Mobius on Abu Dhabi

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The paragraphs below come courtesy of Mark Mobius, emerging markets guru and executive chairman of Templeton Asset Management.

Over the past few months, the world’s attention has been focused on the tensions in the Middle East and North Africa. No doubt, these events can often be distressing, sometimes have a high personal cost, and in many cases can have an influence on the international landscape. However, in this post, I’d like to turn your attention to one of the few areas in the region that, so far, has not seen major crises—Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the federation of seven emirates including Dubai. The UAE’s combined economy is large compared to its relatively small size—it has a population of around five million, of which 1.6 million live in Abu Dhabi. Per capita gross domestic product (GDP) in the UAE is more than US$40,000, and that number is significantly higher for Abu Dhabi, mostly because of the incredible earnings from oil and gas. Each day, Abu Dhabi produces more than 2 million barrels of oil, and its oil reserves are now estimated at nearly 98 billion barrels, the sixth largest in the world.1

It is interesting that this oil-and-gas driven economy is taking major strides forward in improving its energy conservation and environmental awareness. The country’s late founding father, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, said, “Future generations will be living in a world very different from that to which we are accustomed. It is essential that we prepare ourselves and our children for that new world.”

One of the ways the emirate is implementing its newfound focus on energy conservation is through its plan to build an entire environmentally efficient city, called Masdar City. The city has an innovative design to combat the hot desert environment in an ecologically sound way, and most of the commercial and manufacturing facilities within the city will specialize in environmentally friendly products. Public transit will be the favored mode of transportation, while automobiles will be banned—a rather surprising switch in this fuel-driven economy! Masdar will also have a sustainable, zero-carbon, zero-waste ecology and will rely entirely on renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, geothermal and hydrogen, another unusual development in a country where more conventional forms of power are so easily available. The city’s university, the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST), will be assisted by the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), so I look forward to tracking the interesting technological developments that may come out of this futuristic city’s environment ethos. It was indeed inspiring to see Abu Dhabi’s forward-thinking mentality in action in Masdar City. Perhaps it is only fitting that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) chose to hold its 33rd session in Abu Dhabi in May 2011.

Developing its tourism potential is another way Abu Dhabi’s government is trying to diversify away from its dependence on oil and gas as a revenue stream. The government has spent a significant amount of money and effort to develop its cultural offerings, which, to my mind, could well approach world-class standards. For example, the new cultural district being developed on Saadiyat Island, in cooperation with major museums around the world such as the Guggenheim andFrance’s Louvre, will house the world’s single largest concentration of premier cultural institutions. Top architects from around the world, including Jean Nouvel, Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry andJapan’s Tadao Ando, have been hired to make the district one of the most spectacular in the world. Once completed,Saadiyat Island and its collection of museums could potentially become a huge tourist draw.

Even before the development of this cultural district, the country was already well on its way to excel in spectacular buildings, such as the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the resting place of the founding father, which is one of the world’s largest mosques and attracts both pilgrims and tourists. In my opinion, it is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, with crystal chandeliers from Austria, marble from Italy, Greece and China, intensely blue and red calligraphy tiles from Turkey, domes covered in 24-carat gold, and the huge floor area entirely covered with a carpet handmade in Iran(the largest of its kind in the world).

Another strong tourist draw is motor racing, for which the Abu Dhabi government has developed a Formula 1 racing track and a Ferrari theme park. The Ferrari theme park was opened in November 2010 under a spectacular 2.2 million square foot roof, making it the world’s largest indoor amusement park, topped with the largest Ferrari logo ever created. Completed in only two years, the theme park’s iconic red roof is modeled after a Ferrari GT. Under that roof is everything I’d think a major amusement park would have, such as rides, exhibits, a film studio and a model gallery, as well as a detailed account of the history and development of the company.

As we were leaving, I realized that Abu Dhabi, with all its existing wealth in natural resources, is also truly a pioneer in new initiatives with its emphasis on the environment and tourism. Within the emirate, we are currently finding opportunities in sectors such as transportation, banking and construction. I’ll continue to follow the exciting developments there.

Source: Mark Mobius, Investment Adventures in Emerging Markets, May 27, 2011.

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