The trio of bridges that connect Abu Dhabi island with the mainland each reveal a part of the city’s modern history.
Maqta Bridge, the original structure to span the channel, is now more than 50 years old and is often credited with changing the face of the city. Before its inauguration in 1968, the ribbon of water that separated the island from the rest of the emirate could only be crossed at low tide when Al Maqta (the crossing) was passable for some hours each day. Those who attempted the journey at other times did so at their peril, as archive photos of plugged sedans in wet sands amid rising tides bear testimony to.
Decades later, Maqta Bridge now jostles for space with Sheikh Zayed Bridge, which opened in 2010, and Mussafah Bridge, which quietly punctuates the other end of the channel near Shangri-la Hotel and Al Qana, the new leisure and entertainment development and destination.
If Mussafah Bridge is the second part of the channel’s bridge triptych, it is also the least remarked upon. Opened in the 1970s, its Y-shaped pillars and light structure seem to offer a cloak of anonymity except when darkness descends and its causeway lights twinkle in the evening sky. Nonetheless, the bridge is also a vital artery that speeds traffic to and from Abu Dhabi’s industrial zone.
Maybe its unremarked-upon status is because it is figuratively trapped between the history of Maqta Bridge and the modernity of Sheikh Zayed Bridge, which opened at the end of 2010.
Years in the making, Sheikh Zayed Bridge towers over Maqta Bridge, its cantilevered carriageways suspended from arches that resemble both crashing waves and clustered sand dunes, which are both fitting motifs (even if the latter is unintentional) for a signature development from the late Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid. The bridge was also one of the great works of Abu Dhabi’s early 21st-century period as the city rushed towards its future as a hub and home to diverse communities and assets.
Combined, the three causeways provide a picture of connectivity, industrial power and, in Ms Hadid’s work, stardust.
Further along the island, each of the bridges that now connect it to other and new areas of the city contribute to the narrative of the city, too.
This month, the newest addition to the portfolio was opened, an 11-kilometre road project that includes 3.8km of bridges over calm water and verdant mangroves and joins Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Street with Reem Island and Umm Yifenah Island.
The project is both the latest piece in the “Salam Street” jigsaw – as it was known before the street was renamed after the country’s Founding Father – and part of a large-scale set of improvements that have seen Ms Hadid’s bridge commissioned, the tunnel opened at the far end of Sheikh Zayed Street, the Eastern Mangroves promenade redeveloped as well as now the new bridge commissioned. An extension to the tunnel through Mina Zayed is currently under construction.
Joining the new bridge from Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Street, the roadway offers impressive views of the mangroves, as well as the glass tower blocks of the city and Reem Island. The interplay of conservation and progress is arresting, as the road curves around towards the instantly recognisable dome of the Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi campus on the edge of Reem.
It is also a reminder of the power of bridges, which join previously discrete places and connect people’s lives in both a physical and metaphorical sense.
Reem Island joins with the rest of the city and Al Maryah Island, the city’s financial district, through a network of smaller bridges at the other end of the island that have also been brought to life since the turn of the century.
Three further developments are worth considering here.
The multi-lane 1.4km Sheikh Khalifa Bridge to Saadiyat Island not only steeples sharply into the sky to provide spectacular views of both the museums district, currently a hive of activity with multiple new cultural assets being brought to life, and the changing skyline of Reem Island, it also reminds us that it provided the original connection point to Saadiyat’s evolving project and Yas Island when it opened weeks before the inaugural 2009 Formula One Grand Prix.
And then there is the hulking 2012 structure once known to some as the bridge to nowhere, that now definitely leads to somewhere – the developing leisure and activity destination that is Hudayriyat Island – accessible from the mid-island mature suburban areas that have settled around Shakhbout bin Sultan Street.
One final bridge, albeit temporary, was also brought into being in the UAE in the same week that the new Reem Island to Sheikh Zayed Street connection was inaugurated.
Bridges of Goodness, an initiative from the Emirates Red Crescent and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, is providing relief, support and aid for earthquake survivors in Syria and Turkey, following the catastrophe earlier this month.
In years to come, we may remember this as the UAE’s greatest bridge, one that unites communities and crosses borders with purpose and goodwill. One whose story is wrapped in solidarity, empathy and hope.