Postcard from… Abu Dhabi

In the latest in our Postcards from... series, Ashurst partner David Wadham discusses schooling, AC and mini-rugby in Abu Dhabi.

Postcard from... Abu DhabiI’ve been in Abu Dhabi with my family for over five years now. When we first arrived, Abu Dhabi had a much quieter feel and a very low profile in the international media.

I joined the firm in 2006 initially working out of Dubai, until we opened in Abu Dhabi last May. We’ve now got some 40 lawyers across the two offices and a mixture of nationalities that includes Aussies, Brits, Belgians, Canadians, French, Indians, Jordanians, Lebanese and Malaysian. The make-up of our office reflects the multi-cultural nature of the UAE.

Cost and availability of housing for newcomers is a major issue in Abu Dhabi, but we’ve lived in the same villa on Abu Dhabi island since our arrival, rather than in one of the large residential developments being built on the mainland to accommodate the ever-growing expat community. It is big and slightly run-down, with unreliable AC units but in a nice, central part of the island. Apart from the calls to prayer from the nearby mosque, the area is tranquil and the kids can cycle in the street.

Our day starts early, as the kids have to be in school by 7.45, but this means that I can take them, which I try to do a couple of times a week. They attend the nearby British School, which is a large school with over a thousand pupils, but at drop-off I might well see a few clients or fellow lawyers.

I am lucky with my journey to work. The office is a ten minute drive away, which is a relief after two years working in Dubai, where I would drive the 150kms up the Sheikh Zayed road, the eight-lane highway, at least twice a week.

The Sheikh Zayed road is one of the straightest, dullest and yet most dangerous pieces of road around, enlivened only by the occasional Landcruiser doing 200 kmh up the hard shoulder. This is very much a car-based culture, although we are starting to see a number of public transport initiatives, such as buses in Abu Dhabi and, of course, the Dubai metro.

I do miss the convenience of working in Dubai International Financial Centre, which had everything from Costa Coffee, to Gourmet Burger to a De Beers outlet, depending on your needs and wallet-size. Here, lunch choices are restricted to Subway (sandwich to be ordered several hours in advance), or else a selection of interesting dishes from Geelato (sic) café downstairs. The manaqeesh (bread with various toppings) isn’t bad, although I’ve not plucked up the courage to try the Mortadella pie.

Despite the global downturn, which is being felt here too, Abu Dhabi is still a remarkably positive place to live and work.The city still has the feel of a place “on the up” and that dynamism is one of the things that I enjoy about being here.

Drawing perhaps on the lessons from Dubai’s unstructured growth, Abu Dhabi has put in place a master plan called “Abu Dhabi 2030”. Under the plan, the city is expected to grow to three million people by 2030 and there are lots of exciting developments underway, including the brand new Formula One racetrack (and Ferrari theme park) and a new cultural island which will be the home to a new Guggenheim and to the Abu Dhabi Louvre.

It’s Thursday afternoon as I’m writing this, and by mid-afternoon you can sense the weekend is nearly here. Many people who work for local companies will have stopped work at 2pm, and from my window, which looks out over some dhows moored in the bay below, I can see a procession of jet skis and boats being towed to the marina.

We’re entering the perfect season, where the daytime temperatures are around thirty degrees and the water is pleasant for swimming. Because the weather is so unbearably hot and sticky for several months (even after dark), you make every effort to take advantage when it’s nice. Many families – mine included – head back to the UK during the summer. But during the winter, our kids go to mini-rugby on a Thursday evening and I try to get up there to watch them.

Tomorrow we’ll probably go to the beach club for a swim and some lunch. We’re out a friend’s 40th in the evening and on Saturday, assuming we’re not suffering too much from the night before, we might take the boat out, find a sandbank somewhere and have a picnic. It’s not a bad life.

David Wadham is a partner at Ashurst.