Pop-Up Abu Dhabi: A bare and hitherto unremarkable patch of land off Abu Dhabi's main island is being transformed into what will become the commercial heart of the capital.
Sowwah Island: from blank canvas to business centre
Facing west from a wrap-around terrace on the 28th floor of an office tower on Sowwah Island, you peer down onto the turquoise pool of the Beach Rotana and the faded jumble of buildings that makes up the Tourist Club area.
From a few feet away, now looking south, you gaze at the forest of residential towers sprouting on Reem Island. And to the north, your eye tracks the arc of a bridge that lands less than a kilometre away on Saadiyat Island, with Yas Marina visible in the distance on a clear day.
Sowwah Island, until two years ago a bare patch of land a stone's throw from Abu Dhabi Mall, is literally at the centre of the capital's planned evolution into a business hub for the region.
One of the city's most ambitious developments, the project is only now beginning to take shape. Several key components, including a new headquarters for the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange (ADX) and at least one office tower, are scheduled to open as early as May. Some major new additions, such as Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi and the five-star Rosewood Hotel, are rising rapidly from the sand. And four of the 13 bridges that will eventually connect Sowwah to nearby islands are already complete.
In the beginning, more than 20,000 construction workers were employed on Sowwah Island each day.
Sowwah Island's vision is impressive, especially when you consider that - unlike its neighbours Saadiyat, Yas and Reem - many Abu Dhabi residents have never heard of it or fully understand how it will change the function of the city.
The primary aim of the project is to create the city's first central business district.
"To date, Abu Dhabi's commercial zones have been spread out throughout the city and there hasn't been an area you could point to as the central focus point for business. Sowwah Island changes this," says Peter Wilding, executive director for Mubadala Real Estate and Development, the developer of Sowwah Island.
The emergence of Sowwah as a central business district is a key element of the emirate's 2030 plan.
But Mubadala, a strategic investment company owned by the Abu Dhabi Government, wants the island to be more than just a commercial centre, a goal that explains many of the engineering and design choices made during the project's conception and construction.
To start with, almost the entire island is built on two levels. As each of the 13 bridges approaches the island, it rises to ultimately reach a height about 14 metres above sea level. This is the level where most pedestrian and commuter traffic will be routed. Beneath that, a lower level connected to the main roads by "scissor ramps" will house car parks and a subterranean network of roads for service and construction vehicles.
"[For] each and every road, there is a service road underneath it," says Alex Khochafian, a manager for strategic initiatives with Mubadala. "No one will know there are two layers, because they will not see them once the buildings are built."
At less than 500 metres wide, the island by necessity will be extremely dense and reminiscent of metropolitan centres such as Manhattan and Hong Kong. By comparison, Reem and Saadiyat islands are more than 10 times the size of Sowwah.
There will ultimately be thousands of residential units on the island, in high-rises rather than villas, with shopping and restaurants mixed in to make it as walkable as possible. In that regard, the end result will be similar to the Jumeirah Beach Residence community in Dubai.
"In many ways the concept is to create a 24-hour island, one that offers residents and visitors all they could need night and day," says Mr Wilding.
A 5.4-kilometre pedestrian walkway will encircle the island, which the developers expect will be popular among office workers and residents in the cooler months. But the lower level of shops and air-conditioned walkways will cover almost the entire island as well so people will not need to venture outside when the temperatures climb during the summer.
Mubadala is talking with several outside developers about residential projects, most of which are intended to be on the waterfront facing either Abu Dhabi or Reem islands.
Last month, Taiwan's Farglory Group announced that it was planning a US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) project on Sowwah that will include luxury housing. About half of the space on Sowwah Island is designated as residential and it will eventually house a population of about 30,000 people.
One of the key selling points for potential property owners will be the island's central location and the transportation infrastructure that allows for easy connections to surrounding islands. A light-rail network is in the plans, with the infrastructure for it integrated into the construction already under way, and the 13 bridges feed directly into some of the capital's major roads.
With the completion of Al Salam Street and Sheikh Zayed Bridge, the driving time from the bridge to Sowwah is between five and seven minutes with no traffic, Mr Khochafian says.
The ADX will be the anchor of the island's commercial centre, called Sowwah Square, and will be housed in a striking building that should find a place along with Capital Gate and the Aldar headquarters as among the most distinctive structures in the city. Elevated on four granite columns, the four-storey glass building sits above a water feature that from a distance gives it the appearance of floating.
"It will look like an all-glass building hanging in the air. It is beautiful," Mr Khochafian adds.
Exchange officials said this week that they expect to move in around August.
The exchange building is surrounded by four office towers, two of which are essentially complete. One is substantially leased out, Mubadala says, and sales are under way for the other.
When Mubadala announced the project, some wondered if it would stand in direct competition with Dubai International Financial Centre as a hub for financial firms in the region. While there will be a significant presence of those types of companies - Al Hilal Bank and National Bank of Abu Dhabi have already announced plans to build office towers there - the developers have made a concerted effort to attract a wide range of knowledge-based commercial tenants.
"The approach has been sensible, by not just targeting one sector but having a broad-based business community there," says David Dudley, regional director and head of the Abu Dhabi office for Jones Lang LaSalle, the property consultancy.
Mr Khochafian says the first batch of tenants includes law firms and companies in the aerospace, healthcare and financial industries.
"It is a true mix of Abu Dhabi businesses," he adds.
The office towers, each between 30 and 36 storeys, feature a number of bells and whistles that the developers hope will make them an enviable place to work. At more than 1,800 square metres, each floor is significantly larger than those offered at most buildings in the city, giving companies greater flexibility in designing their work environments.
The lower level means workers can go straight from the car parks to their offices without going outside, and the windows with east and west exposures are cantilevered so they can be adjusted to minimise the effects of the sun. And each was built with a "double-skin facade", or two layers of glass separated by about three feet. This reduces the effects of the sun but also allows the outer layer to be easily cleaned from the inside.
From a commercial standpoint, Sowwah Island is "the most significant project in Abu Dhabi", Mr Dudley says, and will help double the supply of office space in the city over the next three years. This will drive rents down considerably around the capital and create significant competition for available tenants. However, Mr Dudley expects Sowwah to be able to attract many of the top companies in the region because of the amenities offered and the island's central role in the emirate's 2030 plan.
The hope is that the addition of more than 180,000 square metres of class-A office space will not only benefit companies already located in Abu Dhabi but lure new companies to the capital as well.
Once Sowwah Island is firmly established, the existing business district around Hamdan Street should become less congested, he says.
As with many of the projects under way around Abu Dhabi, envisioning Sowwah Island in its completed form requires an act of imagination. But Mubadala officials believe it will transform the city and make it a better place to work and live.
"Sowwah Island was a blank canvas that allowed us to create something unique," Mr Wilding says.
• 48 per cent residential
• 30 per cent office
• 10 per cent hotel
• 8 per cent health care
• 4 per cent retail
There were as many as 20,000 men working on the project at one point
• 13 bridges
• Metro and light rail
• 5.4km pedestrian-friendly boardwalk
• 75,000 working
• 30,000 residential
• Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange
• Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi
• Three five-star hotels: Four Seasons, Rosewood Abu Dhabi and Viceroy Abu Dhabi
• Al Hilal Bank
• National Bank of Abu Dhabi
Parking at Sowwah Square
Off-street space for 5,200 cars