Sunday, 21 October 2012

and you thought you were visionary!

In the famous words of Paul Hogan’s Crocodile Dundee (kind of), “That’s not an urban vision, ….”

Whatever observations and interpretations people might make about the phenomena of Abu Dhabi, the largest and most powerful Emirate, high on the list will be an astounding vision. Vast urban landscapes are emerging from the desert dust on the islands. Whole city centres (yes that was plural), massive hotel complexes, multilane freeways, suburbs of villas (read mansions that make Caroline Springs look like Caroline Drip). And apart from the grandeur and architectural/engineering feat that presses relentlessly on, the arresting feature common to all of this new development is it sits there pregnant with opportunity, but still waiting for people to move in.

Yes, blocks of skyscrapers that are sitting like ghost towns of the future, waiting. Waiting. Groups of hotel complexes, huge huge hotels, effectively in the middle of nowhere. Where are the people? The other day we went across to Saadiyat island and viewed the plans and emerging structures of the Louve Abu Dhabi, Guggenheim Abu Dhabu, New York University Abu Dhabi and vast residential areas. The vision for what this place could and might become is breathtaking.

Apparently Dubai set out to be the Las Vegas of this hemisphere. Abu Dhabi’s visions is to be the cultural and educational centre, the place where the art, culture and religion of Africa, Asia, and the Middle east is captured and presented in the way the iconic institutions of Europe have done for the West over the centuries. With unimaginable wealth, who knows what might happen when the only limiter is vision. It is perhaps the most grand of all ‘build it and they will come’ experiments.

As an illustration of the extravagance in the planning, have a look at this bridge which Maria photographed yesterday. In many cities of the world a bridge of this scale would be a not only an engineering feature, but a social and commercial foundation, linking communities across a water divide. The staggering feature associated with this bridge is what lies on the other side ...

Zipo. Zero. Nothing. Well, that’s not actually true, there is an island with sand. No road, just a sandy island. The three lane each way bitumen finishes at the edge of the bridge. “Well, one day we might want to develop that island, so better build a bridge just in case.” Welcome to Abu Dhabi.

We lay in bed last night and Maria simply says, “two more days”. Yep, after more than 6 weeks of amazing travel we have just a couple more days. While we are enjoying beginning to discuss our domestic plans, there is still more travel adventure to come. Phil and Carol have been fantastic hosts and we have loved talking and reflecting from breakfast until late as we’ve scratched the glittery surface of this city. This morning we toured the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and then tonight we put on our best cargo pants for dinner at the ‘7 star’ Emirates Palace Hotel. Can you imagine a greater economic contrast than buying fruit in the medina markets of Fes just a couple of weeks ago, where the society wreaks of poverty, and ordering a cappuccino sprinkled with real gold flakes? I can’t. Kind of messes with your head.

Stay tuned for some reflections on that, as well as a day trip to Dubai on Sunday before Etihad gives us a lounge chair, dining room and bedroom seat for the 14 ‘happy’ hours of the return journey. When I was kid I had a set of jokes that described books by matching authors, such as ‘Cliff Jumping by Hugo First’. Well I just modified one, ’14 hours in row 19 by Major Bumsor.’