Revitalising the Western

21 September 2007

Abu Dhabi’s Western Region has a proud history. The Liwa oasis at its heart was, until 1793, the permanent home to Abu Dhabi’s ruling Al-Nahyan family.

Even after a new capital was established on Abu Dhabi island, the Western Region remained important. For nearly two centuries, families migrated between the coast - where they worked as traders, fishermen and pearl divers - and their date farms in Liwa. More recently, the region has played a leading role in the oil industry, with the Bu Hasa, Habshan, Bab and Sahel fields.But as migration towards Abu Dhabi island has continued over the past 50 years, the Western Region has been left behind. It accounts for 83 per cent of the emirate’s land, but only 8 per cent of its population. ‘Geography is our biggest challenge,’ says Mohamed Hamed Azzan al-Mazrouei, director-general of the Western Region Development Council. ‘The population is so widespread it is difficult to achieve critical mass for services and infrastructure.’Recognising the problem, the Abu Dhabi government formed the council to boost development in the area. It helps develop social services, infrastructure projects and business opportunities.The council has developed a strategic plan to generate the critical mass needed for infrastructure such as roads, water supply and power. ‘Our strategic plan includes three or four civic centres with a population of 40,000 at Madinat Zayed, Ruwais, Riyati, Sila and Mirfa,’ says Al-Mazrouei.The road network provides an example of the problems the region is experiencing. Although there is a highway along the coast that connects to roads leading inland, the system needs upgrading. Abu Dhabi Municipality is to build a new 350-kilometre-long highway linking Mafraq in the east to Ghuweifat on the Saudi Arabian border. The $817 million scheme is the biggest road project in the emirates and is expected to be a catalyst for development.Development is certainly needed. Education lags behind the rest of the emirate, and almost 95 per cent of locals are employed in the public sector. As the government continues with privatisation, jobs are needed.’We employ advisers so that we can tailor education to the future requirements of the market,’ says Al-Mazrouei.The oil and gas industry will remain the region’s largest employer for some time, but other opportunities are being developed. Industrial development at Ruwais includes the $5,000 million expansion of the Abu Dhabi Polymers Company (Borouge) petrochemicals plant, the $180 million expansion of the Ruwais Fertiliser Company’s (Fertil) ammonia and urea complex.Support services and tourism are also being developed, requiring hotels, housing, shopping malls, restaurants and transport. ‘People think construction is the money maker,’ says Al-Mazrouei. ‘It is not. It is tourism and support services.’The Western Region has strong potential for tourism, with vast expanses of desert, hundreds of kilometres of untouched coastline and desert islands. The first signs of development are taking shape. Tourism Development & Investment Company has already launched two projects in the region and a training scheme.Earlier in 2007, it launched a $3,000 million desert islands scheme. It will involve the development of eight islands and a coastal strip on the mainland and includes hotels, marinas and nature reserves on Sir Bani Yas, Dalma and the six Discovery islands.’The desert islands will employ 12,000-16,000 people,’ says Al-Mazrouei.Another scheme is Qasr al-Sarab, a $136 million hotel and conference centre in the Rub al-Khali (Empty Quarter). ‘At the weekends, there are 40 or 50 tents up there by people from Dubai and Sharjah looking for a place to relax, so the demand is there,’ he says.Al-Mazrouei hopes that by developing sectors such as industry and tourism, the region will begin to attract people back. ‘In five years, I want to

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