Postcard from… Abu Dhabi

Immediately below, cars are double and even triple parked in a desperate effort to avoid a 20 minute walk to the office in 39 degrees centigrade.  This is the view from my office window in downtown Abu Dhabi, and it reveals both sides of this fascinating and rapidly developing Emirate: the traditional and the breathtaking race for modernity. 

Abu Dhabi, perhaps less well known than its sister emirate Dubai, is where I’ve recently relocated from London with my wife and three young children to head up my firm’s Middle East and North Africa real estate practice.  I say less well known (a friend of my wife when told over the phone that we were going to Abu Dhabi and that we hoped it wouldn’t be too hot replied that it generally wasn’t that hot in Wales – perhaps it’s my wife’s accent..), but I suspect that won’t be said for too much longer.

I say this as Abu Dhabi has plans for growth.  Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 is an impressive master plan for the emirate’s development over 25 years.  It is ambitious and aims not only to create infrastructure for up to 5 million people (the current population being just over 850,000), but envisages Abu Dhabi as being not only a commercial hub but also a cultural and educational one, both within the region and also globally.  Already Paris’s Sorbonne University has a campus in the city and by 2011 it is anticipated that both the Guggenheim and the Louvre will open exciting new museums in the new cultural quarter being built on Saadiyat Island.

More immediately Abu Dhabi will be hosting it’s first Formula One grand prix on 1 November. The final race of the Formula One season promises to be a thriller and local British expats are secretly hoping that Jenson Button won’t claim the title before November.  Others are more excited about the accompanying performances from the likes of Beyonce, Kings of Leon, Justin Timberlake and Aerosmith.  Events like this weren’t heard of just five years ago and really show the ambition that Abu Dhabi has for growth.

As for me, I’m busy travelling the region meeting clients and potential new clients. Last week I was in Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar, as well as Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The underlying dynamic for growth in the region, and growth in the legal sector, is driven by its population growth and wealth from the petrochemicals industries and real estate is an important element of that growth.

A part of my role is meeting with local lawyers to assist with some of the projects we’re working on.  To me this presents one of the most fascinating elements of my new life; the opportunity to meet with people from different cultures and backgrounds and seek to understand how the laws here are put into effect. 

Yesterday, for instance, I met with a senior partner from a local firm who’s been here for 33 years practising law. When I asked where he’d come from he explained that he was from Northern Iraq and originally of Turkish decent and we discussed Iraq and its potential for some time. This is just one example where life in the Gulf still lives up to its historical role as a centre of trade.  On any given day, I’ll meet expats from Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan, the United States, the Philippines – and that’s just the tip of the sand dun. Their friendliness and willingness to discuss life in the emirates always amazes me.

Well, that’s all from me; I’d better go and try to find my car…

Nick Turner is a partner and head of real estate for the Middle East and North Africa at Herbert Smith