May 22, 2011
It’s next time again.
If America is the New World, what and where is the Next? Certainly giant-sized China is at the top of everyone’s list but what if I suggested to you, the Next might spring from a tiny country the size of Maine that didn’t even exist until 40 years ago? Even more surprising, it is located smack dab in the middle of a tempestuous region that one expert recently called, “a modified form of chaos.”
I’m talking about the United Arab Emirates located at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. If you are like me, you probably have heard of them, know they are in the Arab world, but not much else. Having just returned from there, I can tell you this place has the means, the vision and the drive to deliver the Next and if you are ready for some good news, this is a Middle Eastern country that is not only friendly to, but actively courting the West’s culture, investment and influence.
Dynamic, aspirational, filled with promise, stable, and friendly-to-the-West are not attributes normally associated with the Islamic nations we see on the news every night. While prosperity from oil has a lot to do with it, I was unprepared for how comfortable I felt in the United Arab Emirates and much of this had to do with an unexpected appreciation of world class Education, Healthcare and Culture.
To understand why the United Arab Emirates deserves consideration as the Next, you need to understand the country did not exist until 1971. What they have accomplished in the past 40 years is totally unprecedented. It was described by one writer as moving from the 18th Century to the 21st in a single generation. I suppose one would have to compare social infrastructures to see if either Beijing or Abu Dhabi had a greater modernization challenge but everyone already knows about China. The Abu Dhabi story is equally fascinating but lesser known.
The story is all the more compelling because it traces itself back to a single individual, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.  It is no exaggeration to say without his courage, selflessness, diplomacy and ruthlessness the entire nation would never have happened. After oil was discovered in the early 1960’s, he resisted staggering personal bribes and braved the worst sort of Colonial exploitation to achieve his (at the time) completely unrealistic vision of uniting the tribes of his ancestors into a small but powerful single nation.
He succeeded because of the strength of his character and his astounding personal charisma. It is pretty hard not to exoticize Sheik Zayed, who is also known as The Desert Falcon. His powerful bearing, rugged cheekbones and traditional robes make him look like he just walked off the set of Lawrence of Arabia. But the most attractive thing about him is a moral compass which points directly at the long term best interests of his people instead of his own comfort. More about him in a moment.
Thanks to Sheikh Zayed and his descendants, and unlike most of the rulerships in the region, the welfare of the Emirati people, especially in the areas of Education, Culture and Healthcare are pre-eminent priorities in the region’s economic development. To plan out the next 20 years of the Nation’s growth (and a further reason I feel they will succeed in bringing about the Next) they did an exhaustive and formal 2030 Vision plan. This is an amazing document and outlines their dreams.
Unlike China, where the future plan remains a mystery, the Emiratis have taken the time to plan out exactly what they want to see happen and they have communicated that plan to anyone who wants to listen. You can read it for yourself, a free ebook is linked here: The Abu Dhabi Vision 2030. This vision includes equality for women, economic diversification, environmental sustainability, the rule of law and much more. It is an astoundingly aspirational document and it puts the social welfare of the entire population at the top of its priorities list. The oil reserves in Abu Dhabi are huge. So in their quest for Western Education, Culture and Healthcare; the bar is set high. They want the best in the world.
So what would you choose? Say money was no object. What would you pick if you could pick anything in the world to import to a very new and under-developed country?
How about the Louvre, the Guggenheim, NYU, The Paris–Sorbonne, and The Cleveland Clinic? A pretty ambitious and visionary list wouldn’t you say? Wait, it gets better. To house these new initiatives they hired some of the best architects in the world to do some of the best work of their impressive careers. Most of them are Pritzker Prize winners. It takes more than money to attract such people and institutions. Credit is due to the Emirati leadership for not only their taste and vision but also their persistence and follow-through.
Maybe museums are not your thing. How about one of the finest Formula One Race Courses and a theme park next door, Ferrari World (which sounds like it came straight out of a Chevy Chase movie.) Or, if you are into team sports perhaps you would prefer soccer? They have world class soccer school since they now own one of the best soccer teams in the world; the historic Manchester City soccer franchise. It is important to point out, all of these remarkable initiatives have formal educational components at their core.
The Sheikh Zayed Museum  is such an important part of the mix because it will be dedicated to the Emirates indigenous history and culture. It is vital to their future to have this heritage museum. Otherwise the unique and precious qualities of the UAE would be overshadowed by the influence of the West.
The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will be the largest Guggenheim in the world. Frank Gehry says, “”I want to play off the blue water and the color of the sand and sky and sun,” It’s got to be something that will make sense here. If you import something and plop it down, it’s not going to work.”
The architectural program of the Performing Arts center includes, “five theatres – a music hall, concert hall, opera house, drama theatre and a flexible theatre with a combined seating capacity for 6,300.”
The NYT reports, “The Louvre Abu Dhabi, designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel as a 260,000-square-foot complex covered by a flying-saucer-like roof, is expected to cost around $108 million to build. Planned as a universal museum, it will include art from all eras and regions, including Islamic art.”
I went to Abu Dhabi to research a possible documentary about the massive Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi project which is scheduled to open its doors in 2015. The origins of the project trace back to Sheikh Zayed, The Desert Falcon. In the early nineties he came to Cleveland Clinic for a kidney transplant. This carried on a long tradition of care for Arabian royalty at the Clinic.
The project is at a mind boggling scale. It “will house five clinic floors, three diagnostic and treatment levels and thirteen floors of critical and acute inpatient units.” This hospital with not only transform Health Care in the region. I believe the innovations and systems being developed at this unique institution will pioneer global Healthcare’s Next. I can only hope I get to tell the full story in a long form documentary which will explore all the details.
you are today’s gulliver, guiding us to worlds unknown, and bringing them to 4-D life. having gotten the preliminary description of your voyage a few days ago over morning cafe latte in venice, and now reading the fuller description on your blog, your articulation with images is a quantum leap, and with that being the case, the film you will make should be astounding. multi grazie
I SO loved the introduction to this visually astonishing new world….THANK YOU !! Can’t wait to look further into all its modern splendor.
Wow, cool! I kept thinking about the water– I was expecting a desert landscape, and you have such prominent water-based art. I am fascinated by the void in the center of the building of the clinic, which will evacuate hot air. Is it a passive transfer? Are they trying to conserve energy at all? I absolutely fell in love with the first photo, of the Nouvel art museum of the future, and the snowy light. And the piece de resistance for me is the lacy dome! I LOVE that dome. It is like the inside of the Arabic roofs in Morocco and Spain, in concept very familiar territory. I love how it mirrors the “dome of heaven”. How wonderful for them to spend their money in such majestic ways, which will benefit all the people! As resources around me shrink, and so many people seem to not care at all about the poor, the sick, the needy, and the infrastructural needs to have a civil and well-educated society, this vision is truly inspiring! I love the feel of the water undulating in the shapes of the buildings. I am so moved, every time I see a Frank Gehry building. I loved your movie about his work, and am glad it is gaining wider recognition. Also, it is exciting to see the best of the Cleveland Clinic’s advances enshrined in this new health-delivery building. I am looking forward to reading more about the determined people who are building this jewel-like place!
Thank you Tom for the introduction into that fantastic unreal reality. I am hoping one day I will see it all.
A mirage turning into reality. It certainly evokes the futuristic visions of artists and writers. Not only the aesthetics, but also the fantastic story of visionary Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan is terrific. The gathering of international talent, creating a cultural and entertainment haven and a state of the art hospital will certainly is a model to look up to.
Thank you Tom for such a revelatory story.
Thanks, Tom. I will plan a trip. I want these buildings to be complete before I go!
What can I say? The images and vision are incredible. I have colleagues in UAE (university prof at American U.) and nearby Dubai. Can’t wait for my own visit there! Darius