Earlier this year, as this newspaper celebrated its 10th anniversary, I reflected on the changes the UAE capital has seen in the past decade. As part of the original team at The National, it's been part of my job to follow the city's hopes and aspirations, and in that time there's been a noticeable shift from a focus on potentiality to actuality. The intangible has become real and with that has come a transition from a somewhat dreamlike state to hard reality.
It’s mostly for the good. As we arrive at the city’s 10th Grand Prix weekend, it’s clear just how well that event has literally put Abu Dhabi on the map not just for those living here, but many around the world.
That relationship – of living in a place that is for most just a stopover, for some, days, for others, years – provides such a unique vantage point that it’s almost akin to travel even when you’re sat here, as a resident, contemplating another race weekend when colleagues and random acquaintances from home suddenly all pile in.
Yet even as you sense their excitement at the event, what has become clear with every year that’s gone by, is how fast Abu Dhabi has developed as a place; first in terms of infrastructure and second how it has benefited as a destination in its own right. There is now a functional local bus service and an established cruise-ship stop. Sports tourism is now just one plank of the city’s tourism offering and strategy; that was the whole point.
In the past 10 years, the city's landscape has matured into a much more comfortable place, with many more apartments, hotels, restaurants, malls, beaches and activities to choose from. Global businesses have set up alongside local ones and Abu Dhabi is exponentially more connected to the world in terms of airline routes and all the associated links. Next year, the futuristic new Midfield Terminal will open at Abu Dhabi International Airport and The National will itself be preparing for a move to Yas Island, where a brand-new media district is taking shape amid a maturing lifestyle destination. There has been so much development it's barely recognisable from one month to the next.
Personally, as someone who is getting ready to leave the UAE after all this time, it’s both sad and satisfying to be going at what feels like a moment of transition to a much bigger canvas. Abu Dhabi has become at once more global – some would say almost the definition of it – and more local, a place many more people are not only familiar with, but comfortable with. I regularly meet people abroad now who have not only heard of the UAE capital but have visited and even lived and worked here.
Back in 2008, one felt like an early adopter – possibly premature, even. Those arriving now have lifestyle choices that new residents could only have dreamed of back then, when there was such a shortage of apartments and hotel rooms that I spent two months at the Ramee Garden Hotel Apartments. When I arrived and asked staff where the breakfast was, reception laughed. Now, arriving colleagues easily snap up sparkling new studio apartments for reasonable prices.
Airport Road, now renamed again, was then known to taxi drivers as “Passport Road”, because a few blocks down was the “migration” office. Colleagues lived in a block of flats “backside petrol pump.” My attempts to use only Arabic in taxis didn’t go well. Now there is talk of Uber hiring Emirati drivers, that experience will be much more possible.
Those who are arriving now are lucky, as others have cleared a path that they may follow – and at a much faster pace.
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