ABU DHABI // The army of labourers building a Formula One Grand Prix track on Yas Island in time for the November race marches on its stomach. Each day, 17 tonnes of rice are boiled, eight tonnes of chickens are chopped up by men wearing chain-mail gloves, and 156,000 pieces of chapatti bread are baked on special machines. This is to feed more than 41,000 workers working around the clock on the most frenetic and orchestrated construction site in the country.
Aldar Properties, the developer of the multibillion-dirham project, is in the final months of building the racetrack, half a dozen hotels, the giant structure that will be a Ferrari theme park, roads, grandstands, and a marina big enough to hold super-yachts the size of military vessels. Everything must be ready by the first day of proceedings on Oct 30. A sign at the entrance to the site read earlier this month: "137,680,653 man hours worked to date."
"It's an enormous logistics undertaking," says Angelo Vales, Yas Island's catering operations manager for National Catering Company, on a tour of the kitchens at Operatives Village 1: Al Shaheen. Ethnic food from India, Korea, China and the Middle East is being cooked in dozens of huge metal pots. "We have to serve 40,000 meals around the site in 24 hours," Mr Vales says. "We have more than 60 lorries moving around the site for this operation alone."
The Yas Island project is at the forefront of Abu Dhabi's drive to turn concepts into reality. Thousands of men are raising buildings into the sky around the city, from the new leaning tower next to the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre to Etihad Towers near the Emirates Palace. Over the next six months, people will be able to live in towers on Reem Island, dine at new restaurants in hotels such as the Fairmont Hotel Abu Dhabi Creek near Maqta Bridge, and play golf on Saadiyat Island.
Commuters from Dubai will be able to zip to downtown Abu Dhabi on the new Shahama-Saadiyat freeway that hops over several islands from Sheikh Zayed Road to Mina Zayed. "This is a crucial time," says Ousama Ghannoum, the vice president of marketing at Aldar. "The main developers will start to deliver part of their portfolios. The projects seen as 3D renderings are becoming liveable communities." Mr Ghannoum predicts a population migration will come as modern buildings are finished. People sharing a home with friends will be able to move to their own apartments, while families in smaller accommodation can spread out in villas in the growing communities near the airport.
According to studies conducted by Aldar and other property consultancies, there is a demand for between 28,000 and 40,000 homes in the capital. Three new university campuses are also opening by the autumn: the Sorbonne on Reem Island, the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, and the temporary campus of New York University Abu Dhabi. "Abu Dhabi was always more of a family place," Mr Ghannoum says. "Now you will see that a younger generation is coming to Abu Dhabi."
In many ways, Abu Dhabi is going through the same evolution as Dubai, which fired up its property economy five years ago with the introduction of laws allowing freehold ownership. In Abu Dhabi, expatriates can still only obtain 99-year leases, but lawyers say there are discussions in the Government to permit freehold ownership in investment areas such as Reem and Saadiyat islands. Authorities are also considering laws dealing with escrow accounts and maintenance of jointly owned properties and public spaces such as lobbies and swimming pools.
Developers are counting on finished buildings to revitalise interest in the property market, which has seen transaction numbers fall and prices drop by as much as 50 per cent since last October. Yas Island is the epitome of this. A year ago, it was still a rapidly changing, but dusty and unformed, construction site. Now, contractors drive along paved roads and buildings are all but finished. Abubaker al Khouri, the managing director of Sorouh Real Estate, says the arrival of new towers and developments would be the "trigger and benchmark for the property sector".
"End users want to see a tangible thing," Mr al Khouri says. "Very few properties are up to the standards of many people in Abu Dhabi. People will want to move and have a better lifestyle." In the run-up to this coming period of delivery, there has already been some recovery in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, with property brokers saying they are seeing prices rise by as much as 12 per cent. The key difference between the property economy now and that of a year ago is that buyers can now afford to be more discriminating. A premium is placed on properties that are the furthest along in construction, and close to schools and amenities.
At a conference last year, Barclay Saastad, the director of investment and business development at RAK Properties, said buyers felt they were fooled in the boom times and would be "looking for fair market value for quite a long time". "Small differences are going to matter," Mr Saastad said. "We're talking about order and cleanliness, light and noise pollution, who your neighbours are ? things that are important in developed market places."
The new focus on affordable did not spell the end of luxury. Instead, high-end buildings would "become more discreet" and focus on residents' amenities, he said. Instead of luxury buildings, there may be more focus on "luxury communities". Yas Island is meant to be a driver of the "liveableness" of the developments on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, eventually bringing theme parks, a new mall, and hotels to an area that is still in its early phases.
"There will be a shift in people living closer to the airport," Mr Ghannoum said. "This area is undergoing a big change." While the economy undergoes a slow period, developers are hoping that the arrival of these projects will provide the elements needed to encourage buyers. Companies have shifted focus to create more affordable housing, where mortgage finance becomes more important. Lending practices have become a key determinant of sales.
When the Formula One cars take up their places on the grid at the Yas Island track in November, the army of workers and their epic supply chain will find a new expanse of land to convert a new set of designs into reality. email@example.com Some of the biggest projects scheduled to come online in the next six months: Sept 2009 Central Market, Souk (Aldar) A large new retail space in downtown Abu Dhabi with elements reminiscent of the old souk.
Nov 2009 Yas Island, Phase 1 (Aldar Properties) A new recreational and hospitality development, with hotels, a Formula One Grand Prix track and a marina. Eventually it will have a Ferrari theme park with 24 rides, villas and a golf course. Nov 2009 Shahama-Saadiyat Freeway (Tourism Development and Investment Company, Aldar) New freeway that connects Sheikh Zayed Road with downtown Abu Dhabi by way of several islands.
Dec 2009 Saadiyat Beach Golf Course (TDIC) The first part of Saadiyat Island open to the public. Dec 2009 Aldar Headquarters Office building shaped like a coin along Sheikh Zayed Road. Dec 2009 Anantara Qasr Al Sarab Resort & Spa in Liwa (TDIC) An Arabian-themed hotel in the dunes of Liwa. Third quarter, 2009 Fairmont Hotel Abu Dhabi Creek (TDIC and Al Fahim Group)
A long, flat hotel facing the canal alongside the Shangri-La Hotel. Third quarter, 2009 Traders Hotel (TDIC and Al Jaber Group) Fourth quarter, 2009 Park Rotana Complex (TDIC and Al Mada Tourism Investment Company) First quarter, 2010 Raha Beach - Al Bandar (Aldar) The first phase of the master-planned community near the airport. First quarter, 2010 Al Gurm resort, Phase 1 (Aldar)
A resort on stilts over the water near the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre. First quarter, 2010 Sun and Sky Towers, Reem Island (Sorouh Real Estate) Two of the tallest buildings in Abu Dhabi on the far side of Reem Island, including office space and residential apartments. The buildings are connected by a large podium that will have a grocery store and other retail amenities. First quarter, 2010
Marina Square, Reem Island (Tamouh Investments) A group of 15 buildings on the part of Reem Island nearest the main island, with thousands of apartments and offices. Universities: New York University Abu Dhabi temporary campus (NYUAD) Autumn, 2009 Sorbonne Abu Dhabi Autumn, 2009 Masdar Institute of Science and Technology Autumn, 2009