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Sun 20 Jun 2010 04:00 AM

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Capital gains

Companies must show commitment if they want to succeed in Abu Dhabi.

Capital gains
Capital gains

Companies must show commitment if they want to succeed in Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi has not escaped entirely unscathed from the economic downturn, in spite of the hype. However, a number of factors have left it in a stronger position than many of its peers. "The UAE has not been immune to the global downturn," said Stephen Embley, managing director - Middle East operations, Aukett Fitzroy Robinson (AFR). "However, Abu Dhabi is well placed for economic recovery, with over 100 years of oil reserves, a balanced economy and enlightened leadership," he added.

"Leading this recovery has been government investment in ‘social infrastructure', so healthcare, hospitals, education, universities, and key worker and Emirati accommodation. Hospitality and cultural investment remains strong but luxury residential and retail developments are suffering from over supply and competition from the Dubai market," he detailed.

AFR was one of the first design practices to establish a presence in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the 1970s and 80s, and was responsible for a number of iconic projects at the time, including The Arab Monetary Fund and the Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed office buildings on the Corniche, which appear on the AED 1,000 bank note. After some time away, the company returned to Abu Dhabi in 2007 and was responsible for the architecture and interior design of the Radission Blu and Park Inn hotels on Yas Island.

AFR has offices throughout Europe, with ‘hubs' in London, Moscow and, now, Abu Dhabi. "Strategically, we believe the global economic and cultural centre of gravity is moving eastwards. Abu Dhabi's position as a bridge between east and west is significant, being only six hours travel time to 100 global capital cities," said Embley.

US-headquartered design firm RW Armstrong is also convinced of Abu Dhabi's potential. "We came to the Middle East in about 2005. Our president is of Middle Eastern origin and he wanted to come back to this part of the world and try to be part of the growth," said Mona Salem, senior associate and programmes director, RW Armstrong.

"When we moved to this region, our president saw that the opportunity was in Abu Dhabi. Even though everybody was in Dubai, he decided to start with Abu Dhabi, and I think that was a good move," she continued. "We started looking at opportunities and then in 2006 we won our first project, which was lead consultancy for the Sorouh Sky Tower project. Since that time, we've grown from an office of about three people in the Middle East to nearly 250 people."

According to Salem, it is this level of commitment that has guaranteed the company's success in the UAE capital. "Our philosophy and strategy for growth, whether in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world, is to grow locally. We don't go into a place and just have one person working out of a suitcase. We actually establish roots; we give back to the community."

Embley reiterated the need for long-term commitment, but also highlighted the challenging nature of the market. "The expectation of world-class design, combined with competitive fee levels, payment periods and aggressive programmes, will test the best in the world. Accept to be here for the long term, investing in the local economy and society. Respect the rich local culture and values and promote a synergy between the best of Emirati and western culture, design and enthusiasm for the future," he suggested.
According to Embley, Abu Dhabi boasts world-class interior design in certain sectors, but is lagging in others. "In the hospitality, retail and residential market, Abu Dhabi's interior design offering is truly world-class and competitive. Commercial offices and workplaces currently lack the sophistication of western markets in relation to the integration of new working practices, empowerment culture and IT integration," he suggested.

For British artist Kevin Dean, Abu Dhabi has presented great opportunity for creative expression. Dean, who is celebrated for his floral designs, was involved in the design of the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Grand Mosque. "I was asked to provide some impressions of what the main courtyard or sahan floor might look like.

"Sheikh Sultan had already put down some quick ideas on paper, which was very helpful. I was surprised to be given so much freedom but Sheikh Sultan was interested in moving away from traditional Islamic pattern in favour of more free-flowing floral designs. Once my concept was approved I was then asked to design internal marble floors and the relief marble decoration on most of the external archways," Dean detailed.

Following on from this experience, Dean is currently working on a range of floral designs inspired by the Middle East, which will be featured on wallcoverings, rugs and china. The Oasis Collection is due to be launched at the end of 2011.

"In the same way that the UAE has undergone enormous growth, so too has the nation's design industry. In the malls, of course, you can find many of the big international brands in interior design products and furnishings," Dean explained.

"I think it is only a matter of time before even more indigenous design begins to take centre stage, particularly in the homeware and furnishing stores. I am currently developing a collection of wallpapers and textiles that uses floral motifs from the region. I'm not from the Emirates but that's the sort of thing I mean - using local elements to reflect the country's culture."

Dean's impressions of the UAE capital are overwhelmingly positive. "I love Abu Dhabi; the people are so charming and helpful. Every time I return I'm astonished to see how the city has developed even more. It is hard to imagine that 40 or 50 years ago Abu Dhabi was a small fishing village."