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Sun 3 Jun 2007 12:00 AM

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Abu Dhabi’s final frontier

Tamara Walid joins council leader Mohammed Al Mazrouei, as he reveals his plans for the Western Region.

We need much better air, sea and road transport systems... The medical industries should be given top priority... The high prices of the FMCG and construction products are a major concern to the residents and small investors... Unemployment is a major problem... There are no good schools..."

These are only some of the concerns voiced by the residents of the Western Region of Abu Dhabi in a passionate and enthralling debate. We are 160km West of the UAE capital on Delma, a 10km long island from North to South and 5km long from East to West, but that doesn't make the problems any smaller. This is the last stop of seven.

Within a three-year period, there should be a proper school in Madinat Zayed, good comparable health services, and a social centre with a shopping mall, club, and library.

Women and men, young and old, laid their troubles out in front of the Western Region Development Council (WRDC) during a road trip and a protocol-defying event where residents of each city in the region were given the chance to voice their concerns and opinions for the first time.

"Small investors should be given a fair opportunity in investing in Delma Island. Big investors are monopolising the market. Elementary students exam centres should be opened in Delma as it is not fair that our children go to Dubai to be tested," one exclaims.

"Our kids are born on this island and they are 18 and 20 years old and they still don't have citizenship," says another.

"Pollution is a big problem due to the oil reservations. It is very high in Madinat Zayed and Ghayathi cities. People have mainly migrated because of this issue." Their voices rise as the debate heats up.

The WRDC council, which was established by a decree on May 2006 and activated by assigning a director general and advisory board members on September 2006, is set to act as a link between the residents and the relevant government authorities to ensure their concerns are heard and that action is taken.

The Western Region, which comprises 83% of the entire area of Abu Dhabi, has now gained the attention of the government after it pinpointed several problems in the region, including the migration of a considerable number of residents to the centre of Abu Dhabi. Mohammed Hamad Azzan Al Mazrouei, the director general of WRDC - who was born and raised in the region - says he was forced to leave his home in the region as work opportunities were scarce. Change, however, is on the way as Al Mazrouei explains that the initiative to develop the Western Region stems right from the top, with the President of the UAE, HH Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan acting as the main supporters of the masterplan.

"The leadership said: ‘Why are they [residents of the Western Region] moving out? They should be at their base and they should build on the region because they live there and know the region very well.' They [the leadership] identified a problem with the services provided in the region, and realised they are not up to the standard of the rest of the emirate of Abu Dhabi, and decided to build on this," says Al Mazrouei.

We have a very special region. We have all the elements... You go to places like the Bahamas, or the Seychelles, but we have even better beaches.

The WRDC's plan for the region consists of four main targets: Improving the quality of life for the residents of the Western Region, creating better infrastructure, and increasing business efficiency and investment in the private and public sectors, in addition to marketing and promoting the region.

While the WRDC is pushing to focus on developing all seven main parts of the region, more projects are expected to be developed in some areas than other. The seven cities, or what Al Mazrouei says are more of a ‘hybrid between a city and a town', include Liwa, Madinat Zayed - the administration centre of the Western Region, Gayathi, Sila, Ruwais, Mirfaa and Delma. Each city will be developed in a different manner depending on existing industries and the nature of the cities.

"Ruwais is more of an industrial city. Madinat Zayed more of an administration centre where people will have their headquarters. Authorities and entities in Abu Dhabi will have their quarters in Madinat Zayed. Gayathi and the smaller villages next to it will be basically housing complexes," says Al Mazrouei.

Although an exact figure for investment in the region so far has not been disclosed, Al Mazrouei says a minimum investment of US$8.16bn has been made. He adds that the ‘leadership' is very committed to the region and that many entities are working together on this development.

"For instance, the Abu Dhabi Department of Tourism at the moment is doing a project which will cost them almost US$3.13bn in the region. There are also a couple of industrial projects mainly in Ruwais and also housing complexes, and I'm talking about huge housing projects in the range of 700 units, 22 buildings in each complex," he says.

Plans to build housing complexes span areas like Madinat Zayed, Gayathi, and Sila and will house at least 700 in each part of the region. In Liwa, Qasr Al Sarab, a five-star retreat in the desert crossing the Empty Quarter and seven kilometres from the closest highway, will be built.

Qasr Al Sarab and the complexes are only some of the biggest projects announced for the region. Other projects include the Desert Islands, an aluminium smelter in Ruwais, the expansion of Burooj 2 (a petrochemical industrial factory in Ruwais), and a municipality base in the WRDC buildings in Madinat Zayed.

Whereas 87% of the industries in the Western Region are oil and gas-based, the WRDC is looking, through its development plan, to diversify the projects rather than focusing entirely on industry.

"You can see Ruwais being more of an industrial zone hub but we need to add some housing, entrepreneurship, tourism, and social - just a good mix to make it work," says Al Mazrouei.

There are "simple but fundamental things" that need to be improved in the region, says Al Mazrouei, such as building better roads, providing better medical facilities and education, as well as creating wider business and career opportunities.

Al Mazrouei also notes that while change is happening all over Abu Dhabi, the Western Region will not be left behind. Neither will the development of the region, he adds, be achieved by copying Abu Dhabi's initiatives.

As for why the region was left undeveloped up to this point, Al Mazrouei answers: "Undeveloped is not a very accurate word to describe this. It was more of giving Abu Dhabi the priority on the sphere instead of putting everything all together. We have a challenge in the Western Region. Basically, we have 83% of Abu Dhabi where we have less than 10% of the population, so money or funding will always follow the population. That's why it was kept sort of a low-burner in the Western Region, and Abu Dhabi was developed more."

In terms of challenges facing the council, Al Mazrouei says there is a serious lack of basic necessities in different areas of the region. It is not that the services are not there, but when compared to Abu Dhabi they are "way below" that standard. This needs to be changed and change is already happening, he adds.

"They've awarded design of the roads a couple of weeks ago from Mufraq all the way to Sila. These are the main problems we are looking to solve basically: healthcare, education, improving the infrastructure and the social life of the people. At the moment there is no decent restaurant at Madinat Zayed to go and have a meal if you want to," he says.

It is not that people can't afford to go out and dine in a good restaurant, if there were one, but the case of the matter is that there is no demand due to the nature of the culture. "They're Bedouins and it's very unlikely that they will go out for dinner. If we bring in a mixture of population; expats, people who come to work, we have to provide these choices and they should be granted even before they think of coming to the Western Region," says Al Mazrouei.

As to whether the ongoing developments and planned projects will succeed in luring people to the region, considering it's an hour and half drive from the centre of Abu Dhabi, Al Mazrouei is very optimistic saying: "I'm 100% sure we have what it takes to make people move from Abu Dhabi to the Western Region in another five to ten years." He adds that if the region presented good education, good healthcare and a good social life, he will be one of the first movers. "We have to solve the cause of the problem before going into the problem. There is no housing there, no decent hotels in Madinat Zayed to stay in," he says.

When it comes to housing, different projects are on the agenda. The complexes will be mainly public houses for UAE nationals. For expatriates, negotiations are underway at the moment between the council and various potential investors looking to come and invest in the region.

"I look at those investors, basically the strategic partners, our private sector, to come and cater to the expatriate community and locals who don't have a house for instance in Madinat Zayed or the Western Region and want to live but who are not entitled to get a house," he says.

Prices of such property, Al Mazrouei says, are greatly dependent on supply and demand. At the moment, demand is much higher than supply. The WRDC team itself is waiting to move to the Western Region's admin centre, Madinat Zayed, which will become the council's headquarters, and by then Al Mazrouei expects investors to offer choices for accommodation. The move, he expects, should happen in three years' time. "Within a three-year period, there should be a proper school in Madinat Zayed, good comparable health services, and sort of a social centre like a shopping mall, club, and library," he says.

At the moment, the council has an approved project in which a private investor will build a five-star hotel, cinema, shopping mall and leisure club in Madinat Zayed. Al Mazrouei believes development is moving in the right direction, particularly because the council is establishing the right partnerships with the private sector.

"We are getting so many inquiries from investors about the Western Region and whether you could get a piece of land to build a complex, factories, and some of the general support services that provide support to the oil industry. All of this, I think with the right procedures and formalities we should get a lot done in the Western Region," he says.

As housing is one of the biggest problems in the region, the council is currently working with the municipal council in the region to solve the issue. With the establishment of any new entity, however, comes a number of challenges, says Al Mazrouei. At present the council is setting a strategy for the development of the region in phases spanning the next five, 10, 15 and 20 years.

It is also preparing to present the five-year strategy to the executive council very soon, but progress has been great so far, according to Al Mazrouei. "We have been hiring very good people and we are putting the strategy for the Western Region, which will be endorsed by all of the major stakeholders, all the major entities within Abu Dhabi, to help in the development," he says.

The development of the region, Al Mazrouei believes, is an opportunity for the rest of Abu Dhabi and is open to whoever will grab it first. "If you are the first mover into something you'll have the advantage of being a first mover," he says, adding that Abu Dhabi is leading this initiative. He believes the ongoing rapid development in Abu Dhabi is only "the tip of the iceberg" and that the next five years are going to present such big initiatives, that demand for other regions to join in will increase dramatically.

"We have a very special region. We have all the elements; the beaches, sand dunes, the space, the geographical aspect where we cover different areas of Abu Dhabi, but I think we are in a better position to accept all those development plans in the region," he says, adding: "If we advertise the Western Region as being the hub for business I expect that some of the people in Abu Dhabi at the moment who are experiencing high living costs will come here and relocate."

Asked whether unspoiled beaches and the numerous natural habitats available in the region will be turned into tourism attractions brimming with choices of hotels and resorts, Al Mazrouei says: "What they are doing here is putting nature first so they are not going to affect any of the natural habitats. Whatever they do they will try to use as many alternative sources of energy as possible."

Even though tourism-focused projects are in the pipeline for islands belonging to the Western Region like Sir Bani Yas, which is going to be entirely developed, solar panels and wind turbines are going to be put to utmost use to generate energy on the islands. "You go to places like the Bahamas, or the Seychelles, but we have even better beaches. And those people just clicked and they're bringing this here," he says.

In five years' time, Al Mazrouei expects people to be able to get a room at the weekend, kick back and relax in Marsa Jebel Dhanna, go to Sir Bani Yas Island if they have a taste for wildlife, or just relax on their choice of beach. For the smaller islands, exclusive island resort projects, or what are expected to become the ‘Maldives of the Emirates', are planned with sea ferries and planes transporting guests.

Although the council has been operating for only eight months, it has been able to achieve a lot, starting with determining problems faced by the residents of the region, getting in touch with the right authorities to solve them, negotiating with investors to tap into the region, and beginning the execution of development projects. Al Mazrouei's optimism for the future might well be justified after all.

In numbers: the Western Region

• The Western Region covers 83% (59,760 sq km) of the total area of the emirate of Abu Dhabi (72,000 sq km);

• The Western Region generates an estimated 34% (approximately US$15.5bn) of Abu Dhabi's GDP (approximately US$45.6bn);

• The Western Region is home to an estimated 10% (120,000) of Abu Dhabi's population (1.2m);

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