How Did Abu Dhabi Get So Rich?

Jo Tatchell grew up in Abu Dhabi in the 1970s and watched as “it went from being a tiny backwater to being the richest city in the world.” But the city is now a misunderstood place, she said, thanks to media coverage that focuses on the political, the military, and the financial and thinks of Abu Dhabi as a “bumper sticker kind of story – the Arab state, rich with oil, brash with wealth.” Below, Tatchell, author of A Diamond in the Desert: Behind the Scenes in Abu Dhabi, the World’s Richest City, chats with Zócalo about her early years in Abu Dhabi, the rise of the city, and whether it’ll still be standing in 200 years.

Q. What role has oil played in making Abu Dhabi what it is today?

Jo TatchellA. There is indeed a substance called oil. Everybody was united around that common goal of getting oil. From the Emirati perspective, they wanted progress and they wanted to play a part in moving their own people forward. The founding father of the UAE and the ruler of Abu Dhabi, Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, had without a doubt a vision for his people. He believed his people should have, could have, the comforts, the education, the healthcare, the infrastructure of a modern nation. He made sure with careful and prudent planning that that happened. But no one could have predicted just how quickly that initial wealth would double and redouble. You can’t just import health, housing, education, food, utilities, and stop there. As soon as you start sending your people abroad to, say, learn engineering, they’re soaking up a way of life.

I thought it would be really interesting to explore how the city-state, which is Islamic but has shown some compatibility with the West, came to be that way, why, and to look at the mix of people that exist there. My very firm sense is that this very glittery wealthy layer is a façade, and around it and beneath it you have 85 percent of a population who are not Emirati, and who are primarily from Asia, with 40 percent from India and huge numbers from Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe. There are also the white expatriates – the Americans, the Australians, the British. You walk the streets and you’re aware that the people who built the city, who laid brick upon brick, are not Emiratis.

Q. How has the city changed since you knew it in the 1970s?

A. The city definitely wasn’t a city. I moved there as a child with my parents. My father was not in oil, but he was in food. When you have people who are starting to work somewhere and build an industry, they  need to eat. My father ran a supermarket. That was a great way of plugging into the layers of society. He ran a team of 31 nationalities, from top to bottom – other Arabs, Indians, Emiratis, all playing different roles. Everybody was focusing on making it work. There was a real sense of motivation, as there often are at the beginning of things. There is that flurry of anticipation, of butterflies – you’re all in it together.

When my parents first went it was considered by their British employers as a hardship posting. The house we lived in was a portable cabin on the beach. There were some actual houses, but an actual house didn’t exist for us yet. You arrive and you make do. Three sets of tarmac rose, and then a few tracks led off, and then three roads became ten, and they became a grid. You have a small town that becomes a large town. Through the 70s that’s what you saw rolling out in real time. To imagine a city would have taken great vision. It was a sandy island with a few roads at one end. Now you can barely see any sand.

Q. To what extent is Abu Dhabi today the result of its ruler’s vision alone?

A. Zayed has a unique ability – he was known for bringing together different tribes and groups that were in disagreement. He could negotiate and build consensus. He was already respected by the tribes out in the deserts of Abu Dhabi when the opportunity came. The oil men were coming whether the tribes liked it or not, and Zayed recognized the moment, and took it. The question was never are the oil men coming – it was going to happen – but where the Abu Dhabians would fit into the industry that was going to establish itself on their sand and their sea, and whether they would take that industry and use it as a springboard for establishing a culture.

When people talk about Abu Dhabi, it’s easy to say, of course they have everything – they’re really rich. But actually having huge oil reserves does not automatically lead to a stable, civilized, wealthy society. We know that. There are other countries in the world that have huge oil reserves and have not deployed the profit to build a culture and a society. Zayed absolutely took that opportunity.

Before Zayed was the ruler it was his brother, Shakhbut. Shakhbut wanted oil to be found because his people were in the middle of the worst depression even by the standards of the deserts of Abu Dhabi. Making ends meet and surviving were the most anyone could hope to do and had done for hundreds of years. The mainstay industry, pearls, dried up. The Japanese began making cultured pearls, and nobody wanted uncultured pearls. People were starving, so it was a huge relief when oil was found. But Shakhbut was terrified. He took the money, he hid it in chests, he refused to build a city. He knew that change would be irreversible and it would change the character of his people. In that sense he was right, but Zayed’s vision was, we have this oil, let’s take the bull by the horns. He set out a vision for a glittering city by the sea. He worked very closely with town and city planners to draw up how the city would develop. He looks to Britain, France, and America in terms of educational models. He looked at European healthcare models. All of that learning he took and used to springboard his people from poverty. He gave every citizen an amount of land on which to build property and create a business. He was really keen on giving people a leg up. Once they had their leg up, they became self-motivated.

Very early on he encouraged diversification of business investments. There was a sense you shouldn’t rely on oil. as a child he had seen his tribes rely so heavily on pearling, and when the Japanese cultured pearl came along, he saw everything fall. Putting all your eggs in one basket did not pay off. Physically and socially, his vision has been entirely realized. I think not even he could imagine the city would grow as fast as it has.

Q. You mentioned building a culture – what does Abu Dhabi’s culture look like today, given its tribal history?

A Diamond in the Desert, by Jo TatchellA. Within any country, and you only need to think of your own, there’s the country, and within that, there is the character of Los Angeles or Kentucky or Boston. There are some commonalities and some differences. The same obviously applies to any region of the globe. Within even the UAE, Abu Dhabi was the largest state and the poorest, because of the immense aridity of the land. The geology of it was ideal for oil. Moving to the north, they were better off in Dubai, which had been known as a seafaring, trading, mercantile group of tribes.

The Abu Dhabi tribes had two layers. First is the culture they had before oil is very, very close to the surface today. We’re only a generation or two away from that. The second aspect is the culture they’ve adopted, and how younger generations are revolving out of the ways of the past and into something more international. What’s really clear to me about the Abu Dhabians – even in comparison to people in Dubai-is that they were extremely poor. You had a number of tribes who lived in different parts of the land. Deep in the desert were the tribes who lived off livestock, with camels and herds of goats. Then there were tribes towards the Hajar Mountains that run down the spine of the UAE peninsula, round a city called Al Ain, where you had date farming and basic agriculture. That was the most fertile part of Abu Dhabi. Out at the coasts and running down the gulf peninsula, you had lots of little islands around which the water was extremely shallow. There you had a very well-evolved pearling industry. There were two pearling seasons, and all the men would go off and fish for them for weeks, in boats, singing and chatting.

Rarely did any of these single things create a living. What you typically have is people who might have spent one part of the year wandering the desert with camels. But then they went off pearling for the other part of the year. They needed somebody to stay behind to watch their livestock or their date groves. Over many generations then, what you had is distinct tribes and sub-tribes that worked very closely together, that were able to collaborate, and I think that characteristic of tolerance and collaboration has put Abu Dhabi in the position it is in today. It’s why Zayed, unlike some other rulers in the region, have been able to create an integrated relationship with the West. This sense that others – whether from a tribe nearby or from another country, culture, or religion – they have something to offer. It’s possible to collaborate and build something. That doesn’t mean you absorb everything, and perhaps you don’t even like everything, but you respect what you both bring to the table. You have something that’s part of the DNA almost.

You also have a people who operated and succeeded in operating a tribal structure. That’s really feudal. You have one leader, and that leader makes the decisions. He needs to be strong and charismatic. People would revolt when the leader does not act in the interests of his people. His people could vote with their feet, as it were. This has been the hardest part to translate into a larger and modern scenario, particularly the system they had in which any person from the tribe could talk directly to the ruler. If you had an issue, whatever that issue might be, there was a time of day, a coming together of the ruler and his people. You would stand in line and you could discuss your problems or your opportunities. This direct governance is not possible when you have a city that’s as large as Abu Dhabi is, and is united under one supreme ruler rather than many tribes with their own rulers. It’s not possible when you have 200 nationalities or something approaching that. I think this is where the political heat will build up. In that model, while it did work, everything was done privately and behind closed doors. That will and has to evolve.

Q. What is the future of the city of Abu Dhabi – can it survive, say, an oil crash?

A. People think they can predict, but nobody actually knows. However, Abu Dhabi is a city that is in the black. It has, yes, large amounts of oil, but has diversified and is continuing to diversify its business base and its investments. It has vast amounts invested in, for example, American real estate – including significant stakeholdings in buildings like the Chrysler – and a lot of European real estate and investments.

Will this city be around in 200 years? It’s hard to know. But it could still have money and influence. Money can move. The significant players, with or without a city, could continue to be significant players. But as to the fate of the city, the predictions of how little or how much oil is left in the world are one aspect. The other part of the conundrum is how much it costs to extract the oil. As soon as it becomes more expensive to extract it than the value of the energy it liberates, that is the end. These figures are massaged daily by different experts.

Oil aside, there is one aspect of Abu Dhabi that could be really interesting. It is moving into nuclear technology, but it’s also looking at and beginning to invest in solar technology. As much as it has a lot of oil, it has a lot of sun, and still quite a lot of unused desert space. How it manages to do that, and whether it manages to do it with any sort of significant effects – it’s too early to tell. They’re beginning to have their leading engineers work on creating a prototype of a mini-city that should be entirely carbon neutral. It may be they take the leadership position in something like that. If the energy crisis around the world plays out the way pessimists or even realists think it might, I think having an expertise and taking a leadership position on the development of such technology may give Abu Dhabi a strong future. I don’t think it’ll necessarily be the cultural center it wants to be. It has the idea of becoming that – building a Guggenheim and a Louvre. There will be a rush of tourist traffic around that. But alternative technology may be the place where its future is more likely to prosper.

Buy the Book: Skylight, Powell’s, Amazon, Borders.

*Photo of city lights in Abu Dhabi courtesy Jake Brewer.


Send A Letter To the Editors

    Please tell us your thoughts. Include your name and daytime phone number, and a link to the article you’re responding to. We may edit your letter for length and clarity and publish it on our site.

    (Optional) Attach an image to your letter. Jpeg, PNG or GIF accepted, 1MB maximum.