As the global economy imploded — taking Dubai along with it — Abu Dhabi stood almost alone as a place on Earth that was still financially healthy. The financial system, that lubricant of international business, just about nearly ground to a halt but Abu Dhabi was spending cash building whole new cities: a cultural district and new financial center, an island dedicated solely to tourism and amusement.
But since then we’ve seen signs that perhaps the emirate got a little ahead of itself, forgetting the painful lessons taught to Dubai just up the road. Some of the retrenchment and reprioritization is good. In my view, there seemed to be too much focus on high-end housing (despite a chronic need for decent middle-class housing in the emirate) and luxury everything, regardless if that was where the demand would come from. My latest story, this time for Architectural Record, looks at how the latest cutbacks are affecting the design and construction businesses which had regarded Abu Dhabi as a bright spot in troubled economic times.
I don’t agree with the headline — clearly, Abu Dhabi is in no danger of running out of cash any time soon — but the comments to the story offer additional insight into what it’s like working there.
By Angela Shah
Eighteen months ago, Ross Ensor at Leo A Daly described the business climate in Abu Dhabi as “a bit like the California Gold Rush.” Backed by oil prices at relatively high levels, the capital of the United Arab Emirates had embarked on an ambitious program of new developments, a rare bright spot as the rest of the world dealt with a crushing recession.
Today, however, with the global economy still weak and political unrest sweeping the Arab world, the mood here is subdued. “What a difference a year makes,” says Ensor, a vice president with the Nebraska-based design firm, which has an office in the Persian Gulf emirate. “Things have certainly slowed down.”
Most significantly, Abu Dhabi announced in October that the marquee projects in its $27 billion Saadiyat Island development, slated to be the emirate’s cultural hub, were stalled. Three flagship museums—branches of the Louvre (by Jean Nouvel) and Guggenheim (by Frank Gehry), along with the Zayed National Museum (by Foster + Partners)—would no longer open between 2013 and 2014, and could be delayed up to five years. Gehry told a Bloomberg reporter in October that construction had come to a halt. “The Abu Dhabi building we’ve been working on in the last five to six years has been stopped, and that’s painful,” he stated.