Monday, November 10, 2014

Abu Dhabi’s skyline: a conundrum

Today’s Abu Dhabi rose from the sand in less than 50 years.

What does a skyline say about a place? Sense of place is a big subject for geographers. I searched for “Abu Dhabi skyline,” and found inspiration for the historical perspective that I was looking for. In order to understand Abu Dhabi today, you have to look at yesterday. A very recent yesterday.


Abu Dhabi Corniche skyline.

The inspiration for writing this story about the Abu Dhabi skyline was a discussion on Unwind just after we sailed across the finish line in front of the Corniche and were cracking open a “Green Gatorade,” aka Heineken.


ADFF 2014 logo

Thinking of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival graphic featuring some of the city’s iconic buildings, including my favorite “coin building,”  I heard myself complaining, “What’s with the skyline? … makes no sense … they could have planned it to look so much better …” and so on. I actually questioned why they hadn’t designed the skyline more like the idealized ADFF version!


Abu Dhabi Sailing Week ADCA 005


Young Matteo, in his youthful wisdom and charming Italian accent, held up his hands to make a frame and said, “You have to look at it like this, one building at a time. That one is nice … yes, and that one is nice …"



I’d been viewing Abu Dhabi’s skyline as an incoherent, incohesive failure of planning and aesthetics. What I forgot was the landscape it replaces: sand, sea, and sabkha, or salt flats. There was no natural backdrop other than the flat horizon, no dramatic line to mimic or respect, like, say, Cape Town. No hills to build on like San Francisco. No vegetation, even. Abu Dhabi was a barren island, detached from the mainland by just a few meters of shallow water, surrounded by sand bars. Today’s skyline was, literally, dreamed up over the past 50 years. The main island is now almost completely developed, and the surrounding sand bars have been enhanced with millions of tons of rock and sand so that they, too, can become part of the glittering new city.


ADCA #1 2013-14 027



Today’s Abu Dhabi is still in its awkward adolescence, growing at breakneck speed, sprouting limbs all out of proportion, stumbling over its own feet. The skyline is piecemeal, perennially under construction. There is no continuity. It’s a series of unrelated snapshots.

It’s like that old camel joke: designed by committee. This committee was made up of developers and architects, each trying to make the biggest impression.









ADCA Yas Cruise 069


And that’s why the snapshots of skyline are often gorgeous, grandiose …





and … sometimes confounding.

Palace Marina 028


So when I sat down to write this story, I thought to myself: “You’re supposed to be a geographer. You’ve studied urban planning. What makes a great skyline?” I searched “great skylines” and came up with lists – and lists! and more lists! – of cities known for their skylines.

Abu Dhabi wasn’t on any of them. But Dubai was. Dubai is full of unbelievable architecture, but it has two buildings that rise above the rest – literally, and conceptually.

The Burj Khalifa, tallest building in the world …

… and the Burj Al Arab.


There are other buildings with distinct profiles lining Dubai’s long coastline, and that’s one of Dubai’s distinct advantages: its one long, slender skyline. Unlike Abu Dhabi, which is a jigsaw puzzle of skylines.

Another advantage for Dubai? An historic port, still functioning. A cultural heart, still beating, its circulatory system, still intact.

Abu Dhabi developed into the modern city it is today within Mark’s and my lifetime. MHe was born in 1950, the year oil was discovered here. In 1962, the year I started kindergarten, the first oil was exported from Abu Dhabi. The local people were mostly unaware, still living in barasti houses made of palm fronds and using the beach as their toilet. They were drawing brackish well water into goat stomach containers for drinking and cooking. During the 1960’s, as I watched Flintstones cartoons on television, the people of Abu Dhabi were living in a construction zone, as much-needed buildings were hastily erected using salt-laden concrete which soon crumbled. Electricity was supplied by portable generators.


Abu Dhabi barasti

“The town of Abu Dhabi with its barasti houses and first main road. 1961.”                    Photo: From Rags to Riches-A story of Abu Dhabi – Mohammed Al Fahim


In 1971, the the year I started high school, seven Trucial States, as they were then known, joined to become a nation, the United Arab Emirates. More oil money meant more buildings, better buildings, taller buildings. 10-story buildings! In 1975, as I graduated from high school, the first international hotels opened in Abu Dhabi. I watched the Holiday Inn in Detroit fall into decay while, at the same time, the Emiratis signed agreements to build the first Holiday Inn in the UAE. By the end of the 1970’s, as the recession hit and I migrated from Detroit to San Francisco, the oil boom was going bust. Even in Abu Dhabi, commercial and residential properties in Abu Dhabi were going unoccupied. But that didn’t last; the 1980’s were on the horizon.

AD corniche 1984

“The gardens of Abu Dhabi Corniche in 1984 which had just been laid out and were still being planted.” (Gulf News)


I grew into an adult in the 1980’s and and 1990’s. Abu Dhabi was growing up, too. By 2000, the city had completed 6,000 projects and added 90,000 housing units. We both, Abu Dhabi and I, spent those two decades building, tearing down, and rebuilding.


AD corniche 1998

“Looking along Abu Dhabi Corniche in 1998 to the Bainuna Tower in the distance, with the blue Union National Bank and gold Arab Monetary Fund buildings in front of it. At this time, the whole length of the Corniche was being extended into the sea.” (Gulf News)


At the turn of the 21st century, Abu Dhabi was at a turning point, positioning itself as a global city, alongside its better-known neighbor, Dubai. Do you remember your frame of mind, at Y2K


he headquarters of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, Adia, in 2007 is the latest landmark along the Corniche with its dramatic folding glass front towering over the rest of the city.

“The headquarters of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, Adia, in 2007 is the latest landmark along the Corniche with its dramatic folding glass front towering over the rest of the city. “(Gulf News)


An ambitious 25-year plan, unveiled in 2005 as Abu Dhabi Vision 2030, describes development and redevelopment plans for the main island of Abu Dhabi and its several satellite islands, and the mainland, which are all connected by bridges.


Abu Dhabi Corniche, 2012. View from Etihad Towers.


Viewed from the perspective of my own lifetime, I appreciate the Abu Dhabi skyline for what it is. It’s the front row of a dynamic city built in a snapshot of time, compared to any other city. Abu Dhabi has gone from palm-frond beach huts to skyscrapers of more than 80 stories during my lifetime. And I am here, to experience and appreciate it.

Unlike Dubai, whose skyline can be viewed from a single long northern shoreline or from a southern highway vista, there is no one Abu Dhabi skyline.  It must be viewed from many vantages. I’ve had the great fortune to see and photograph the many facets of Abu Dhabi’s skyline – from the water, on boats and on my board, and on the road, from the windshield and my bicycle. Corniche, Reem Island, Saadiyat Island, Yas Island, Eastern Mangroves, Al Bandar, Between the Bridges, Emirates Palace Marina, and others that I have yet to discover.

Eastern Mangroves Skylounge (8)

Abu Dhabi skyline from Eastern Mangroves Hotel Sky Lounge.


How it will all come together, only God knows. But it’s an amazing place to take in the many facets of the skyline, and take photos.

Here are some of my favorites.


Historical photographs:

All other photos are © Anne Thomas

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