UAE: Abu Dhabi – Beginnings and Dreams

We must not rely on oil alone as the main source of our national income. We have to diversify the sources of our revenue and construct economic projects that will ensure a free, stable and dignified life for the people

— Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan

Columbia Business School students visiting the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, translates to “Father of gazelles,” commemorative of the leaping ruminants that once grazed in the region. And like a herd of gazelle, the people of Abu Dhabi has relied on growing in a way that accommodates the group and collective, finding common ground to leap forward as a nation. It is in the business of forging new beginnings – leading the region in its thoughtful economic development and diversification.

Aerial view of Abu Dhabi from Etihad Towers.

The Melting Pot of the Middle East

I was surprised by how quickly my classmates and I became accustomed to Abu Dhabi and felt a sense of “belonging.” One of this capital city’s great strengths is the ability to bring out the best of all people – natives Emiratis, and expatriates and visitors alike – to create a truly unique blended society. This was evident through business organizations, the general hospitality of the city, and of course, the food!

For example, in our first two days, we visited several financial services firms and Cleveland Clinic, Abu Dhabi’s premier hospital center of such large scale. Each organization boasted dozens of nationalities and indeed, cite the diversity as a competitive advantage. The city itself is filled with so many global perspectives that my class mates and I felt immediately at home. No matter what our backgrounds (and CBS itself is quite globally diverse), we were able to find an Abu Dhabi resident with similar background. In this way it felt a lot like New York City.

Finally, the food – oh my goodness! What an amazing fusion of the bests of every continent! In the three days we’ve been here, we’ve already had Asian, Cuban, Lebanese, Armenian, Indian, and seafood. We are too spoiled. I foresee the thirty of us hitting the Dodge Fitness Center together as our first post-trip reunion.

Decorative glass pieces from Heritage Village, a town center with historical flair which is meant to commemorate the founding of Abu Dhabi by early settlers.

Putting Money Where your Mouth Is

Abu Dhabi is the financial center of the UAE and as such, leads the investment and monetary management of the entire federation. Before coming out to the UAE, our class collectively researched many aspects of the country including its trade agreements, economic policies, fiscal management and government system. We discovered that despite the historical vast wealth from oil and petroleum, the government is very focused on developing the nation as a first tier center for logistics and tourism, real estate, and eventually healthcare. This trickles down through policy, which leads to firms directly investing into these areas.

We saw this in action during our company visits. Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi (CCAD), a joint venture between investment firm Mubadala and the Cleveland Clinic in the US, was developed to stem the amount of Emirati healthcare flowing abroad. Our guide quoted 1-2 billion AED being spent annually, prior to the creation of CCAD, by the government to accommodate medical tourism because the people of the Emirates did not have access to their care needs within the country. Since its founding only 3 years ago, CCAD has already lept ahead in tertiary and quaternary care: not only is it providing a lot of the procedures that Emiratis would have otherwise gone to the US or other countries to receive, it has also achieved several firsts for the region, including some forms of robotic surgery. CCAD can also be credited with helping to stem the prevalence of diabetes in the region.

Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, whose spacious corridors and internal greenery make it feel equal parts hotel and medical center.

Another example is the investment direction of Mubadala, which is a sovereign wealth fund that is not only mandated with preserving capital long term through diligent and risk-adjusted returning investments but also doing so in a way that supports the growth of the UAE. During our presentation at Mubadala, two investment professionals walked us through their portfolio choices, many of which were aimed at directly developing wind farming (sustainable energy), tourism/logistics, and healthcare (such as CCAD), and other sectors that are not oil/gas related.

In short, Abu Dhabi’s rapid economic development as a nation is no accident. It was the serendipitous mix of its natural resources and its thoughtful approach to preserving and diversifying that wealth. I would say that the former can be true of many nations but the latter is unique to top leadership at the government and private business level. They have put their money where their mouth is by investing in the areas that they have publicly stated they hoped to develop as the nation matures.

Respect Is Paramount

Abu Dhabi is an incredibly respectful society, embracing the plethora of backgrounds of individuals who have moved here, many to work for a few years and others to stay long term. When we attended the meeting with investment manager Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA), this realization really struck me when the investment professionals filed up to the front of the room for panel discussions. Men and women sat side-by-side, and US/Canadian nationals in western business attire sat side-by-side with Emiratis in traditional clothing. Throughout the panel, all parties shared equal air time, and it was very obvious that every single member of that team had equal say and contribution, regardless of their background.

I believe that this has a lot to do with its history. When the founding father of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan formed the nation, he was known for his tolerance. While Islam is the official religion of this nation and while the rulers themselves practice Islamic religious observations, they also open their arms to people of all religious beliefs and walks of life. This year, 2018, is the Year of Zayed, He would have been 100 years old.

Mosaic decorations in underground pedestrian passageway on the Corniche, Abu Dhabi.

Respect runs both ways, however. There is an expectation of visitors to observe the local practices of the region. For example, when visiting the Grand Mosque (more on that in the next post), we women covered our hair. In stepping into the place of worship, it was the least we could do. In addition, we dressed conservatively to make sure that our outfits are not offensive. In return, we were treated with a level of hospitality that is truly unparalleled.


All in all, Abu Dhabi was an amazing experience. It was more familiar than foreign, and I learned a lot about how government visions and policies, enacted through smart investments, can drive such rapid economic development for a young nation.

Shelley Han ’18

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