Abu Dhabi: Jewel of the Middle East

Abu Dhabi: Jewel of the Middle East

Still relatively unknown in much of the western world, Abu Dhabi is an exciting, modern, and prosperous city. It has become an economic powerhouse with an extremely bright future.

History and The Land

This flourishing, vibrant city, with stunning skyscrapers and beautiful coastlines, was just a simple, unknown desert territory in the 1950s. 


Only 43  years ago, seven principalities, Abu  Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Quwain, Ras al-Khaimah, and Fujairah united and became the United Arab Emirates (UAE). 

UAE Flag
UAE Flag
Abu Dhabi Flag
Abu Dhabi Flag

Abu Dhabi is the capital of the UAE. It is also the richest and largest emirate, covering 87% of the  country’s land mass. It is located on the coast of the Persian Gulf, just 200 km. east of Qatar, 150 km. south of Iran, and borders Saudi Arabia and Oman.

Middle East
Middle East

Abu Dhabi’s literal translation in Arabic is “Father of Deer”. Archeological evidence suggests that civilizations, such as the Umm an-Nar existed from the third millennium BC. These civilizations were suggested to exist near the city of Al Ain, close to the Mountain of Hafeet. This oasis city at the foot of the mountain, had great visibility, contained lakes, and had a lot of moisture.

Abu Dhabi has a 700 km. long coastline covers 200 islands that comprise an area of 67,340km², or approximately the size of West Virginia. 93% of its land is covered by desert, and only 30% is inhabited. The two largest cities in Abu Dhabi are Al Ain and Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi is known for beautiful beaches, sunshine and blue skies. The country experiences a warm climate year round. The humid and extreme heat during the months of April to September range from 40 to 50 degrees celsius. There are many problems that come with the extreme heat and desert, such as, unpredictable sandstorms, which often threatens visibility down to few meters. During October to March, Abu Dhabi has a fairly mild winter with the occasional winds and dense fog that can appear in the morning. The coolest months of the year are January and February.

Historically, this land was occupied for centuries by numerous Bedouin tribes (nomadic people of the desert),. The Bani Yas tribe used to be settled in the  Liwa Oasis, located along the present border of the UAE and Saudi Arabia. This tribe was also the most significant and powerful in the area, having 20 subsections. In 1793, one of the 20 subsections migrated to the island of Abu Dhabi due to the availability of fresh water. The Al Nahyan family is one of these early groups that settled in the area that is Abu Dhabi today. Descendants of the Al Nahyan family are the present-day rulers of Abu Dhabi. Their family comprises the royal monarchy of the UAE.

The Royal Family

Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan
Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan

Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan was the principal driving force of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the ruler of Abu Dhabi and the first president of the UAE, a post which he held for 33 years (1971-2004). He was named after his grandfather, Sheikh Zayed bin Khalifa Al Nahyan also known as “Zayed the Great”, who ruled the emirate from 1855 to 1909. His father, Sultan bin Zayed bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, was the ruler until his assassination in 1926.

Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan only had basic instructions in the principles of Islam as there were no modern schools in the UAE. He also learned how to survive harsh climates. Sheikh Zayed assisted in the early exploration of oil in the 1940s. He is credited with masterminding the beginning of the territory’s modernization. Finally, at the age of 85, when he died, he had at least 29 children and six wives.  

Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan
Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan

Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, born on January 25, 1948, is the son of Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. He is the current President of the UAE, the ruler of Abu Dhabi and the Commander of the Union Defense Force. Sheikh Khalifa is married to Shamsa bint Suahil Al Mazrouei and has eight children. He received an elite education having graduated from Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, England.

Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan
Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan

Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan was born on the 20th of November 1970, and  is the son of Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. He is also the half brother of the current president. Sheikh Mansour is 44 years of age, and has married two women and has five children. He is the Deputy Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, Minister of Presidential Affairs and member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family. He is an active businessman, owning Manchester City Football Club and the Dubai tower. He is an accomplished horseman and owns the horse race courses of the UAE.

Economic Prosperity: Oil and Pearls

It was the discovery of oil that ignited the modernization of Abu Dhabi and allowed it to become an economic power. Today, the emirate has more than $1 trillion invested worldwide. Abu Dhabi is a fast growing economy. By 2010, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita had skyrocketed to an impressive $49,600, which ranks ninth in the world. It is the wealthiest emirate of the UAE in GDP, and per capita income.

The discovery of oil brought new life to Abu Dhabi. Emirates were late starters in the exploration of oil. In the late 1930s and early 1040s, oil exploration was started with the help of British companies as this region was under British dominance. The British had treaties with almost all the Emirates, including Abu Dhabi, under which they had the final say on who could get the oil concessions. Exploration of oil stopped during the time of World War II. In 1958, Abu Dhabi Marine Areas (ADMA) became the first company to discover oil in commercial quantities at Umm al-Shalif close to Das Islands, in the Persian Gulf. On the island of Das, a production and processing center, and an oil export terminal was built. That same year, the Abu Dhabi Petroleum Company (ADPC) discovered oil on what is now called the Bab Oilfield. Ten years after the first oil discovery, the island of Mubarraz yielded another rich deposit. In the early 1960s, oil exports began in large quantities, but the city was still undeveloped and inhabited by migrants, or pearl divers. In 1966, when Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan became the ruler, there were only 20,000 people living in Abu Dhabi, but the population exploded to 580,000 by the time the twenty-first century started.

In the first year of oil production, Abu Dhabi produced 14,200 barrels per day of oil. The production increased by 34,000 barrels the following year, and 172,600 barrel in two years. By 2014, the production grew to an amazing 2.9 million barrels per day.  

unnamed-2Since 1999, oil refining has been conducted by the wholly-owned subsidiary of ADNOC, the Abu Dhabi Oil Refining Company. In 1976, the first refiner was built at Umm al Mar with a capacity of 15,000 barrels. In 1983, it increased to 60,000, and in 1988, the capacity was increased yet again to 72,000 barrels. Currently, the capacity stands at 90,000, which is an impressive 75,000 more barrels than when it started.

Oil in Abu Dhabi is considered light. Its oil has gravity (measurement of how heavy or light petroleum is) in the 34 to 40 degree API range. The high quality of Abu Dhabi oil, long-term contracts, and the security of its oil supply has made it the major supplier of oil to Japan, China, and South Korea. It is, in fact, the main supplier of crude oil to Japan.

Abu Dhabi alone holds 9% of the world oil and 5% of the world’s gas. Abu Dhabi by far is the biggest oil depositor in the UAE. Abu Dhabi is the only gulf oil producer that has retained foreign partners. Most oil producers in the gulf control 100% of their oil operations. The structure of the consortium (business partnership) is 60% Abu Dhabi and 40% international investors jointly operating the oil filed. The 40% mix is shifting from U.S. and European companies to higher inclusion of the Asian companies.

In 2007, to reduce their reliance on only one source of income being oil, the Abu Dhabi Government indicated certain areas in which it planned to diversify its economy. Today, 48% of Abu Dhabi’s GDP is from non-oil and gas businesses.

As vital as the oil industry is today to Abu Dhabi, it was the pearl industry that was historically the business backbone to the Emirate. Back as early as the 12th century, the pearl industry was the only real income for what is now called the UAE. The land was too arid for farming, and there was a scarce amount of water and food. The people were so poor that the economy worked on the barter system. The barter system is where you pay in goods and services instead of currency. For example, when someone has extra cloth, but needs rice, they look for someone who has extra rice to trade with.

Several hundred years ago, there were some families that moved from the nomadic desert lifestyle to live near the coast to fish. Fisherman probably first discovered pearls near shore. It was hard to make a living from oysters, as  well as it was a huge communal effort. At that time, diving for oysters meant diving to the depths of 40 meters with no equipment.

In the eighteenth and the nineteenth century with the growth of pearl demands from Europe and India, the modest pearl industry became an established and important industry. unnamed-7Merchants financed the boats, and in return, the merchant got a good percentage of the captain’s catch. The rest of the money was distributed among the crew. Divers received twice as much money compared to the pullers in the boats because the job of a diver had higher risk. The merchant was pretty much the investor in a small company, in this case the small company was the pearl diving team. If the crew excavated a magnificent pearl, they made good money. The business, though, was a game of luck. Diving was financially and physically dangerous. If their seasonal catch was not enough, they would have to borrow from the owner of the boat, and be in debt at the start of the next season. One bad season could lead to a lifetime of debt. On the other hand, a good season could provide a life in an oasis such as Al Ain. 

In the early 1930s, Japan found out how to make cultured pearls (a pearl made with the insertion of a small object around which layers of nacre are deposited by the oyster). This proved to be a disaster to the pearling industry around the Persian Gulf. The Gulf’s economy never really recovered until the discovery of oil.

An Environmental Friend

Abu Dhabi is amazingly environmentally friendly while it furnishes 9% of the worlds oil. Every time they construct a plant or plan a new project, they think about how the environment will be effected. Over the past decade, land cultivation and irrigation for agriculture and forestation, also known as “green” areas, have increased in size to about 5% of the total land area. This includes parks, roadside plantations and even gardens. Almost 2 % of the total land in Abu Dhabi is used for agriculture. They are actively enhancing the diversity of their land. Dozens of islands of the Abu Dhabi territory have been designated as wildlife sanctuaries. A small part of its land area is covered by mountains, which contain several caves. The coastal area contains pockets of wetland and mangrove colonies. The government of Abu Dhabi takes their commitment to preserving the environment seriously.

A Land of Beauty

Especially in the last 20 years, there has been a drive to promote tourism. Etihad Airways, the national airline of the United Arab Emirates, was created  with the purpose of bringing in tourists. unnamed-6There are many exciting places to visit on a trip to Abu Dhabi: a water world for children, a Ferrari world, and almost everything you can ever imagine is being built to attract tourists. To bring cultural attractions, world-renowned museums, such as, the Louvre from Paris and the Guggenheim from New York, plus the Zayed National Museum are being built. World class golf tournaments are a regular pass time. 

To carry on their diversification agenda, they have created free zones. There are now three Industrial City of Abu Dhabi (ICAD) and twofour54 Abu Dhabi  media free zone. To encourage real estate development, the Development Investment Company is undertaking several large-scale development projects. These projects are being served by improved transportation infrastructure such as with necapital-gate-12[5]w port, an expanded airport and a rail link to Dubai.

This oil rich nation is looking to evolve into something more than a mere oil field. Abu Dhabi is being designed into a sophisticated, cosmopolitan city with world class golf courses, sleek skyscrapers, and exciting activities for people of all ages. 


This oil rich nation is looking to evolve into something more than a mere oil field. Abu Dhabi is being planned into a sophisticated city with world class golf courses and skyscrapers. While the modern era of this booming economic power is relatively short, the future of looks extremely bright. Abu Dhabi will continue to build upon its economic prosperity, while at the same time become a mecca for world tourism, as it shines as a showcase of the Middle East.


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