Abu Dhabi must continue to grow while holding on to its history

One of Abu Dhabi’s greatest challenges is to be a modern city and maintain its small-town spirit.

There are global brands (Carrefour, McDonald’s, Starbucks) no matter where you turn (malls, streets, hotels) in Abu Dhabi. But the emirate also offers independent coffee houses and locally owned shisha shops. The city is a full-on mix of modernity and history.

The challenge faced by the largest of the seven emirates is to bill itself as a first-class tourist destination while maintaining the charm that is attractive to tourists and locals as well as to expats who live in the capital city.

Emirati friends tell me they prefer Abu Dhabi. Dubai is not comfortable for them, they say. The numbers might explain some of what they are thinking.

According to the Dubai Government, as of 2016, less than 10 percent (9.4 percent) of Dubai residents are Emiratis. Locals numbered 233,430 (as of 2016), according to the Dubai Statistics Center; whereas non-Emiratis totalled 2,465,170. (Moreover, from 2014 to 2016, the number of Emiratis increased 10 percent, while the number of non-Emiratis increased 16 percent.) Also, the 90 percent of non-Emiratis is constantly changing, people are coming and going. The emirate is also the most crowded city in the country, yet the land mass of Dubai is less than 5 percent of the total land mass of the UAE. Abu Dhabi, on the other hand, which has a total population of 1.1 million people is 89 percent of the land mass of the country. More space, fewer people.

The philosophies that fuel the emirates are different. Dubai promotes itself to tourists and overseas real estate investors. It survives – and thrives – on its name. The power of Brand Dubai must carry overseas. The emirate needs visitors. It needs investors. Dubai is a vision.

Abu Dhabi, on the other hand, holds 94 percent of the UAE’s oil resources, according to the UAE Embassy in Washington website, which means it is in a very different position when it comes to sources of income.

Abu Dhabi’s challenge, however, is to keep alive the small-town spirit (that gives the emirate its personality for citizens and long-time residents), while growing into the tourist destination it desires.

One spot where that contrast comes into view is from the Sheikh Khalifa Bridge (also known as the Saadiyat Bridge). It offers a view that sets Abu Dhabi apart. At the peak of the bridge, there is a portrait of the UAE President with spotlights that keep it illuminated throughout the night. A kilometre or so beyond that to the north is the $100-million Louvre Abu Dhabi. Between the portrait and the Louvre, at 5.30am on Friday mornings, are men fishing off the bridge. It is a sight that makes you imagine what the city and the area must have been like before the 1,500m bridge was finished in 2009, and before construction of the Louvre Abu Dhabi began that same year. (It is scheduled to open in 2017).

It is this apparent juxtaposition that makes Abu Dhabi unique. There is an organic rhythm to the city. While Dubai is a city dependent upon outside influences for much of its character, Abu Dhabi’s personality comes through more as a natural progression, slowly, at its own pace.

A former colleague who is Emirati and lives in Abu Dhabi compares the two Emirates as follows: Dubai is a Ferrari, while Abu Dhabi is a Rolls-Royce.

Michael Jabri-Pickett Speechwriter • Editor • Journalist