Abu Dhabi, UAE

Abu Dhabi, UAE

Olivia Duncan and Sonny Tomic

The land where the United Arab Emirates lies today is in a geographical location which contributes to its high temperatures, its challenging desert climate, as well as its inhospitable and desolate terrain. At the same time, the very same location provides for abundant petroleum and natural gas reservoirs which have been blessing the country – and more specifically, in relation to the UAE’s capital city of Abu Dhabi, with the means to provide for a better future for its people and future generations. A society burdened by such a harsh climate and sterile land developed sophisticated survival skills through ephemeral architecture and its connection to the water. The nomadic nature of the Bedouins, and the need to deal with the extreme heat and high humidity levels, informed a specific quality of shelter, one that needs to deal with controlling the micro-climate while serving the community’s needs. ‘In less than one lifetime, the Gulf has transformed from one of the most disengaged parts of the world to a strategic fracture point of globalization in a regional context.’1


7.1 Map of Abu Dhabi in context of the Persian Gulf

Abu Dhabi is becoming a fascinating amalgam of thresholds. Successive tensions between its historic, economic, political, cultural, social and technological thresholds in the last 50 years have created the ever-evolving experience of the contemporary Abu Dhabi. This evolution was carefully shaped by inspired political leadership who channeled large sums of investment into culture and building infrastructure, while also embracing globalization as a means to modify cultural traditions in a non-threatening way, and sharing the newly found wealth with the native society.

Informal coastal settlements and traditional Gulf architecture, composed of vernacular use of temporary available materials, were unable to provide for the new demands of a modernizing city – and currently a globalizing city. A fascination for progress and development in such a barren land is not only understandable, but also predictable. This dramatic shift affected Abu Dhabi’s urban design and architecture in many ways. This is clearly represented in the introduction of a rigid street grid with oversized boulevards and superblocks and the imported Modernist approach to urban development which demanded building designs that carried ‘Brutalist’ characteristics, expressed as modest-sized concrete blocks. The 1980s and 1990s brought Islamic ornamentation to the concrete boxes as well as into the more recent glass curtain facades. The first decade of the 21st century embraced gargantuan architectural and urban scale in Abu Dhabi, introducing the currently accepted ‘hyper-modernism’ direction into built form in the city.

This chapter investigates the particularities and ways in which these dynamic inter-relationships, which can be seen as urban ‘thresholds’, have impacted upon Abu Dhabi’s physical evolution. Particular interest will be shown in discovering how forces of globalism influenced changes in the traditional delineation of social space, the private versus the public, and the introduction of pseudo-traditional Islamic principles in urban design and architecture.


The bleakness of the land compelled local Bedouin tribesmen to explore the sea and its resources. Western descriptions both from the early- and late-20th century evoked the natural setting in which settlers had to deal with in the region. One wrote: ‘The coast of the Arabian [Persian] Gulf presents remarkable peculiarity in possessing from one end to the other a series of creeks, lagoons and backwaters without which its barren and desolate terrain would barely have been habitable.’2 Abu Dhabi Island served essentially as an ephemeral site for shelter, supporting the fishing and pearl-diving activities performed by nomadic people travelling from the mainland: ‘For centuries they had to fight against the privations of a land that barely provided the means of subsistence, and their lives revolved around the presence or absence of water.’3 Then, according to Bedouin tradition, one tribe’s leader happened to find a fresh-water spring after crossing over to the island to hunt a particular gazelle. It seems that the gazelle stood on the very spring of fresh water which was to become the basis of the settlement. This availability of water attracted other nomadic people, and it is believed that the first proper settlement of Abu Dhabi dates back to 1761; at that point, it consisted of 20 barasti huts built of palm fronds on timber frames. Sheikh Dhiyab bin Isa led his people from their home in Liwa to this area, which became known as Abu Dhabi, meaning ‘father of gazelle’.4

Historical evidence about the early settlement of Abu Dhabi Island was most likely kept alive by oral traditions and legends among the local population. As is described by the Centre for Documentation and Research, Sheikh Dhiyab founded the coastal settlement but he himself remained in the area between the island and the inland oases of Liwa and Buraimi, leading the Al Bu Falah section of the Beni Yas tribe.5 According to Trench, the earliest inhabitants of the Abu Dhabi settlement relied almost entirely on fishing and pearl diving as there were no traces of ordinary crop cultivation and very few date palms. He also suggests that even after the arrival of foreign presence due to European colonial intervention in the Gulf region, development was uncommon: ‘… the anchorage for large vessels is totally unsheltered and lies more than two miles from the shore.’6

The need for each Bedouin tribe to control and cater for its own water supply and livestock perpetuated the erection of watchtowers and forts: ‘It is presumed that the round tower [Qasr al Hosn] which still exists today, is probably the remnant of the earliest-known structure built by the Al Bu Falah Sheikh during the first settlement of Abu Dhabi.’7 Within a couple of years after being founded, the settlement of Abu Dhabi had expanded to 400 barastis, and its population continued to increase thereafter. The watchtower of Qasr al Hosn was most likely erected at the end of the 18th century, this also being period in which the Beni Yas tribe recognised Abu Dhabi Island as its capital. During its early days, the fort stood ‘among a few crumbling houses built of coral and a hundred or so palm frond huts’. Abu Dhabi was described by one contemporary English commentator as:

A coastal town of about 6,000 inhabitants. There is a fort, and the houses are mostly built of date matting though some are of masonry. There is a small bazaar, and a poor anchorage. The water supply is from pits and wells, and is not very good. The supplies are particularly nil. There is usually no cultivation, and there are very few dates. Small quantities of cloth, rice, coffee and sugar are imported. There are about 750 camels and 65 horses.8

Throughout the 19th century, the Bedouin desert tribe continuously enjoyed access to the rich pearl beds of the Gulf coast, which helped the further evolution of Abu Dhabi as an emerging coastal town. Parallel to this flourishing of the city was of course the British presence. Britain had an imperial interest in India and it was also in her interest to protect the maritime area of the Gulf region and peace was necessary for business. As is highlighted by Muhammad Abdullah, ‘Abu Dhabi’s economic interests laid mainly in the date groves at Liwa and in the pearl fisheries around Dalma Island, far from the navigation channel of the Gulf, therefore the Beni Yas had no conflict with the British at sea.’9 The tiny sheikhdoms sparsely inhabited the southern shores of the Gulf Coast and for a long time were known as the ‘Trucial States’ due to the maritime truce drawn up between these tribes and the British Empire in the late-19th century. It was an arrangement that helped the city to prosper:

Abu Dhabi developed around the Qasr al Hosn and local construction material was used to build the surrounding housing areas. Ihilati and Ibarastii were the typical architectural styles used to build the dwellings which consisted of local materials such as clay, coral, sandstone, sea stone, palm trees and wooden pillars connected together with ropes.10

Later on, Abu Dhabi’s pearl trade was devastated by the marketing of Japanese cultured pearls at a fraction of the cost of Gulf pearls. This situation, combined with the worldwide economic depression of the 1930s, had a disastrous effect on the town’s commerce.11 However, a dramatic turnaround for Abu Dhabi soon came with the discovery of a more precious resource: petroleum. ‘The discovery of oil and the signing of concession agreements initiated a process that would transform what was in essence a provincial backwater, a collection of mud huts, into a recognisable urban entity.’12

In 1953, Abu Dhabi Marine Areas Ltd obtained offshore oil concessions, resulting in substantial royalty payments. Following Abu Dhabi’s first oil exports in 1962, Sheikh Shakhbout – who was then the leader of the tribes in the local area – started developing social conditions in a progressive manner. A municipal department was established in Abu Dhabi with the responsibility for improving living conditions and ensuring provision of drinkable water supplies and accessible public health services. In the same year, Halcrow & Company (a well-known British consultancy firm, today known as Halcrow Group) was commissioned to produce a master-plan for the city’s urban transformation. As described by Yasser Elsheshtawy, this master-plan included a series of north-facing buildings, a new road network, and the provision to raise the existing ground level through dredging and land reclamation.13 The plan also proposed the demolition of all existing buildings except for Qasr al Hosn, two water distillation plants, a few schools, and a power station.14 Nonetheless, despite these ambitious large-scale proposals, it was also evident that Sheikh Shakhbout was resistant to the idea of Abu Dhabi becoming a modern state, as he was still in favour of preserving a traditional lifestyle. He refused, for example, ‘to generate electricity, with the exception of the palace which was lit using a portable electrical generator.’15

In contrast to Sheikh Shakhbout’s reluctance to transform the island town into a dynamic modern metropolis, the accession to power of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan in 1966 altered and improved the urban development process. His leadership also brought political tranquillity and pride to the new nation to-be: ‘Sheikh Zayed’s known achievements in Abu Dhabi, his generosity to the other emirates, together with his outstanding personal qualities, made him a popular figure and an obvious leader.’16 Mohammed Al-Fahim further described the leader: ‘Sheikh Zayed’s name was known by everyone, his reputation as a fair and generous man was equally widespread. He was a fiercely patriotic man who loved his country and its people above all else.’17 In addition, ‘Sheikh Zayed strongly believed that the revenues that were being generated as a result of the oil royalties should be used to develop Abu Dhabi and to assist the native population.’18

In 1968, during this period of internal political transition and the rapid development of the city, the Gulf States experienced the withdrawal of the British presence due to the latter’s economic pressures back home.19 As was pointed out, ‘British withdrawal from the Trucial States meant the latter would be left without the umbrella of protection that had guarded the coastal area against external aggressors since 1892.’20 Concerned about possible conflicts with neighbouring countries, Sheikh Zayed was convinced of the advantages of pursuing the unification of the surrounding sheikdoms, although he had to overcome natural resistance and scepticism from the other ruling sheikhs. Ultimately, in 1971, the formation of the political union known as the United Arab Emirates was achieved – made possible by Sheikh Zayed’s vision of a unified country, as well as encouragement from Britain. The city of Abu Dhabi, now established as the capital of the UAE, expanded within its isosceles-triangle-shaped island situated just off the coast at 24° north, 54° east. The city’s urban palette continued to extend towards the mainland and onto surrounding islands, the latter consisting usually of geometrically-shaped pieces of land reclaimed from the sea. Today the Abu Dhabi Emirate is the largest of the seven Emirate states, since it includes Abu Dhabi Island and numerous smaller islands nearby along with regions to the west and east on the mainland: altogether it constitutes 87 per cent of the UAE’s total land area.21


7.2 Sheikh Zayed poster in Abu Dhabi central business district (CBD)

Concomitantly, Abu Dhabi underwent major urban change, with local inhabitants being asked to move from their traditional housing into newly constructed homes. Buildings from the early days of the settlement were demolished, as had been recommended by the initial Halcrow plan, and the city was re-zoned yielding to modernity. Government compensation was given to those families who had to be relocated, and the sum each family was paid to abandon its old dwelling was sufficient to build a new abode as well as set up businesses with the remaining funds.22 Al-Fahim describes his childhood in the city at that time:


7.3 Abu Dhabi Island

In five years the metamorphosis of Abu Dhabi occurred at lightning speed … While it took most countries decades to develop communications and transportation systems for example, we did so in a very short time. We had electricity by 1967, phones in 1972. Wherever we turned to, something was under construction – government buildings, homes, roads, telephone lines.23

Around the same time, the Egyptian engineer Abdul Rahman Makhlouf was invited by Sheikh Zayed to continue the plan proposed by Halcrow & Company. To achieve this goal, Makhlouf was appointed as Director of the Town Planning Department of the Abu Dhabi Emirate from 1968–1976, making him responsible for the planning of both Abu Dhabi and Al Ain. His scope included deciding on the locations of key buildings, marketplaces, and the infrastructure for the city.24 Makhlouf also introduced the concept of the ‘national house’, which aimed to aid the Bedouin citizens adapt to urban life. As described by Elsheshtawy, ‘the house consisted of a large one-storey structure of concrete blocks with open and closed spaces suited to the Bedouin traditions. Each had two bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom, garden, courtyard and other open spaces and a wall to hide the women’s quarters.’25 There was also a particular concern to build new mosques and markets (souqs) located at walking distance from the major residential clusters.


7.4 Continuous refurbishing of street layouts in Abu Dhabi

The logic behind the city’s planning in this period, which is still recognisable today, demonstrated a strong reliance on imported western modernist planning principles. Wide grid-pattern streets with their emphasis on vehicle connectivity, an orientation towards methodical building processes, and the use of high-density tower blocks were some manifestations of what was believed to be the solution for Abu Dhabi’s urban development. However, this new need to maximize accessibility for motor vehicles undermined the original organic way of travelling around the island. The human-scale yielded to vehicle-scale, and informal narrower alleys gave way to broad roads: ‘While the streets in the traditional patterns reflected residents needs such as climatic comfort, privacy and security, the streets in the modern patterns disregard these aspects.’ As the city’s population increased, rising building heights became not only a design choice but also an urban design necessity. The need to accommodate commercial and trading activities as well as housing needs pushed building density up. Alongside this new architectural solution for a modern Bedouin city in Abu Dhabi, with its imported greenery and technological infrastructure, came air-conditioning systems. This also altered the way in which people conducted their lives and had a large impact in encouraging tourism.26


7.5 Average building height in Abu Dhabi’s CBD

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Oct 25, 2020 | Posted by in General Engineering | Comments Off on Abu Dhabi, UAE
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