View of the Al Ain Oasis in Al Mutawaa area in Al Ain. Pawan Singh / The National
View of the Al Ain Oasis in Al Mutawaa area in Al Ain. Pawan Singh / The National

Al Ain Oasis world heritage site turns key to understanding national history



A glimpse into the UAE’s past opens to the public today at the country’s first Unesco World Heritage Site, Al Ain Oasis.

In the heart of the ancient city, Al Ain Oasis is the city’s largest and, dating back more 4,000 years, irrigated one of the world’s oldest permanently inhabited settlements. The oasis covers more than 1,200 hectares and contains more than 147,000 date palm trees producing 100 varieties of date.

With Al Ain National Museum to the east and Al Ain Palace Museum to the west, the Tourism and Culture Authority-run heritage site invites visitors to delve into the history and understand the oasis through a network of walking trails. The oasis is known by its aflaj irrigation system of narrow waterways that carry fresh spring water from the nearby Hajar Mountains.

The aflaj were shared by Al Ain’s ancient inhabitants and then by Bedouin tribes for hundreds of years. Only in the early 20th century was the technology of the irrigation systems modernised by the introduction of pumps.

Visitors to the miniature oasis, an interactive experience that mimics the real oasis in the palm grove, can learn about the workings of the aflaj network.

“People were visionary here, creating an ecosystem that fully utilised nature’s blessings, from its freshwater springs and fertile soils; a prosperous civilisation ascended and survived the passage of time,” said Mohammed Al Mubarak, chairman of TCA Abu Dhabi.

Sheikh Tahnoun Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Ruler’s Representative in the Eastern Region, who inaugurated the opening, was given a tour of the World Heritage Site during the opening.

The tour revealed a complex desert environment beyond the palm groves while highlighting the architecture and traditional practices fundamental to the cultural integrity of the site.

Visitors to the site will be given an insight into the historic nomadic stopping point by using the eco-centre to better understand the oasis’s ecosystem, its evolution, and its significance for Abu Dhabi’s heritage and civilisation.

The centre also showcases the environmental standards followed to preserve the ecosystem of the oasis, which goes back to the third millennium BCE, and perhaps even earlier.

“Al Ain Oasis does not only offer a lesson from the past but also a message for the future, namely how to create true sustainability. It is a testament to the engineering and survival capacities of mankind,” Mr Al Mubarak said.

In 2011, Al Ain was the first site in the UAE to be inscribed on Unesco’s world heritage site list, comprising of four locations: the Bronze Age Hafit Tombs, the archaeological settlements at Hili, the prehistoric vestiges at Bidaa bint Saud, and the six lush oases of Al Ain, including Al Ain Oasis.

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Mercer, the investment consulting arm of US services company Marsh & McLennan, expects its wealth division to at least double its assets under management (AUM) in the Middle East as wealth in the region continues to grow despite economic headwinds, a company official said.

Mercer Wealth, which globally has $160 billion in AUM, plans to boost its AUM in the region to $2-$3bn in the next 2-3 years from the present $1bn, said Yasir AbuShaban, a Dubai-based principal with Mercer Wealth.

Within the next two to three years, we are looking at reaching $2 to $3 billion as a conservative estimate and we do see an opportunity to do so,” said Mr AbuShaban.

Mercer does not directly make investments, but allocates clients’ money they have discretion to, to professional asset managers. They also provide advice to clients.

“We have buying power. We can negotiate on their (client’s) behalf with asset managers to provide them lower fees than they otherwise would have to get on their own,” he added.

Mercer Wealth’s clients include sovereign wealth funds, family offices, and insurance companies among others.

From its office in Dubai, Mercer also looks after Africa, India and Turkey, where they also see opportunity for growth.

Wealth creation in Middle East and Africa (MEA) grew 8.5 per cent to $8.1 trillion last year from $7.5tn in 2015, higher than last year’s global average of 6 per cent and the second-highest growth in a region after Asia-Pacific which grew 9.9 per cent, according to consultancy Boston Consulting Group (BCG). In the region, where wealth grew just 1.9 per cent in 2015 compared with 2014, a pickup in oil prices has helped in wealth generation.

BCG is forecasting MEA wealth will rise to $12tn by 2021, growing at an annual average of 8 per cent.

Drivers of wealth generation in the region will be split evenly between new wealth creation and growth of performance of existing assets, according to BCG.

Another general trend in the region is clients’ looking for a comprehensive approach to investing, according to Mr AbuShaban.

“Institutional investors or some of the families are seeing a slowdown in the available capital they have to invest and in that sense they are looking at optimizing the way they manage their portfolios and making sure they are not investing haphazardly and different parts of their investment are working together,” said Mr AbuShaban.

Some clients also have a higher appetite for risk, given the low interest-rate environment that does not provide enough yield for some institutional investors. These clients are keen to invest in illiquid assets, such as private equity and infrastructure.

“What we have seen is a desire for higher returns in what has been a low-return environment specifically in various fixed income or bonds,” he said.

“In this environment, we have seen a de facto increase in the risk that clients are taking in things like illiquid investments, private equity investments, infrastructure and private debt, those kind of investments were higher illiquidity results in incrementally higher returns.”

The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, one of the largest sovereign wealth funds, said in its 2016 report that has gradually increased its exposure in direct private equity and private credit transactions, mainly in Asian markets and especially in China and India. The authority’s private equity department focused on structured equities owing to “their defensive characteristics.”

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