Abu Dhabi continues fuelling the design sector

With Abu Dhabi starting to overshadow its glitzier neighbour Dubai, more groups are setting up shop there. Angus Montgomery reports


When design and branding consultants working in the Middle East talk about the respective profiles of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, it’s hard not to stereotype the two emirates in the context of the recession.

Dubai, described as ‘glitzy’, ‘entrepreneurial’, and ‘cosmopolitan’, is clearly of the brash old school, conjuring up images of get-rich-quick, fly-by-night deals conducted under a neon glare.

Its neighbour Abu Dhabi, just over 100km down the coast, is described in more post-recessionary terms; words like ‘heritage’, ‘providence’ and ‘grown-up’ are bandied around, as is the assertion that ‘the pace is slower’.

There is a very large nugget of truth in these rather simplistic portrayals, although confederates in the United Arab Emirates, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are very different beasts.

Dubai has undergone staggering economic growth over the past ten years in the financial, property and tourism sectors, but, unlike in Abu Dhabi, this was never underpinned by vast oil reserves – the UAE government predicts that Dubai’s oil will run out completely in the next 20 years. Its extravagant developments, such as the man-made Palm Islands, are becoming icons of artifice.

Abu Dhabi, which sits on an estimated one-tenth of the world’s oil reserves, has the luxury of developing at a steadier pace. As the UAE’s capital and home of President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, it’s also keen to build for the benefit of its own population, not, as is predominantly the case in Dubai, for visitors.

Toby Southgate, managing director of The Brand Union’s Abu Dhabi office, says, ‘At its most simplistic, Abu Dhabi’s focal point for future tourism will be culture and heritage. Dubai’s is based on theme parks, shopping malls and golf.’

The Brand Union claims to be the first global branding consultancy to have set up in Abu Dhabi, having officially opened its office there just over a year ago.

Other consultancies there include FutureBrand, which has a full-time office based in the emirate, and Brand Faith, whose clients include Abu Dhabi National Airport and Abu Dhabi Department of Civil Service.

London-based Manha, which does a lot of work with property firms such as Minerva and Bovis Lend Lease, also has a presence there, and Dubai-based Brash Brands, founded in 2007 by John Brash, former Landor creative director Dubai and design director for the London office, has just opened an Abu Dhabi office to service a growing number of clients there, including the Abu Dhabi Investment House.

Several global networks service Abu Dhabi from their Dubai offices, according to Southgate, and he says The Brand Union also faces competition from global advertising networks which have set up in Abu Dhabi, as well as a growing number of UK independent consultancies which have spotted an opportunity there.

Southgate says, ‘In the first instance, people approaching the Middle East tend to look at Dubai, but when they investigate further there is an understanding that there is a market in Abu Dhabi.’

One of Abu Dhabi’s biggest attractions, from a design point of view, is Plan Abu Dhabi 2030, the emirate’s staggeringly ambitious urban development framework, which predicts a population growth of 2 million over the next 20 years, and takes in property development, land use and transport.

Projects under way by architects of global repute – such as Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim, Zaha Hadid’s Performing Arts Centre and Jean Nouvel’s Louvre, all on Saadiyat Island, not to mention Foster & Partners’ 6km2 zero-carbon Masdar city – hold the promise of lucrative branding and interiors work to come.

Southgate acknowledges that Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 was a very important, if not necessarily a deciding factor in The Brand Union’s decision to set up in Abu Dhabi, pointing out that this is far from the only significant policy initiative in the emirate.

Major education and economic diversification programmes, he says, will also act as a catalyst for progress across a broad range of sectors and industries, so the future of Abu Dhabi’s development appears comprehensive and well-planned.

For Brash, Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 is a crystallisation of the emirate’s patient ethos. ‘The timescale is across 30 years – in Dubai they try to achieve things in a year,’ he says, and finds that this is also evident in clients’ attitudes.

‘In Abu Dhabi relationships are more personal and commitments are longer,’ Brash says. ‘The pace there is different from Dubai. Abu Dhabi clients are prepared to wait until they have assembled the best team and have arrived at the best solution before they move ahead.’

And while the future in Dubai – where Brash predicts the entrepreneurial spirit will act as a catalyst for fresh thinking and new, innovative ideas – could certainly still hold attractions, in this era of recession-led austerity and a craving for stability, the sensible and reassuring economic sustainability of Abu Dhabi has a timely appeal.

Abu Dhabi

• Along with Dubai, one of seven emirates that make up the UAE

• The capital of the UAE, as well as the seat of its president

• Controls an estimated 10% of the world’s oil reserves

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