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Abu Dhabi Building a Green Oasis in a Desert: Project in Oil Rich Emirate to Have No Cars and No Waste

posted on: Mar 2, 2008

Red carpet met sand last month at a soiree that not so long ago would have been unlikely in the desert city-state of Abu Dhabi.

Hired models welcomed guests who spilled from Rolls-Royces. Cameras flashed as members of Abu Dhabi’s royal family took their seats before enormous white screens.

The affair was the launch of a $15-billion development known as Masdar City. Its goal: Create the greenest outpost on the planet, a futuristic zero-carbon, no-waste, car-free compound in a place that lives almost exclusively on sales of crude oil. The irony didn’t go unmentioned.

“Now, you may be asking, ‘Why would Abu Dhabi proactively seek a key role in alternative energy?’ ” Sultan al Jaber, Masdar’s California-educated chief executive officer, told the crowd. “The short answer is: because we can, and because we should.”

Masdar is the latest project designed to ease Abu Dhabi out of the shadow of its better-known neighbor and fellow emirate, Dubai. Tired of playing second fiddle to the shimmering hub next door, Abu Dhabi — bigger and wealthier than Dubai — is working hard to reclaim its place as the United Arab Emirates’ top city.
Focus is culture, not consumerism

While officials from the two Persian Gulf city-states bristle at comparisons, it’s clear Abu Dhabi’s urban planners have watched Dubai’s unchecked growth and erosion of local heritage to formulate their own expansion agenda, one that puts culture ahead of consumerism.

By restricting mega-developments to outlying islands, Abu Dhabi mostly has preserved its small-town, seaside charm, in contrast to Dubai, famous for its manmade islands, indoor ski slope, ultra-luxurious hotels and traffic jams.

“It’s not about four to five years, short term, how many visitors. We’re looking at results 20 or 30 years from now,” said Mubarak al Muhairi, director-general of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority.

There still is plenty of over-the-top spending in Abu Dhabi, where a businessman dropped $14 million on a vanity license plate featuring the number 1.

Increasingly, however, Abu Dhabi’s wealth is channeled into creating a cultural and entertainment oasis in the desert. The Louvre and the Guggenheim are building museums there; acclaimed architect Zaha Hadid designed an opera house. New York University and France’s Sorbonne are to open Abu Dhabi campuses.

Warner Bros. inked a multibillion-dollar deal with Abu Dhabi’s chief building firm for projects including a Universal Studios-style theme park, movie production studios, multiplex cinemas and video game development. A new type of luxury living

In Abu Dhabi, most of the major landscape-changing development is on nearby islands. There are height restrictions on towers and an emphasis on traditional Arab structures to prevent mushrooming skyscrapers. Mosques, conspicuously absent in Dubai, are sprouting across Abu Dhabi.

Masdar City is to open in about three years. Aware status-conscious Emiratis might need some prodding to forgo creature comforts and approach Masdar, project managers are touting green living as the new luxurious lifestyle.

But officials are quick to stress that Masdar isn’t just another Emirate ego project, noting that millions of dollars are earmarked for research in renewable energy.

“It would have been easier for us to build the tallest building in the world or the biggest manmade island,” al Jaber said in an apparent slap at Dubai, which claims both. “It’s not easy by any standards to build a city like Masdar, and to build a sustainable city.”

By Hannah Allam, McClatchy Newspapers