Abu Dhabi: The waiter corrected us. The modern Aloft Hotel next to the Abu Dhabi National Exhbition Centre wasn’t built yesterday.
It actually opened three months ago. The rooftop bar where we were sitting, however, was finalized the week before.
Abu Dhabi might be one of the last places on earth where rampant construction and development rolls on. Although the local economy took a dip at the end of 2008, a recovery began toward the middle of last year and things seem to be back to close to full throttle.
Across the street, construction crews are putting the finishing touches on the Capitol Tower, a shiny new building that deliberately leans at eight degrees, and much of the grading for an additional 22 towers, seven hotels, and more convention center space next to it has begun. Walk to the other side of the rooftop deck and you can see a large condominium development, four towers and some cultural buildings in various states of completion.
Construction does not stop at night: the high pitched whirr of power tools can still be heard late into the evening. Across town, construction on the laboratory/residential towers for the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology is expected to be done toward the end of the year. Right now, the 88 students conduct their research at the nearby Petroleum Institute. It’s right near the local branch of the Sorbonne.
Branches of the Guggenheim and Louvre museums, a Warner Brothers theme park, Ferrari World, marinas, golf courses and several other neighborhood developments are identified on maps at u/c, or under construction.
How this plays out will be one of the more interesting experiments in nation building over the next few decades. Awash in money from its oil fields, the emirate has launched an ambitious plan to become a technical and financial center, sort of like a Singapore of the Middle East.
Dubai, of course, had a similar plan and is now wallowing in debt. The two emirates, however, differ. Dubai mostly concentrated on real estate and tourism. It built industrial parks for chip companies and software vendors but multinationals mostly put offices there to serve as regional sales offices. When the bust came, Abu Dhabi had to bail Dubai out.
Abu Dhabi, by contrast, is more serious about creating an environment where tech companies could, possibly, thrive. MIT helped the emirate create the Science and Technology Institute and advises the Institute on faculty hires and student admissions. The emirate, through its investment arm, has also purchased two fabrication facilities (in New York and Singapore) to help it better understand chipmaking and is actively recruiting companies to base R&D operations here. Ideally, if the ambition pans out, Abu Dhabi will have a greentech industrial hub located near some of the world’s major markets. Everyone I speak to here emphasizes that the whole Masdar Initiative is not some sort of intellectual status symbol: the government wants to diversify from fossil fuels.
The speed of the development, though, is where the chaos comes in. Not everything is fine-tuned yet. When I brushed my teeth in my brand spanking new hotel room on Day 1, my feet got wet. The drain hadn’t fully been sealed yet. The hot water was nonexistent: the faucet emitted air, sort of like an old shaving cream can. The building is powered by solar hot water and the system may not have been adequately sized.
Then there are only-in-the-Middle-East sort of touches. Like the love of hierarchy. At the World Future Energy Summit, there is a VIP entry and exit. It comes with a red carpet. Only people with a gold badge can go through those sliding doors. I accidentally almost went through the VIP exit at the end of the day. The security guard stopped me. I was one of the last people in the building and there was no one else around, well, except the bored guy at the INFORMATION-VIP ONLY booth waiting to give out literature. The security guard made me use the sliding door ten feet down. Meetings rarely start on time and when genuine VIPs are afoot, everything seems to stop.
In the city, traffic is often difficult and getting around can be made even more difficult by the fact that most drivers come from India or Pakistan. These are small quality of life issues, but they are the sort of thing that could prevent Westerners, needed to kick start a sustainable economy, from staying.
Then again, there’s a genuine desire to fix things fast. The next day, the sink was fixed and I had all the hot water I needed.