. 
                On the surface what has happened in Abu Dhabi mirrors Dubai---what I call a Disney World.  Not real.  Everything has been built in the last 10 years or so.  What drove Dubai’s development is not what drives Abu Dhabi’s growth.  Dubai is story of survival—a small city running out of oil saving itself with tourism, commercialization, and lots of pizzazz.  Abu Dhabi doesn’t need to save anything.  It’s the richest city in the world with oil reserves and the financial wherewithal to sit back and watch Dubai, even bail it out to the tune of 10 billion dollars.  Abu Dhabi has diversified its economy away from oil.  Its residents are real estate and business moguls who own some of the richest companies in the world.  It’s pretty amazing. 
                Abu Dhabi sits atop of a T-shaped island jutting into the Persian Gulf.  An elegant Corniche, a coastal road that follows a coastline, stretches along the length of the city’s coastline.  There are manicured round-abouts and gardens and parks, flowing fountains, and more trees than anywhere on the Gulf. 
                The two cities are friendly rivals in the global arena and operate like a family business.  The Maktoum family of Dubai and the Nahyan family of Abu Dhabi are cousins.  Dubai, an emirate the size of Rhode Island, was concentrated on a small merchant community that capitalized on the town’s navigable Dubai Creek.  Abu Dhabi, roughly the size of West Virginia, was much poorer.  Bedouin tribesmen roamed the desert.  Pearl diving was the main occupation.  The divers lived in huts where the city lies today and traveled back and forth between the coast and the oasis Al Ain.   
                In 1958, British explorers discovered the fifth-largest crude reserve, 90 percent of which was under the town of Abu Dhabi.  That discovery made the Nahyans the dominant family in the region when the British pulled out in 1971.  SheikhZayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, now called the Father of the country, the ruler of Abu Dhabi, became the President of the newly formed Federation of the UAE, which Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum of Dubai became Prime Minister.
                When the oil started flowing the city of Abu Dhabi had just 46,000 people, four doctors, and five schools---none of which existed in the early 1960’s---and Sheikh Zayed had a vision to carve out a modern country in the sand.  Rich people had mud houses; the poor families built houses of reeds.   Zayed believed education to be the future of the country.  Longtime government advisor Mohammed Ahmed al Bowardi remembers, “as students, we were provided books, transportation, and a small salary.”  The 100 dirham provided, about $27 today, meant a lot to the students.  It was an incentive to attend school. 
                Zayed was savvy.  He insisted that “not a single grain of sand” be sold.  Most men received a plot of land but transferring ownership was required by the Sheikh’s approval.  Native-born Abu Dhabians, rapidly becoming a minority in their own country, got land while outsiders didn’t.  This restriction eventually changed and 99-year leaseholds purchases were allowed by foreigners.  The real estate boom started as a result of this decree.  Abu Dhabi now boasts an international airport, home to the world’s best airline carrier Etihad Airways, and the landmark Emirates Palace Hotel, the world’s third largest mosque, as well as the Yas Island development that hosts Formula One racing each year with a landmark hotel with the racetrack running through it and a marina where rich Gulf residents watch the race from aboard their docked private yachts.
                Abu Dhabi dreams of becoming the cultural oasis in the desert with the $30 billion project of Saadiyat Island that includes 29 hotels, three marinas, two golf courses, and exclusive housing for 150,000 people.  This development includes the Louvre and Guggenheim museums that are presently under construction and the completed Cultural Arts Center already hosting exhibits from around the world. 
                The one thing about Abu Dhabi is that the plan involves retaining the more traditional and religious population and customs of the country.  They are unwilling to sacrifice these things for tourism.  Advertising for Abu Dhabi tend to show Arab families in traditional dress engaged in traditional Arab activities and focuses on family.  Even though the ex-patriot community is evident everywhere you turn in Abu Dhabi, traditionalism and national pride are paramount.  Locals rarely step out in anything other than their national dress.  It is a sense of pride for the nationals and the drive to retain their culture. 

                Abu Dhabi is the legitimate business capital of the Emirates.  Many of the country’s largest corporations are based in Abu Dhabi. ADX, the Abu Dhabi Stock Exchange is located on Hamdan Street in downtown Abu Dhabi.   Mubadala, a government owned corporation with a mandate to facilitate the diversification of Abu Dhabi’s economy, is involved in development projects around the world.  HH Sheikh Mohamed  bin Zayed al Nahyan serves as its Chairman of the Board.   The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, which Sheikh Zayed set up to manage the emirate’s oil profits in 1976, now has an estimated more than $1 trillion invested in world markets.  With the Middle East known as a primary source of oil and capital, the Emirates have been very important to the growth and stability of the global economy.  And it all happens right here in Abu Dhabi!    The Arabs are smart, sophisticated, and well trained----and not to be underestimated.  They could just as well be working at Goldman Sachs or a powerful corporation in the US. 
                Abu Dhabi is truly amazing place to live and work.  I feel very privileged to live in the richest city in the world and watch this amazing plan unfold before my very eyes.  However, it is not so much about riches as it is about the quality of life.  People imagine the Arabs riding on camels and living in tents.  This day is long gone.  I hope the country continues to maintain its integrity and culture and meets its huge goals.  The city is larger than life and one of the most interesting places I have ever visited.  I have the luxury of living there!  How cool is that?, Mar 2007, "The Richest City in the World, Gimbel, Barney, Fortune Magazine.  

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