The man behind Abu Dhabi’s master plan

City planner Dr Abdulrahman Makhlouf joined the UAE’s founding father, Sheikh Zayed, in the Sea Palace in 1974 where they drew up the design for the city grid we still know today – and named the main streets.

Dr Abdulrahman Makhlouf points out to Sheikh Zayed one of the features of the design for Abu Dhabi. Courtesy National Centre for Documentation and Research
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Every street in Abu Dhabi has a story, but the story behind all of them begins with a meeting inside a palace.

Some time in 1974, inside one of the rooms of Qasr Al Bahr, the Sea Palace, the names for Abu Dhabi’s main streets were born.

Sitting with Sheikh Zayed, the late founding father of UAE, was a small group of men, among them Dr Abdulrahman Makhlouf, the man behind the Abu Dhabi city master plan.

“His Highness outlined three main concepts upon which the streets of Abu Dhabi were to be based on,” recalls the urban city planner who celebrated his 90th birthday this year and who can properly claim to be “Abu Abu Dhabi”.

The streets were to be named after members of Nahyan family who had an important role in the development and progress of Abu Dhabi. Hamdan Street, the first to be built, was named after Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Nahyan, who headed five departments in the early days of Abu Dhabi: road construction, urban planning, the municipality, public works and education.

The streets were also to be named after geographically locations linked to the story of Abu Dhabi, such as Delma Street, after Delma Island.

“And then as Sheikh Zayed discussed his third concept, I was reminded of what the Greek philosopher Plato said about the ideal city, that a city must in addition to fulfilling its basic function of providing shelter and protection to its residents, it must be a source of happiness,” said Dr Makhlouf.

The third philosophical concept was embodied in the street that he named “Al Saada”, or happiness, because, “Sheikh Zayed wanted people who live here to feel happy”.

Dr Makhlouf, who is from Egypt, first landed in Abu Dhabi in October 1968. As with many pioneers who arrived in the late 1960s, he fell in love with the city he helped to shape, and never left.

“It is my home. I arrived via Qatar on Gulf Aviation, which was like a bird with huge propellers,” he laughed.

“Sheikh Zayed wanted an Arab city planner. Someone he could communicate to directly about his vision without the need for a translator.”

Upon completing his doctorate in Germany, Dr Makhlouf returned to the Arab world where he worked with the United Nations in the development of urban planning. It was a representative from the United Nations Programme for Technical Assistance who sent Dr Makhlouf a cable asking if he would be interested in working in Abu Dhabi.

“I said yes. I had already worked on cities in Saudi Arabia, like Mecca, Madina and Jeddah. So I was familiar with the Gulf,” he said. “My father’s name was also famous in the Islamic world, Sheikh Hassanian Mohammed Makhlouf, Mufti of Egypt. So my name sounded familiar.”

Dr Makhlouf pauses and walks over to an enlarged black and white photo of Sheikh Zayed shaking hands with him while standing in the old Abu Dhabi airport, where residents also came to greet the Ruler of the emirate.

“That is my first photo with Sheikh Zayed.”

The planner’s office, called the Arab Office for Planning and Architecture, is entirely lined with old photos and maps of his years in Abu Dhabi, many of them enlarged and documented carefully as if it were a museum.

“His Highness was away in Geneva when I arrived. By the time he arrived, I had already done a survey of the area and done rough sketches of how the city should be developed. I headed to the airport when I heard he was arriving and I was perhaps the only Arab man standing in a tailored suit there. So when Sheikh Zayed noticed me and shook my hand and greeted me, he asked one of his advisers, ‘Who is this man?’ ”

Dr Makhlouf smiles as he remembers how Sheikh Zayed smiled upon hearing he was “the expert city planner, the one the United Nations mentioned”.

“I am always in an elegant suit. It is not dignified to be seen in public without a tie.”

He came over to replace Katsuhiko Takahashi, from Japan, who was Sheikh Zayed’s first city planner and whose plan Dr Makhlouf supported.

“I thought it was clever. It had the straight roads that we still see today.”

The urban form was basically a linear plan, with the main spine the Airport Road. In the upper part of the island, which is wider, the pattern is a grid.

Dr Makhlouf recalls asking the late president why he preferred straight lines. “Sheikh Zayed said to me, ‘I know where I am, and I know where I want to go, so why not use a straight line between the two points? We want a capital city for Abu Dhabi, and we need to get there as quickly as possible’.”

Sheikh Zayed also set clear instructions on the preservation of trees and the allocation of vast areas for gardens, while lining the streets with plants and flowers and maintaining cultural traditions in planning and architecture.

The core question any urban planner must ask is – what is the function of the city? Sheikh Zayed had a different vision from that of the British, explains Dr Makhlouf.

Dr Makhlouf says the British looked at Abu Dhabi as an oil hub, but Sheikh Zayed wanted a capital city.

“His Highness wanted a city that reflected the history of its ancestors and the role they played within the region pre-oil time,” he said. “And a capital is everything, a political entity, a social entity, an economic and cultural entity. He wanted a modern city to perform the functions of a capital of the anticipated federation.”

Pulling out copies of the minutes of a meeting on July 7, 1969 between Dr Makhlouf and several British partners, he points out how he had much higher estimates for the growth of Abu Dhabi.

“They expected that total population in 20 years to reach just 50,000, but I said let us plan for 250,000 as it will be a full fledged city. If you expect a bigger population, then you make plans for more services and accommodations.

“One of the top British people there asked me, ‘Where will we get these people?’ and I told him, ‘If Sheikh Zayed wants a million people here tomorrow, he will push a button and open a door, and he will have a million people here’.”

By 1975, the population of Abu Dhabi city had reached about 127,763, astonishing growth given that barely a decade earlier it was less than 10,000. When laying out the plans, Dr Makhlouf estimated that 40 per cent of the population would be working in services, 30 per cent in industry and shipping and the remainder as merchants.

Looking over the city today, the old planner says there isn’t much left of what he designed.

The old souq, one of the first projects he finished and one of his favourites, has long been demolished and replaced by a new central market.

“When I was showing him the master plan, he asked me what is this? I told him the souq, with over 200 new shops. He said, ‘Let us start with this’,” he recalls.

One of Dr Makhouf’s fondest memories is how he sat in the early days of planning on a spot of sand near where the Intercontinental hotel is today and Sheikh Zayed looked at him and asked: “Ish nawi tswi fena? What are your plans for us?

“Are you going to present us with a set of international maps and graphs and execute them or will you do what we want?”

Dr Makhlouf replied: ”I will present you with possible alternatives, and you will choose what you feel suits you best.”

The old planner says he was never a “yes” man, and lives by the motto of “planning is a social mission”.

Reflecting over the parking issues in the city, he says: “I put a limit on the tallest building, just three floors initially. Then seven maximum, as it will influence the traffic and parking. A city is an organic being, it should breathe and it should expand organically and slowly.”

Dr Makhlouf says that when he taught here and abroad, he always told his students that “the rights of the neighbours” is a very important concept in Islam and in urban planning. His concepts are based on sustainable neighbourhood units. Remembering the old residential areas of Abu Dhabi, which have changed today, he describes them as more like “a camp site” in which each unit had seven houses homes close to each other, but then a space away from another collection of homes. For all the homes there was a meeting point, a central spot, for neighbours to meet after evening prayers.

“I called it the Gossip Lane, where women could meet to talk,” he laughs.

The founder of the Abu Dhabi planning department, of landmark structures such as Sheikh Zayed Stadium, has finally put all his life’s work into a book that will be published by end of the year.

“A lifetime journey it will be called and what a journey,” says Dr Makhlouf. “Everything that happened in my life, has been a gift from Allah.

"I am always humbled by the story of one of the ancient kings of Egypt, Qaroun, whose arrogance ended up garnering the wrath of God and demolishing him and his land, leaving just a lake behind."

Dr Makhlouf lives next to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, where Sheikh Zayed is buried.

“I was building my house there when one day I saw His Highness picking out the spot where he would like to be buried. I have been lucky to be close to him in his life and later living near his final resting place. Allah have mercy upon his soul.”