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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

There are some occasions when development doesn't feel like advancement

Deborah Lindsay Williams finds resonance in a Joni Mitchell lyric from the 1970s

Abu Dhabi still has space to relax and unwind. Our columnist hopes that space will never be lost to development. Ravindranath K / The National
Abu Dhabi still has space to relax and unwind. Our columnist hopes that space will never be lost to development. Ravindranath K / The National

On a beautiful afternoon last week, I had a momentary bout of fitness, so I loaded my inflatable stand-up paddle-board into the car and drove to a spot along the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Street where there was a launch spot into the mangroves. But much to my surprise, the spot was now a construction site. Probably I could have manoeuvred past the tractors and plopped the board into the water, but that seemed complicated.

Unwilling to let go of my plan, I parked near the Eastern Mangroves hotel and rented a stand-up paddle-board from one of the outlets in the back of the hotel along the water. It felt a little silly to pay for a board when I had one in the car, but I didn’t want to get into a wrangle about whether or not it would be right for me to launch my own board, so I paid my money and paddled away. And once I got away from the sound of the grinding tractors, it was lovely on the water, complete with sightings of flamingoes and a few cormorants.

As sometimes happens, one exercising moment can lead to another, which explains why, a few days later, I rode my bike to Saadiyat Beach for a long morning walk. I walked 3,000 steps in one direction, according to the step-counting app on my phone, but then I had to stop. I wasn’t exhausted, but there was a wall in my way: a large rusting wall, jutting into the Gulf. Some of the rust was the same shade as the dunes in Liwa, and the contrast between the oxidising wall and the turquoise water was unexpectedly beautiful, although I am not sure that aesthetics explains the wall’s existence. On the other side of the wall rose the shells of new apartment buildings, and cranes dipped and pulled, cables swaying from their tips like bedraggled palm fronds. I turned to walk in the other direction, counting steps and construction sites as I went.

Abu Dhabi seems to be preparing for a huge influx of residents, as near as I can tell: there is new housing going up all over Saadiyat and onto the flat beaches of Yas. I can’t kite-surf (I imagine my arms would pop out of their sockets like the arms of Lego mini-figures), but I love watching the sails of the kite-surfers swooping like giant dragonflies as the surfers skim towards the horizon. Now “kite beach” is dotted with tractors and big billboards have gone up announcing another luxury housing development. The views will be spectacular, I am sure, although there won’t be any kite-surfers to watch.

Or maybe somewhere along the Yas shoreline there will be a specific “kite surfing zone” complete with an admissions fee and a reservation system, so that residents of the new houses can enjoy the beauty of the brightly coloured kites against the gleaming water.

The American singer Joni Mitchell has a song that’s been playing on a loop in my head, getting louder every time my desire for open space collides with urban development. “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” she sings in her distinctive warble. “They took all the trees and put ‘em in a tree museum, charged the people a dollar and a half just to see ‘em…” The chorus of the song offers a caution: “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

How do we manage that balance between our desire to tame open spaces and the necessity of letting open spaces remain open? In the United States this question surfaces every summer, as herds of tourists clot the roads in all the national parks in order to photograph “the great outdoors”. Of course, if the current administration in the US has its way, the national parks will become sites corporate development and the mining industry: no parks, no wilderness, no traffic. Problem solved. How will Abu Dhabi balance development with preserving open space? I hope we're not headed for a mangrove museum.

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi

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