Creating a Cultural Oasis In Abu Dhabi

Less flashy than Dubai, this oil capital is channeling money into arts, education and technology.

Planned Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.

Planned Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.

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ABU DHABI—Perched atop a twelfth of the world's proven oil reserves, the major boulevards of the capital of the United Arab Emirates easily could have been paved with gold. But they are lined with something nearly as precious in the Arabian desert—miles and miles of lush, green grass.

The heavily irrigated landscaping is just one of the more visible clues to Abu Dhabi's ambitious vision. It aims to join the pantheon of the world's great capitals, but unlike Dubai, its more flamboyant sister to the north, Abu Dhabi is taking a more refined path. Its central strategy is to partner with some of the most respected cultural, scientific, and educational institutions in the world, from France's Louvre to the Cleveland Clinic. "We want to use the oil windfall we have today and put it to productive use," says Waleed al Mokarrab al Muhairi, the chief operating officer of Mubadala Development Co., a government-owned investment and management firm. "We want to be recognized as the educational hub of the region, as the place for best-in-class healthcare, and as the most livable city in the region."

It was only a few decades ago that camels roamed where skyscrapers stand today. "Traditionally, people see Abu Dhabi as slow, conservative, and complex," says Hussain al-Nowais, a prominent businessman. "We will prove to them that Abu Dhabi is the land of opportunity and the land of the future."

Certainly, nobody is doubting the depth of Abu Dhabi's pockets. "When push comes to shove, we have one of the world's largest oil reserves," says Nowais. "We're producing [nearly] 3 million barrels a day at over $120 a barrel. You do the math."

Proud of its intense planning efforts, Abu Dhabi is hoping to avoid some of the mistakes of its neighbors. While Dubai's development has outstripped its infrastructure, Abu Dhabi is starting with the infrastructure. "We want to develop the economy, but we want to develop it right," says Sultan al-Jaber. He is ceo of the Masdar Initiative, a unique project to research and develop alternative energy technologies funded with $15 billion from the Abu Dhabi government. The showpiece will be the world's first carbon-neutral, zero-waste city, which could be functioning in eight years. Masdar is running a clean-technology investment fund, forging joint ventures, and building, with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a graduate-level research institute focused exclusively on renewable energy.

Jaber says the goal is to turn Abu Dhabi into "the Silicon Valley of renewables," but it won't be an easy feat. For one thing, the UAE has a tough environmental record, with among the highest rates of energy and water consumption per capita in the world.

The massive Cultural District being built on one of Abu Dhabi's some 200 islands is similarly ambitious. Pouring well over $27 billion into the nearly empty Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi is planning to build four museums, a performing arts center designed by Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid, gallery space, resort hotels, and a golf course planned by golfing legend Gary Player. In a 30-year deal with the Louvre, not only will the French government lend its expertise and some of its extensive art collection, but officials will provide training opportunities for Emiratis to learn how to manage museums and stage exhibits. The UAE is also embarking, with outside advice, on a full-scale acquisition plan to build up its own collection of art, backed by a budget from the royal family that is rumored to top $750 million.

For the Louvre Abu Dhabi, renowned architect Jean Nouvel designed a dramatic, perforated dome to cover the galleries, which are arranged to mimic the layout of an ancient city. The museum is billed as universal, featuring art not only from Europe but also Asia, the Middle East, and around the globe. New York's Guggenheim Museum signed on to develop a museum focused on contemporary art that will be housed in a Frank Gehry-designed building. "When the decision was taken, it wasn't about financial returns," says Mubarak al Muhairi, the director general of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, which is developing the Saadiyat Island Cultural District. "In 20 years, we will see the results create a generation that is open and really part of the world. We will also communicate the region to the world." The first museums won't open for at least five years, and the entire complex won't be complete until after 2020.