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Sat 12 May 2007 12:00 AM

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Waking up the sleeping giant

Monika Grzesik reports on the UAE capital's efforts to think long term on development.

Development in Abu Dhabi may have got off to a slower start than in Dubai, but its approach so far has been mindful of some of the issues that can arise from fast-paced construction, such as problems with infrastructure, as well as of sustainability, which would not only create more environmentally conscious structures but would also help the UAE capital conserve finite energy resources.

Currently, the emirate has an estimated US $270 billion (AED991 billion) worth of projects under construction, while around $164 billion has been committed to projects over the next five years alone.

With this in mind, it seems unavoidable to compare the development taking place in Abu Dhabi with that of its neighbour Dubai, which isn't showing much sign of a slowdown.

Recently cited by Fortune magazine as being the richest city in the world, with around 9.2% of the world's oil reserves and a per capita income of $46,185, Abu Dhabi has

taken longer to diversify its economy away from oil and encourage development and local investment.

But with the recent liberalisation of property ownership laws, and real estate now booming, is Abu Dhabi on a mission to emulate the headline grabbing success of Dubai, or does the development taking place have a different aim?

According to Phil Edmonson, general manager of project management firm Edara, around 80% of the funding towards Abu Dhabi's growth comes from local investors, who are taking a careful approach towards the way they spend their money.

"In Abu Dhabi, they have to deal with things a bit differently than they do in Dubai," he said.

"In Dubai it's more about external investment, whereas in Abu Dhabi it's the opposite - more local than external money is being invested. Clients in Abu Dhabi are considering things very carefully as they have to think about infrastructure when they're building their projects."

The emphasis on installing all elements of infrastructure before projects get underway was further endorsed earlier this week with the release of a comprehensive urban planning and development initiative by the Executive Affairs Authority.

Colin Hill, technical director of engineering and architectural consultancy OTAK in Abu Dhabi, said that the initiative would avoid some of the problems being experienced in Dubai, such as delays in connecting projects up to utilities systems.

"There is a concerted, measured approach to issues such as transportation and utilities, ensuring that suitable infrastructure is in place before the developments come on line; then they are able to serve these developments properly."

Hill added that there is a great deal to be learnt from the magnitude and short timeframe for developments and that Abu Dhabi seems to be approaching the issues in a sensible and considered manner.

"It's about ensuring that the infrastructure is planned and structured, rather than addressing the issues afterwards and then trying to get supply and connections systems set up after the event. There's more investment and forward planning at the conceptual level.

"We want development as much as Dubai does, but in Abu Dhabi they believe that developments can be integrated into the existing systems with minimal impact and maximum value if it is properly scheduled and planned for."

While Dubai hits the headlines for its attention grabbing architecture and its constant attempts to build bigger and taller, Abu Dhabi has been in the spotlight for a different reason. In a region that has been singled out as one of the highest emitters per capita of carbon monoxide and greenhouse gases in the world, the Abu Dhabi government sees investment in alternative energy resources as crucial.

Despite being one of the world's largest oil-producers, the emirate is seeking to prove that it is taking energy and climate issues seriously and is ploughing millions of dollars into alternative energy solutions.

The Masdar Initiative, a landmark program in sustainable energy, is driving the adoption of advanced solar technologies in the UAE with a number of projects including the construction of a $350 million, 100MW solar power plant, in partnership with the Abu Dhabi Power and Water Authority; the first of its kind in the Gulf.

"There is a real move towards sustainability in Abu Dhabi," said Joel Guyomard, technical director of solar energy company, Nashwan.

"Abu Dhabi works differently to Dubai. It has created a government agency in charge of making investments in renewable energy. It is very interested in research before spending the money. In two months I have had three huge contracts in Abu Dhabi, but in Dubai no one is interested."

Developers in Abu Dhabi also appear to be more mindful of the impact that mass construction could have on the ecosystem.

"The environmental issues in Abu Dhabi have always been considered compared to other places," said Sami Al Qazzaz, manager, Halcrow Abu Dhabi.

"Every project has to go through the environmental agency procedures and planning, both at the design and construction stage. I think a number of the developers are thinking about sustainability, which is the key thing we have to ensure," he added.

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