British explorer Wilfred Thesiger’s book Arabian Sands vividly depicts the relentless hardship of travelling from central Arabia through the Rub al-Khali (Empty Quarter) and along the Gulf coast to Abu Dhabi, before there were roads and cars. As he set off on the final leg of the journey in 1948, local people sent him on his way shouting: “Don’t come back!”

More than 60 years later, the desert landscape Thesiger described is essentially unchanged. The western areas of the emirate of Abu Dhabi remain among the most hostile natural environments on earth – largely waterless and with summer temperatures rising to 50°C.

But the residents’ attitude to outsiders has changed. Visitors now receive a warm welcome at the centre of the emirate’s desert region. The Qasr al-Sarab (Mirage Castle) Desert Resort, which opened in the Empty Quarter’s Liwa oasis in October and is managed by Thai luxury hotel company Anantara, is one of the first projects in a new wave of investment in Abu Dhabi’s Al-Gharbia (Western Region). Next to a 9,000-square-kilometre protected wildlife reserve, the 206-unit resort offers holidaymakers many of the sights and sounds Thesiger would have recognised, albeit in a luxury resort just two hours’ drive from the capital of the UAE.

Unique characteristics

The opening of Qasr al-Sarab is just the start of a modernisation programme for the Western Region, which, with an area of 59,760 sq km, covers more 70 per cent of the emirate.

It is thinly populated. The latest census in 2005 shows that just over 100,000 people live in the Western Region, less than 10 per cent of Abu Dhabi’s 1.4 million population.

It is nevertheless one of the most valuable parts of the Arabian Peninsula. The largest of the emirate’s onshore oil fields – Asab, Bab,
Bu Hasa and Shah – most of its gas production and all its principal oil-processing centres, including Habshan, are in Al-Gharbia. About 40 per cent of Abu Dhabi’s gross domestic product (GDP), or AED115bn ($31bn), originates in the region.

In 2007 Abu Dhabi announced its Vision 2030 masterplan, an overarching strategy for the economic development of Abu Dhabi city and its surroundings. Plan Al-Ain 2030 for Abu Dhabi’s Eastern Region was unveiled in 2008. This year, the final part of the emirate’s long-term development plans will be unveiled with Al-Gharbia 2030, a strategy document that sets out the goals for the Western Region.

Al-Gharbia 2030 is the fruit of a partnership between the Urban Planning Council of Abu Dhabi and the Western Region Development Council (WRDC), an agency set up in 2006 to help devise and co-ordinate investment in the region. Al-Gharbia’s unique physical characteristics are at the core of the council’s thinking.

“Al-Gharbia is a very special region,” says Mohamed Hamad bin Azzan al-Mazrouei, director general of the WRDC. “As the largest part of the UAE, we have all the right ingredients: 350 kilo-metres of untouched coastline, some of the tallest sand dunes in the world, a vast land mass and location. The region is closely linked to the rest of the UAE and also to Saudi Arabia.”

The principal goal of the development plan is to encourage the inhabitants of Al-Gharbia to stay in the region, rather than move to Abu Dhabi city or Al-Ain, the emirate’s boom towns. The WRDC also wants to provide a reason for those who have already left to come back. The 2030 vision will call for the region’s population to triple to more than 350,000.

The spiritual centre of Al-Gharbia is Liwa oasis and the surrounding areas, which benefit from underground aquifers close to the surface. This is the ancestral territory of the Bani Yas people, a bedouin clan that has produced the ruling Al-Nahyan and most of Abu Dhabi’s other influential families, including the Al-Rumaithi, the Al-Qubeisi, the Al-Muheiri, the Al-Mazrouei, the Al-Hamili, the Al-Suwaidi and the Mishagin. Although many have moved to take jobs in business and government in the capital and Al-Ain, most still call Liwa home.

Setting priorities

Liwa is home to 50 separate villages. At the centre of the region is the oasis village of Mizayri, the location of Liwa’s only four-star hotel, the 66-room Liwa Hotel, owned by the local Danat Hotels & Resorts. 

“What we were established to do is to provide the residents of Al-Gharbia with a higher quality of life, improved infrastructure and increased investments,” says Fahed al—Kayoumi, director for strategy and finance at the WRDC. “This regional vision has some priorities, and the first is people.”

This involves focusing on the places where most of the region’s inhabitants currently live. Al-Gharbia has seven large settlements and will be the focus of attention under the 2030 vision. Madinat Zayed, a new town created in 1968 and the capital of the region, sits halfway between Liwa and Abu Dhabi. More than a quarter of Al-Gharbia’s businesses are based in the town.

Ruwais, the region’s most significant town in economic terms, has been developed by Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) and its affiliates and subsidiaries. It is the emirate’s principal oil export centre, the site of its largest refinery complex and the location of Abu Dhabi’s petrochemicals and fertiliser manu-facturing industries. Ruwais is also close to some of Abu Dhabi’s best-loved resorts: the Jebel Dhanna beach and the 87 sq km Sir Bani Yas Island, which is now an environ-mental park.

Mirfa, which sits on the Gulf coast between Abu Dhabi city and Ruwais, is an established fishing port and pearling centre. Ghayathi, south of Ruwais, is a desert oasis town where farming is the largest employer.

Sila, Al-Gharbia’s fifth settlement, sits close to Abu Dhabi’s border with Saudi Arabia and encompasses the frontier town of Ghuweifat. It is home to just 5,000 people but has perhaps the greatest potential. The Union Railway Company’s plans for a train line between the Saudi border and Fujairah via Jebel Ali, Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah call for the railway to pass through Sila. It will also benefit from a project that will modernise and widen the highway from Ruwais to deal with the growing volume of cross-border traffic between Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Abu Dhabihas more than 200 offshore islands. The WRDC is focusing its attention on Delma Island, which lies about 20 minutes by air from Abu Dhabi airport. Denied the facilities and job opportunities found on the mainland, Delma has suffered the loss of many of its young and educated people. Yet its potential as a tourism centre is evident. Natural and unspoilt beaches ring the island, and at its centre are the remains of an extinct volcano.

The WRDC complements the work of Al-Gharbia’s existing stakeholders. These include the Department of Municipal Affairs, Adnoc, the Abu Dhabi Water & Electricity Authority (Adwea) and other government service providers, and the diwan of the ruler’s representative Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed al-Nahyan, brother of Abu Dhabi’s ruler and UAE president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

A former minister of state for foreign affairs and federal deputy prime minister, Sheikh Hamdan was appointed to this position this year in a clear sign of the importance that Abu Dhabi now attaches to development in Al-Gharbia.

Sustainable growth

The first set of initiatives will focus on Al-Gharbia’s infrastructure and social services. The issue is particularly pressing for Delma, which is physically cut off from power, water, education and health services.

The longer-term challenge is laying the foundations for sustainable economic growth. The WRDC is focusing on supporting small and medium-sized enterprises, particularly the need to encourage fresh thinking in Al-Gharbia’s business community. “We will support people if they really want to be entrepreneurs,” says Al-Kayoumi.

Meanwhile, the WRDC is beginning work on ways to highlight Al-Gharbia’s many attractive qualities. It has started appearing at local, regional and international exhibitions, although it is cautious about promising more than the province can yet deliver.

But the long-term vision is compelling. Among the most exciting tourism initiatives are plans being devised by the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC) to develop Sir Bani Yas and neighbouring uninhabited islands.

Sir Bani Yas’s new five-star Desert Islands resort, also run by Anantara, opened in October 2008 and reports that it has so far attracted almost 20,000 guests. A new airport terminal and a seaplane and boat terminal are now in operation. Regular flights link the island with Abu Dhabi airport.

Four five-star lodges are due to be completed on the island by early 2011 to provide additional accommodation for visitors wishing to enjoy the island’s 41-square-kilometre wildlife park, home to more than 10,000 animals, including the Arabian Oryx, which is now extinct in the wild.

In total, the Al-Gharbia vision constitutes a uniquely Arabian programme for economic growth. Tourism, because of its potential to create employment, will play a key role.

“Our focus is to make a positive difference in the everyday lives of the people who live in Al-Gharbia,” says Al-Mazrouei. “Working with our partners in government and private sectors, we want to bring better education, healthcare, infrastructure, job opportunities and prosperity to this region.”