by Mishaal Al Gergawi
originally published in Al Manakh 2: Gulf Continued
The year is 2040. The United Arab Emirates is 69 years-old and under the reign of its fourth president, a son of its founding father Sheikh Zayed. The vice president and prime minister is the grandson of Sheikh Rashid. Al Qassimis rule Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah, Al Sharqis rule Fujairah, the UAE’s eastern outpost; Al Naimi and Al Mualla rule Ajman and Umm al-Quwain respectively. The presidency, foreign, interior and presidential affairs ministries are still in Abu Dhabi; the vice-presidency, premiership of the cabinet, defense, finance and cabinet affairs ministries are still in Dubai. The apparent political structure has not changed but everything else has.
In 2008, when Abu Dhabi and Dubai were both investing heavily in infrastructure, restructuring executive authorities and launching new initiatives on an almost weekly basis, it was already evident that the two cities were heading in a direction that neither of them had envisaged or openly admitted. Other nations had been able to maintain separate administrative and commercial capitals but with greater distances between them: Beijing-Shanghai (1,067 kilometers), Berlin- Frankfurt (432 kilometers) and New York-Washington DC (337 kilometers). With 120 kilometers separating them, Abu Dhabi and Dubai were destined to run up into each other. And that distance had already dwindled; their expanding outer regions, measuring from Jebel Ali to Shahama, were within 80 kilometers of each other. The result was turning out to be Abu Dubai, the then unspoken name of a metropolis phenomenon that recharged both of its halves.
All of the developmental fervor ground to a halt with the fateful arrival of the world economic crisis of 2008-11. It was a painful exercise for Dubai, mainly due to the decentralized manner in which its various groups and subsidiaries had borrowed on predominantly short maturities. Dubai was initially bailed out by Abu Dhabi, but its problems did not disappear with the $20 billion program. More was needed. DP World floated 29% of its shares on the London Stock Exchange (in addition to the initial 20% it had IPO’d on the former DIFX, then NasdaqDubai, now UAE Financial Exchange – EMFM, the Middle East’s leading bourse after Tel Aviv’s). DEWA, Dubai Airport and Emirates Airlines conducted minority stake privatization sales by way of private placements. Dubai’s debt slowly subsided as its office space began to fill due to renewed business confidence. The Investment Corporation of Dubai – Dubai Inc.’s successor – regained financial integrity as a small but agile entity.
In a post-sector-diversification-rhetoric world, Dubai Holding and Dubai World had both run their course. They ceased to exist as legal entities by 2014. Their delayed demise was mainly due to their ability to transfer existing debts to other entities under the Dubai Government. These relics of a necessary boom era evoke a nostalgia so gray it is hard to determine whether their failures or successes are greater.
As a psychological victory for the city, many developments lost their project names. Burj Dubai/Khalifa Downtown (the public had never agreed on a name) became ‘downtown’. And what got built of Business Bay was also grouped into Dubai’s downtown. In the end, the success of both projects – hindered before by competing developers – was hinged on their union. Public opinion also united Jumeirah Beach Residence and the Dubai Marina into ‘marina’. Chinese-made bicycles quickly became the preferred and fashionable means of transport within the marina since auto traffic was unbearable. Jafiliya, Shindagha. Bastakiya, Karama, Mankhool and Bur Dubai became collectively referred to as ‘the old neighborhoods,’ eventually taking back the name ‘old town’. The wounds left by Meraas and its Jumeirah Gardens project mostly healed, and the border between Satwa and Jumeirah began to blur. Satwa’s gentrification had always been inevitable. Its affordability began to attract yuppie crowds bored with freehold districts. Jumeirah remained casually in vogue. Fusion was also completed along the Sharjah-Dubai border; the commuter crawl seamlessly connected Deira and Nahdah.
Around 2020, Abu Dhabi’s investment arm Mubadala began to face serious challenges to its investment approach; it had over-diversified beyond capacity. Exposure to Virgin Galactic had dragged it into a third round of additional financing due to unforeseen challenges, such as accelerating atmospheric mutations caused by worsening climate change and the subsequent costly technologies. AMD, the computer chip maker, failed to retain significant market share in the face of Intel’s relentless innovations. The esoteric Ultimate Fighting Championship franchise proved unsuccessful in the Middle East and suffered a North American slump in the wake of further anti-violence TV regulation. When Mubadala was bailed out by Abu Dhabi’s finance department, no sum was disclosed, but estimates ranged between $180 and $250 billion. A thorough review began of which sectors the government should be directly involved in.
None of the classic consulting firms were involved in Mubadala’s reorganization. Instead, Abu Dhabi’s old brass of fiscally conservative ADNOC and ADIA veterans directed Mubadala out of its problems. Some regional analysts began to draw parallels between Abu Dhabi’s and Dubai’s challenges, particularly in respect to the propensity to attempt so much in so little time. However, unlike Dubai, Abu Dhabi had no need for soul searching; Dubai had already done that, with Abu Dhabi’s help and on its behalf. For the first time in over ten years, Dubai could contribute strategically to Abu Dhabi.
Abu Dhabi’s efforts to cultivate branches of the Sorbonne and New York University were obvious successes. The opening of the Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi had done much to raise the bar of quality healthcare in the Gulf. Soon after its opening, the clinic began advising the federal ministry of healthcare on the modernization of its facilities and practices. The Imperial College London Diabetes Centre, which had opened an Abu Dhabi branch in 2006, took the lead on tackling the epidemic in the UAE.
By June 2015, it was clear that Masdar’s mandate had to be revised. The restructured, government-funded Masdar founds its strength as an R&D sustainability center at a fraction of its earlier budget. Replacing the usual constellation of imported consultants, the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST) was on a dual track: conducting research and realizing an eco-city, Masdar City. By 2022, Masdar City had become home to state of the art facilities and the world’s largest annual grant program for sustainability, attracting scientists and researchers whose knowledge was put to work in building Masdar City. Venture capital firms lined up to invest. In 2025, Abu Dhabi witnessed the IPO of its first green start-up. Masdar City’s transformation into an innovation center was deemed a success, positioning Abu Dhabi as a center of green technology alongside California, Finland, Denmark and Israel.
By the end of 2015, the Louvre, the Sorbonne, New York University and the Guggenheim had opened on Saadiyat Island. Abu Dhabi’s museums designed by superstar architects achieved the desired result: internationally recognized cultural icons. But it was Dubai’s homegrown art scene1 that gave the cultural monuments their souls, supplying the museums with many of its curators, critics, artists, designers, etc. The island’s success proved the often denied synergy to sustain cultural projects: government support, commercial investment and personal will.
Ghantoot City, on the site of Sheikh Zayed’s beach palace, launched its new suburb. The polo club was elegantly renovated by its new manager Jumeirah, the hotel management company. The rest of its estate was attached to the The Desert Natural Reserve. The National Museum on Saadiyat Island had been delayed due to continuing differences over its curatorial direction. An independent commission recommended to transform the Ghantoot palace into a hybrid museum and academy that would study and educate on the social and cultural fabric of the UAE - Qasr Al Karama.
The core of Abu Dhabi’s Central Business District (CBD) moved to Sowwah Island, attracting a mix of banks, large corporations and major government-affiliated firms. However, it was Abu Dhabi Island itself that presented regenerated urbanism. UPC oversight preserved ‘Old Abu Dhabi.’ Following what was largely seen as an outmigration to the new districts (Sowwah, Saadiyat, Yas Islands and Capital District), Abu Dhabi Island began to reexamine itself and was gradually reconceived as the urban and cultural center of the city. It drew a variety of inhabitants – nostalgic, older citizens and young people looking for something less perfect and more impressionable. ADACH’s cultural center anchored the downtown and was able to heal the fissure between ‘culture’ and ‘heritage’.
Dubai International Airport reached maximum capacity in 2020 and reopened plans for Al Maktoum International Airport. With the distance between Dubai’s new airport and Abu Dhabi’s at 60 kilometers, the situation attracted international mockery, evoking references to older days of duplication. But there was no animosity. A breakthrough agreement erased duplication and promoted collaboration. Maktoum International Airport, with its underground cargo link to Jebel Ali Port, was designated Abu Dubai’s airport. Abu Dhabi International Airport was transformed into the UAE’s central train station – a logistical masterpiece that coordinated passenger and cargo lines, including a ten-minute bullet train to Maktoum Airport, cargo lines to Jebel Ali Port, RAK and Fujairah, and lines to Liwa, Doha, Dammam, Riyadh and Jeddah, Istanbul and onward through Europe. Abu Dhabi, a constant champion of the GCC railway project, had provided the tipping point for other countries to ignite the linkage. With an airport on one side and a central train station on the other, the cities were linked to the rest of the world like never before.
Abu Dhabi’s Capital District is now fully functional as the UAE’s recognized center of government. Government officials and diplomats can reach both cities’ CBDs within 30 minutes. There are rumors about how the location of the district is in fact the location originally intended for Al Karama.2 Though the rumors are not true, many believe Abu Dhabi’s Capital District is a silent homage to that notion.
Abu Dubai: a city never founded yet had to be. The cities remain officially Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and each maintains a municipal government. Yet among the public – as well as some academicians, historians, urban planners and a few other groups – they are referred to as Abu Dubai. What does it mean? Some cynics say it is the result of a circumstantial urban merger while romantics call it the maturing of two cities that together became more than what each could ever be alone. Debates aside, the fact remains that Abu Dubai is a sum and interaction of districts and islands from Musafah to Nahdah. Integration and synthesis continue.
1 It is Sharjah, Dubai’s other neighbor, however, that supports Dubai’s arts. Sharjah is an even cheaper housing option than Dubai and can sustain creative production. A kunsthalle of sorts, with a converted community theater, sits on the Dubai-Sharjah border. Sharjah’s newfound leniency for creativity gives room for an underground art scene on the shores of Lake Khaled.
2 The UAE’s area codes are 02 for Abu Dhabi, 03 for Al Ain, 04 for Dubai, 05 for mobile phones, 06 for Sharjah, Ajman and Umm Al Quwain, 07 for Ras Al Khaimah. 08 is the Western Region (Liwa, etc.) and 09 is Fujairah. Where is 01? When the UAE was found in 1971, its constitution was temporary and its interim capital was Abu Dhabi. Few people recall the plan for a city to be built between Abu Dhabi and Dubai named ‘Al Karama’ that would be the capital of the UAE. 01 was for Al Karama. Of course this never happened since the UAE’s constitution was ratified and Abu Dhabi was recognized as the permanent capital of the nation in 1994. The ratified constitution did not include the Al Karama clause.