At 5pm on 1 November, 20 of the world’s fastest cars screamed out of the starting grid to begin the first Abu Dhabi Formula 1 (F1) Grand Prix. More than 90 minutes and 55 laps later, Red Bull F1 team driver Sebastian Vettel took the chequered flag to win the race, the last in the 2009 season.

The result was of little consequence. Jenson Button, who finished third, had already secured the championship, although he livened up the last lap by almost taking second place. The big story was not the race but the Yas Marina Circuit, the most compelling product so far of Abu Dhabi’s drive to become the Gulf’s leading city.

It was completed in little more than three years, and the 5.5 kilometre circuit has four grandstands and enough seats for more than 40,000 spectators. At its heart is the futuristic Yas Hotel, its two elements linked by a bridge over the track. As Vettel crossed the winning line, the lights on the hotel flashed in the shape of a chequered flag.

The circuit and the hotels completed for the Grand Prix are just part of what is planned for Yas, a previously uninhabited island north of Abu Dhabi. The Ferrari World theme park, which includes the longest roller coaster in the world, is due to open before the 2010 race. Yas Island, which is being developed by Abu Dhabi’s Aldar Properties, will have a golf course, one of the region’s biggest shopping malls, a marina and homes for more than 20,000 people.

Developing masterplan

But Yas is just the start. The emirate aims to attract more than 3 million tourists in 2015, three times the number recorded 10 years earlier. And it is investing on a scale that few can match.

Abu Dhabi’s tourism campaign started in 2003 with the launch of Etihad Airways. To support its growth, Abu Dhabi International airport is being expanded to handle up to 40 million passengers. The Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) was created in October 2004 to devise a long-term masterplan and increase the pace of tourism development.

Abu Dhabi’s principal instrument for executing projects is the government-owned Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC). Its investments include the deep desert Qasr al-Sarab hotel resort, which opened in Liwa in October. TDIC has eight projects on Abu Dhabi island alone. The company is also working on plans for desert islands resorts which will encompass Sir Bani Yas to the west of the emirate.

TDIC’s keynote project involves developing Saadiyat (Happiness), a 27-square-kilometre island north of Abu Dhabi city. It is being developed in seven districts, including the extraordinary Saadiyat Cultural District which will have four high profile projects: the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the Zayed National Museum and a performing arts centre. Each could cost up to $500m. Estimates suggest Abu Dhabi’s tourism investment plans will amount to more than $20bn.

Regional challenge

But it is not scale that matters most. Quality must come first. And this aspiration is probably best expressed in the Shaikh Zayed Mosque, one of the world’s largest mosques, which is nearly complete.

The Yas Marina Circuit is a taste of what is to come and a challenge to the rest of the region. Some say the first Abu Dhabi Grand Prix constitutes the opening salvo in the emirate’s campaign to displace Dubai as the Gulf’s leading business centre. They have a point. The next five years are likely to be Abu Dhabi’s moment, as various enormous projects are completed across the emirate.

But this is not a one-horse race. Dubai, struggling with the consequences of the credit crunch and real estate crash, is down but not out. The tale of Arabia’s two most ambitious cities continues next month with the official opening of the Burj Dubai, the world’s tallest tower.

Everyone can be a winner in the contest to be the best in the region. The Dubai boom of 2003-08 was good for Abu Dhabi. And Abu Dhabi’s boom, as the growing number of commuters travelling daily on the main highway to the UAE capital suggests, is the best possible news for Dubai this winter.