The Quiet Revolution

Published in CNN Traveller, July 2008



When he visited Abu Dhabi thirty years ago, travel writer Jonathan Raban wrote that the city “was like a hotel… everyone was in transit. Even the [locals] had been turned into guests, en route from a nomadic past to a sketchy future.”

Today, Ahmed al-Mehairbi is in the vanguard of a revolution. Charming and softly spoken, he stands in an immaculate white dishdasha robe, answering questions from French and English tourists who sit, rapt, at his feet. The questions are mostly to do with the practice of Islam, for the setting is the immense prayer-hall of Abu Dhabi’s new Sheikh Zayed Mosque – and al-Mehairbi is one of a handful of guides at the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) with fluent English.

The Gulf is full of mind-boggling new developments, but the fact that Emiratis are now actively involved at the sharp end of the hospitality industry is perhaps the most significant development of all.

As soon as Ahmed finishes his explanations, the tourists crowd around, snapping souvenir photos of him, almost everybody commenting that he is the only Emirati they’ve met on their travels. Here, in the capital of the United Arab Emirates, expatriates outnumber locals four to one: you might typically be served by Filipinos, driven by Pakistanis, guided by Europeans, yet have little or no opportunity to interact with native-born Emiratis. That may be about to change.

The seeds for Abu Dhabi’s quiet revolution were sown in 2004, when rulership of the emirate (an Arabic word meaning principality) – and presidency of the UAE as a whole – passed from the 86-year-old ‘Father of the Nation’, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, to his son, Sheikh Khalifa.

Despite fabulous wealth, controlling almost ten percent of the world’s oil, Abu Dhabi was a slow developer – a dour, unimaginative Washington to the glittering New York of neighbouring Dubai.

Since Khalifa came to power, though, Abu Dhabi has set in motion a plan for development that could see it match – or overtake – its ritzy nemesis.

Key to the emirate’s future are tourism schemes on an unprecedented scale: hundreds of billions of dollars have been earmarked for hotels, golf courses, beach complexes, retail zones, wildlife parks, island retreats, carbon-neutral developments and – most famously – world-class museums designed by ‘starchitects’ of the stature of Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry. Running alongside these schemes, yet garnering few headlines, is a programme of Emiratisation, a conscious effort to bring Emiratis into the workforce through quotas.

Many of the projects are being handled by the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), which manages the government’s property assets hand-in-glove with the tourism authority. Although Emiratisation is in force across the national economy, official figures estimate a scant eight percent of the UAE’s private-sector workforce is likely to be Emirati by 2009. Tourism is an obvious area where local representation could have a disproportionately positive impact.

“We are trying to encourage interaction,” says Mubarak al-Muhairi, who is both director general of the ADTA and managing director of the TDIC. “Tourism touches everything: it creates opportunities for the local private sector and is a catalyst in upgrading Abu Dhabi’s services and quality of life. We are opening a sector which has been closed for a long time.”

Yet it almost didn’t happen that way. A government insider told me of a meeting in 2004 between a senior politician and a visiting businessman, concerning the then-undisclosed plans for tourism development. The businessman asked why Abu Dhabi needed to lift a finger at all: it had vast oil reserves, astronomical wealth, a high standard of living and seemingly limitless quantities of foreign workers willing to keep the wheels turning. In reply, the politician simply spoke of wishing to make Abu Dhabi known to the world. Investment in nuclear energy had been an option, he said, as had building a giant military base. In the end, developing cultural tourism was chosen.

The impact of these schemes on the cities can be imagined, but I wanted to get a sense of how the impending changes might impact smaller communities in the hinterland. Abu Dhabi’s Gharbia (Western) Region is an elemental land of long roads and big skies, rich in oil and gas but otherwise largely overlooked: it accounts for 83 percent of the emirate’s land area, yet hosts just eight percent of its population. As I drove inland, leaving the stark, bleached-out plains of the coast behind, the desert seemed to ripen in colour and texture, the sands turning a rich ochre, piled in dunes that rippled to the horizon – the beginning of the vast Rub al-Khali, or Empty Quarter, extending into Saudi Arabia.

Liwa oasis is a palm-fringed ribbon of fertility comprising fifty or more villages strung together at the limit of the dunes. Populated for centuries – far longer than the coastal cities – it nonetheless feels like a rural backwater, refreshingly dry and still after the humidity of Abu Dhabi. Many Emiratis keep second homes here. Only two decades ago, the lack of roads meant it took half a day of rough driving to get from one end of the oasis to the other. I meandered easily down the broad, empty highway that now links the villages, past acres of palm trees and irrigated farms, across dune ridges and sabkha salt pans, revelling in the calm.

Liwa is the carefully chosen backdrop for one of Abu Dhabi’s flagship TDIC megaprojects. Qasr al-Sarab (‘Mirage Palace’) will be a five-star desert retreat here, run by the global leisure group Anantara, comprising a luxury hotel and sixty private villas set amidst the rolling dunes, with opportunities for star-gazing, wildlife-spotting and spa treatments.

Not everyone is thrilled. Journalist Youssef Rakha wrote in Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper that once Qasr al-Sarab is complete, the Empty Quarter – “the desert of the desert, the deepest kernel of identity by which Arabs define themselves” – will “disappear forever, reduced to a Desert Destination.”

His thoughts were echoed by Liwa farm-owner Rashad Ali al-Mansoori, who invited me to his house for coffee and dates. We sat out on cushions in the twilight and talked about change. “The only place now where you can find Arab culture is in the small villages and the oases,” he said. “Dubai – it’s not Arab at all.”

But even the oases are changing, I pointed out. He nodded. “At weekends nowadays,” he said, “the sands are full of foreigners from Abu Dhabi and Dubai,” and he flung his arm out dismissively at the blackness of the Empty Quarter.

To get a sense of how Qasr al-Sarab might work, I detoured to the award-winning Al-Maha desert resort, nearby in Dubai emirate. Owned and run by Emirates airline, Al-Maha is virtually faultless. All the self-contained guest lodges have their own pool, overlooking a semi-arid savannah roamed by gazelle and oryx. A guided nature drive through the dunes was fascinating, a display of falconry at sunrise breathtaking.

Yet the guides were South African, the guest relations staff Indian and we were served at dinner by a Kenyan and a Canadian. There was no whiff of Emirati culture, and I learned that Al-Maha employs no locals at all.

Greg Simkins, the South African conservation manager of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve – within which Al-Maha sits – is unequivocal. “We’d love to have Emiratis involved, but it’s very difficult to do,” he says. “The kind of work a guide does – up at five in the morning, sometimes working until midnight – on the whole they simply don’t want to do it.”

Mubarak al-Muhairi of ADTA demurs. “The shortage of locals working in hospitality happened because there were no educational programmes [in place]. Academic institutions are now introducing tourism and hospitality as part of their curriculum.”

He highlights the changes afoot on Dalma, part of TDIC’s ‘Desert Islands’ development, a Maldivian-style vision of luxury private beach lodges off Abu Dhabi’s Gharbia coast. “We launched a programme there to have one- and two-year graduates catering to tourism developments across the region – and more than five hundred locals registered. The interest is there.”

The megaprojects are set to be a litmus test for Emiratisation. By the time Qasr al-Sarab opens next year, the first Emirati tourism graduates will be entering the job market.

Three decades on, it seems, Jonathan Raban’s “guests” are starting to turn into hosts.