Ghadan 21: the next phase of Abu Dhabi’s development

The capital has built the physical infrastructure of a world-class city. Now, it is concentrating on the intangible environment a cultural and commercial powerhouse demands

The Louvre Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat island. Courtesy DCT Abu Dhabi
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A decade ago, if you wanted to get a sense of what Abu Dhabi might look like in the future, you would be drawn instinctively towards the Saadiyat island project.

Imagined as an intersection of cultural exchange, Saadiyat was a big idea that existed back then only in the traces of a few lines in the sand and on the drawing boards of some of the world’s most notable architects.

Some of its importance in 2009 was to represent the frontline of what a part of the city would soon become: a destination resort, a museums district, a seat of intellectual rigour and a beacon that served to attract talented and inquisitive global citizens to it.

The fruits of that idea are there for all to see in 2019 as soon as the island’s twin informal gatehouses of the New York University Abu Dhabi campus and the dome of Louvre Abu Dhabi come into view on either side of the Sheikh Khalifa Bridge.

There is, of course, more to Saadiyat than that and more to come on the island – more museums, seats of education, amenities and communities – but its path is now set and the vision is, piece by piece, becoming reality.

How, then, would you get a sense of what Abu Dhabi will look like in 2029, if you made the same enquiry now?

The answer to that question arrived earlier this week and was delivered, appropriately enough, at one of the hotels that now cluster along Saadiyat's pristine coastline.

If the focus a decade ago was reintroducing the city to the world through a new and expansive visitor experience, the vision today, as expressed through Ghadan 21, is about opening up and expanding channels of commerce.

Ghadan 21 is a three-year project, which will wrap up soon after the country marks its 50th birthday in December 2021, but its impact is likely to stay with us for years afterwards.

If the big idea of Saadiyat was to pivot the region and the world towards an emerging cultural destination in the Arab world, the Ghadan 21 plan is a sweeping chain of initiatives to cut red tape and stimulate the emirate's economy.

Nine initiatives were announced on Tuesday, including proposals for small business loans, the availability of a research and development fund, and improvements to business licensing.

As Rashed Al Blooshi, undersecretary at the Abu Dhabi Department of Economic Development, said of Ghadan 21: “If you want money, it’s there. If you want knowledge, it’s there … if you want to speed up the process, it’s there.

“We, here in Abu Dhabi, want to attract ideas, brains, smart people.”

Ghadan 21 says that an R&D fund worth Dh4 billion will be available for innovators, operating licences will be issued using one of the quickest systems in the world, and loans will be available for small and medium enterprises looking to open up shop or expand. Together, the initiatives set up a comprehensive economic ecosystem.

“We are in a new era,” said Mr Mr Al Blooshi, and, certainly, when you see these initiatives within the broader picture of the many changes to the visa rules that have been made at a federal level, including the golden card, that new era is easy to imagine.

If, a decade ago, the Abu Dhabi of the future was a process in imposing the physical – the architecture of signature buildings and even the roadways to speed visitors to those facilities – then, in 2019, that vision involves building the intangible environment.

That's where we should also return to Saadiyat and the vision of 2009.

Back then, some wondered where Abu Dhabi’s museums district would sit within the traditional cultural capitals of the region, such as Beirut, Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus.

That enquiry has been emphatically answered by the presence of a world-class museum and the promise of more to come. It has also been answered by circumstance and choice.

Data tells us time and again that young Arabs see their futures in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, where generations ago they may have been drawn to those other cities around the Middle East.

They choose the UAE for a variety of reasons, because it is a stable and safe place to live, but also because the economy is healthy and there are opportunities to be grasped.

If the vision of an emerging cultural capital drew people to Abu Dhabi a decade ago, the reality of the Ghadan 21 will bring ideas and innovation to the city today and tomorrow.

Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National