Journey through the "New Middle East": Fall 1994; the United Arab Emirates; A Passion for Stability

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Journey Through the "New Middle East": Fall 1994; The United Arab Emirates; A Passion for Stability

The journey from Abu Dhabi's futuristic airport into the capital of the seven-member United Arab Emirates is startling for first-time visitors. From the air as they descend they can see that Abu Dhabi is a large, very modern city situated between the shimmering blue waters of the Arabian Gulf and a vast, confusing panorama of sand islands separated by narrow channels, broad bays, and occasional mangrove swamps.

But from the moment the car pulls out of the airport until it arrives almost in the center of the city, passengers are whisked along a superhighway between seemingly unbroken walls of trees and shrubs, some of which always seem to be in bloom. Where are the miles of sand that dominate the landscape as seen from the air? And if the road is a broad tunnel through greenery, why were so few trees visible on the sand flats and low rolling hills outside the city?

The answer lies in the passion for greenery of Sheikh Zayid Bin Sultan Al-Nahayan, ruler of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and president of the United Arab Emirates. Nor is the tree-lined highway linking the airport to the city he built almost from scratch a sort of Potemkin village. The 100-plus miles of superhighway that link Abu Dhabi to the inland oasis city of Al-Ain also are lined the entire way with trees and shrubs, broken only in one place by a giant, shifting sand ridge that intersects the highway. There the same maintenance crews of expatriate laborers who turn on and off the elaborate system of irrigation pipes and feeder hoses that keep the shrubbery green along Abu Dhabi's superhighways must bulldoze away the sands that encroach on the highway with every strong wind off the desert or the Arabian Gulf.

Sheikh Zayid's determination to soften the desert landscape with miles of greenery, irrigated in Abu Dhabi by wastewater channeled into the carefully maintained individual earth basins around every shrub, is reflected in every aspect of the planned city that grew up on Abu Dhabi island. When, nearly 25 years ago, I first visited Abu Dhabi, which is both the principal city of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and the capital of the United Arab Emirates, I was startled by an elaborate and artistically laid-out network of low cement walls, railings, pillars and inlaid brick side-walks providing a strikingly beautiful corniche that would have enhanced the most picturesque Mediterranean city. However, what seemed to be missing in those days was a city large enough to back up this planned seafront.

In subsequent years, the city developed and grew to fit the carefully planned corniche, to which fountains, lawns and parks have been added. Now so many tall, glass-fronted office and residential apartment buildings line the two miles of corniche that developers are forced to buy up and tear down tall buildings dating only to the late 1970s to make way for ever higher and grander office towers reflecting the petroleum-fueled prosperity of a country with a per capita GNP of $22,220, one of the highest in the world. (Japan is $28,280, the U.S. is $23,120.)

In fact, Abu Dhabi's vast reserves of petroleum provide the glue uniting the seven emirates, which is why Abu Dhabi's ruler also serves as the U.A.E. president. At the time the British pulled out of the lower Gulf in 1972, all of the emirates had been given the choice of going it alone or forming a confederation. Like Kuwait, Bahrain, which had found and pumped its oil a generation earlier than the others, chose to maintain its independence and depend on banks and service industries to replace its dwindling oil as the country's principal foreign exchange earners. Qatar, with plentiful oil and bountiful gas reserves, followed suit. But Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Um Al-Qawain, Ras Al-Khaima and Fujaira chose links with generous Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Those links are holding, even though Ras Al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Dubai now all have found oil of their own. …