ABU DHAHBI -- Abu Dhabi the city is marked by a mass of tall steel and glass by lovely aqua and blue water. The emirate, which bears the same name, is embarking on a frenzied effort to plant luxury hotels, arts and cultural centers and a new city built from scratch that the government hopes will attract greentech companies and run only on renewable energy.
Before the hubbub of the three-day World Future Energy Summit began on Monday, I got a few hours of free time to look around downtown Abu Dhabi, which is part of the emirate of Abu Dhabi.
The city of Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates, a collection of seven states. The emirate of Abu Dhabi not only is the largest in the federation covering 67,340 kilometer squares, also has the most oil reserves in the UAE. The city of Abu Dhabi, which is an island, is roughly 8 kilometers wide and 40 kilometers long.
Coming from California, where water and land management policies over the past century have shuffled resources around to create fertile farmland in the desert, I can understand Abu Dhabi leaders' urge to transform their desert. Before oil was discovered in the 1950s, Abu Dhabi was a fishing village where people lived mostly in mud huts.
Abu Dhabi embraces all things new and grand. When I asked my hotel's concierge for places to visit, he told me to check out a mall and a $3 billion hotel built by the government.
The Marina Mall looks like a typical mall in the United States. It has an Ikea, a Starbucks, a food court and a movie theater. It wasn't crowded on a Sunday (Friday and Saturday make up the weekend in Abu Dhabi). Some of the female shoppers were in burkas. There is a tower with a viewing platform for those who want see Abu Dhabi from a higher ground.
The Emirate Palace Hotel is ornate and beautiful, and it sits on fine, white sand by a beach.
I wanted to walk around the city, especially since the weather was so sunny, so I headed to the Al Hosn Palace. The palace was built in the mid-18th century first as a watchtower to guard a freshwater well. It became a fort, and was later turned into the home for the ruling family in the late 18th century, and is the oldest building in the c ity. My taxi driver didn't know where it was, even though it sits smack at the intersection of high rises in downtown.
Subsequent rulers expanded the palace. It's now under renovation and is set to be part of a large new complex for housing the UAE's history.
Abu Dhabi's leaders are eager to build up the city and the surrounding area. In government-produced media kits, you will learn that the city plans to increase its hotel rooms from 10,000 to 25,000 by 2015. Frank Gehry is building a Guggenheim museum here, and the Louvre museum is erecting a saucer-shaped branch. Abu Dhabi is expanding its airport and building new offices and homes around its convention center. Obviously, the image Abu Dhabi wants to project to the world is luxury.
A city of nearly one million inhabitants, mostly immigrants from countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines, means not everyone can live the high life. Downtown Abu Dhabi also is a working city of ethnic businesses (food and goods) and tiny neighborhood grocery shops. There is the Yugoslavian Furniture and quite a few Chinese restaurants. American cuisines also are available: Popeyes, Carl's Jr., McDonald's and Texas Chicken.
As you drive out of downtown, you then come across neighborhoods of two- or three-story buildings and more open space. After you leave the island city by one of the two bridges, then it's wide open country.
The government has spared no expense on beautifying its downtown, a strip of high-rise hotels and office buildings that runs along the northwest-facing waterfront. Lush lawns and flowerbeds flank the boulevards. A pedestrian walkway and parks run along the edge of the water, which looks as clear, warm and inviting as what you would find in the Caribbean.
The city also is plagued by traffic congestion. The first new bus system started running only last summer. Abu Dhabi needs a good transit system to go with the growth. The government is working on it, particularly when it has announced to the world an ambitious project to build a city from scratch that will be run on renewable energy only and house greentech companies from around the world.
The $22 billion project, called Masdar City, sounds very impressive. A city occupying roughly 6.5 square kilometers is supposed to rise out of the desert just outside of the city of Abu Dhabi. Cars will be banned inside Masdar City, and its residents and workers will take public transport to move within the city and to get to Abu Dhabi.
There isn't much on the land dedicated for Masdar City now. I toured the project site after my own walking tour. The government brought busloads of reporters to visit the space, and we passed by vast tracks of vacant land and construction equipment erecting more tall buildings as we left the city of Abu Dhabi.
We visited the location of Masdar City's first, 10-megawatt solar energy system and listened to Masdar officials outlining their dreams in front of the sandy, brush-strewn landscape. Abu Dhabi hopes to finish building the city in 2016. The first tenant, the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, plans to move in this fall.
It's impressive to see a government undertaking a massive project that it hopes will bring economic and environmental benefits. That's the idea behind President Obama's own grand plan to boost the economy by supporting renewable energy and policies that would create new jobs. It's too early to tell if either effort will find success.
In the meantime, the oil wealth is keeping Abu Dhabi busy with other projects to remake itself. At first glance, it's easier to imagine Abu Dhabi's future than it is to understand its past.