The Sheikh Khalifa motorway through Saadiyat, Yas and Fahid islands has brought both access to new areas for bird-watching and fishing, and a fascinating glimpse of what the future holds for Abu Dhabi. John Henzell reports. Photographs by Galen Clarke / The National "Please don't tell anyone about this place." I'm in probably the most remote part of the network of islands that have become accessible by car from the Sheikh Khalifa motorway that traverses Saadiyat and Yas Islands, and a group of young Emirati men I've encountered are urging me not to divulge the location of their fishing spot. The fish aren't biting today but that's hardly the point. The place is an idyllic site to while away a few hours as the sun sets over a mangrove-lined channel and a cool breeze threads through a few immature date palms.
Until the motorway opened seven weeks ago, it would have taken serious effort to get here, involving a boat or a kayak or knowing someone who owns one of the few private houses scattered through the archipelago. But now you can be fishing within half an hour of leaving downtown Abu Dhabi. In almost every other easily accessible spot near the capital, anglers line up cheek by jowl to dip a line in the water. Here, these Emiratis are the only ones in sight - and that's a rare privilege this group is keen to preserve.
The boon for anglers is just one way that life in Abu Dhabi has been changed by the opening of the motorway, the significance of which was almost inversely proportional to the attention it received when the opening was announced in the middle of October, so taken up was the capital with gearing up for its first Grand Prix. Commuters between downtown Abu Dhabi and Dubai, however, quickly realised that it sliced up to 30 minutes off the journey and spared them the unique form of misery that is the Salam Street roadworks.
But some say the real changes are far more significant. Until the motorway was opened, Saadiyat Island had been both the biggest, but least visible, part of the grand plan for Abu Dhabi's future. Instead, the tower blocks rising on Reem and Sowwah Islands became the public face of the progress in the plan to develop the islands surrounding Abu Dhabi, even though access to them remains restricted to construction traffic. Anyone using the upper reaches of Salam Street had plenty of opportunity to observe progress.
On Yas Island, with its Grand Prix circuit and hotels, the changes could be seen by anyone driving along the motorway to Dubai near Al Raha Beach. The bleak and otherwise unremarkable triangle of land between the international airport and Musaffah was also there for anyone to see, even if it shows no sign yet that this will become the Capital District, Abu Dhabi's second downtown. But Saadiyat Island, home of the cultural district, on which much of Abu Dhabi's tourism future is focused, remained to the average Abu Dhabi resident as no more than lavish Cityscape models and computer-generated artists' impressions of how the area would one day look.
As Blair Hagkull, the regional director of the property consultancy Jones Lang LaSalle, put it at the time the motorway opened: "More than anything else, this is proof that all of these projects are happening. It shows that there is more to this than scale models and pictures." A spokeswoman for the Tourism Development Investment Company (TDIC), which is overseeing Saadiyat Island's development, says: "I think from a public perspective, these developments have been coming for a very long time now. It's always nice to associate a certain amount of reality with it, so I'm sure people will be excited as they pass through."
That's not to say there is much to see now. The first of the island's seven districts to be developed are the Cultural District, featuring the Guggenheim and Louvre galleries, and the Sheikh Zayed National and Maritime museums, and the Saadiyat Beach development, which will have five-star hotels, a golf course and villas. In keeping with the artistic metaphor, if this were a painting, it would have reached the stage where the canvas had been undercoated and the first few splodges of paint were being applied.
In less florid language, that means 99 per cent of the island is a building site with the basic infrastructure of power and water in place. The only place on Saadiyat Island you can leave the motorway without encountering a guard or a gate or both is Manarat Al Saadiyat (the lighthouse of the island of happiness) which serves as a visitors' centre and gallery for the cultural district. "The thing about the bridge and the highway, people will start to walk down. People are starting to see stuff but obviously it takes time," the TDIC spokeswoman explains.
The next dabs of paint will be the Gary Player-designed Saadiyat Beach Golf Club, which opens on December 20 and will host a charity tournament at the end of January. Over the next year, beach villas and the St Regis and Rotana hotels will be completed, followed by the Sheikh Zayed National Museum in 2012 and the Louvre and Guggenheim galleries a year later. "The plan is 2020, that's when the entire island will be ready," she added. "In 2013, the Cultural District will start to have a face."
Amid the mangroves on Fahid Island, Oscar Campbell watches a bird carrying a small fish just plucked from the water and instantly identifies the predator: an osprey. As an avid birdwatcher - birder, in the parlance used by those in the know - when he's not teaching science at an Abu Dhabi school, he explains that these islands along the coast of Abu Dhabi have always been a haven for birds migrating from colder climes.
But until the motorway crossed the lesser-known Fahid Island, between Saadiyat and Yas, and provided access, visiting to see which birds were sheltering there had been far more problematic without wings of his own. "All of the Middle East is a big migration base between eastern Europe and central Asia and Africa," he explains. "The migration depends on the season. Some are here for a week or so to feed. Some will stay for a month or two and then move on to southern Oman for another couple of months and then spend another couple of months here on the way back.
"The mangroves are a huge habitat. There are birds that require mangroves to roost." Campbell has spotted more than three-quarters of the 440 birds ever recorded in the UAE and is able to identify and give a potted history of nearly a dozen species that show themselves in the mangroves beside Fahid Island on a quiet Tuesday afternoon. There are red shanks, curlews and whimbrels, all Siberian species taking shelter in the Gulf from the harsh winter months in the high latitudes. There are also marsh harriers and reef and grey herons. The greater flamingos remain obstinately absent on the day he accompanies us, although we know they live in the shallows here.
The motorway is a boon for the UAE's dedicated band of birders because most other coastal sites around Abu Dhabi are private land and inaccessible, usually leaving them to rely on sightings in public places such as Lulu Island and the tip of the point near Marina Mall. Another birder, the Abu Dhabi-based cultural consultant Peter Hellyer, described the new motorway as the best roadside nature-watching site in the emirate and one of the best on the UAE's Gulf coast, blighted only by the paucity of places to park legally along the way.
Birding has the potential to provide a modest boost to Abu Dhabi's tourist aspirations, since several of the species that are found here migrate from less tourist-friendly sites such as the mountains on the Iran-Afghan border. TDIC has taken into account the appeal of nature because the Saadiyat Beach and the more exclusive Saadiyat Retreat districts have about 18km of Arabian Gulf beachfront which are known breeding grounds of the hawksbill turtle, a critically endangered species.
So it adopted policies intended to improve the chance of turtles surviving to adulthood and now advertises the prospect of snorkelling or diving amid populations of turtles which have bred on the island. The TDIC's strategies have included creating some 60 metres of buffers between the hotels and villas to be built in the two beachfront districts, creating raised walkways, fencing off parts of the golf course to avoid disturbance and even minimising the amount of light that can be seen from the beach at night.
One of the instinctive reactions of young turtles when they emerge from the sand is to head to the nearest light, based in the theory it is the moon shimmering off the water. If bamboozled by light shining from buildings, their chance of falling to predators increases. TDIC has also recruited beach patrols during the nesting season to assess how the populations are coping. Back on Fahid Island, a reef heron is slowly stalking its way along the crystal clear water of a tidal channels in a scene which would have barely changed in hundreds of years. But looking up reveals that above the tops of the mangroves is the distinctive red roof of Ferrari World on Yas Island.
Looking west are the silhouettes of high-rise towers of Reem Island and Abu Dhabi's downtown, the Grand Mosque and the leaning tower of the Capital Gate - all reminders that the UAE capital is only six kilometres away as the flamingo flies. Then, in the dust at my feet, I notice some hoof-prints demonstrating the improbable presence of mountain gazelles, a species that has long been absent from Abu Dhabi island but gave the capital its name, which translates roughly to "father of the gazelle".
Despite the name, mountain gazelles are found at all elevations but are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources as vulnerable, with a steadily declining wild population across the Arabian peninsula estimated to be fewer than 15,000. Here and even amid the building site of Saadiyat, just one island over from the metropolis of Abu Dhabi, small populations of these gazelles live on.