2008 Year in Review

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2008 was another impressive year for Abu Dhabi, as the emirate continued to make high profile global investments despite depressing economic statistics abroad. Additionally, diversification reforms focusing on the environment, capital markets, transport and tourism continued at a vigorous pace.

During the opening ceremony of the World Future Energy Summit at the beginning of the year, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, revealed that the emirate's government would invest $15bn of record oil receipts into a clutch of green energy endeavours, including the first phase of a project to develop the world's largest hydrogen power plan.

In keeping with the emirate's growing reputation as a home for environmentally friendly initiatives, construction began in February on Masdar City, marketed as the world's first zero-carbon, zero-waste city. Powered solely by sources of renewable energy, the 6 sq km city aims to house 50,000 residents and over 1000 businesses focused on sustainability and alternative energy. The city is scheduled to be completed in 2013.

Meanwhile, the relatively young capital market in Abu Dhabi took bold steps to bolster its image both in the region and beyond. On March 18, the Abu Dhabi Securities Market (ADSM) announced it was forging a partnership with NYSE Euronext, the world's largest stock exchange firm, to develop its trading platform and products. The move was part of ADSM's vision to internationalise the market over the next few years, in keeping with Abu Dhabi's overall strategic goal of becoming a regional financial centre.

Long-term economic diversification continued to be an important goal for the capital city, and data released in 2008 proved efforts were, indeed, paying dividends. Non-oil exports reached a record $1bn in 2007, according to a report released in May from the Customs directorate at the Abu Dhabi Department of Finance (DoF). Re-exports, considered a key growth area for trade, reached a value of almost $655m.

Aviation has been another buoyant sector for economic development in 2008. Strong first half statistics from Abu Dhabi International Airport were a welcome shot in the arm for its ongoing expansion project, as some 4.3m passengers used the airport in the first six months of this year - a 38.6% increase year-on-year. The total number of aircraft movements increased 16.8% by the same measure, to 45,920 from 39,300. Meanwhile, the volume of cargo handled registered a growth of 15.8% in the first half of 2008, rising to 172,760 tonnes from 149,210 tonnes in the comparable period of 2007.

Additionally, given the important role Abu Dhabi plays in linking East and West, Etihad Airways' stellar performance helped solidify the emirate's fast growing tourism and aviation sector. The airline carried 2.8m passengers in the first six months of 2008, compared to just under 2m for the same period in 2007.

Meanwhile, the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) set its sights on increasing the number of visitors to Abu Dhabi to 2.7m annually over the next five years. To accommodate the influx of tourists, the agency announced plans to increase room supply to some 26,000 hotel rooms by the end of 2012, compared to an estimated 10,000 in 2007.

Globally, the economic slowdown in the second half of 2008 affected Abu Dhabi via weakening international demand for its main export, oil. At the same time, while oil provided less revenue, more investment opportunities opened up in the West as struggling organisations sought out liquidity to shore up balance sheets.

One high profile investment was the purchase of the Manchester City Football Club by Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment (ADUG), a special investment vehicle set up by prominent Emirati businessmen. The group bought the English premier league team in September for around $360m.

This was followed in October by Mubadala Development Company, a government-owned investor, increasing its stake in US-based Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), the world's second largest maker of computer processors. Mubadala boosted its stake in AMD to 19.4%, at a cost of $314m for 58m shares, in addition to warrants for an additional 30m shares.

Finally, toward the close of the year, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi's minister of presidential affairs as well as a member of the royal family, became the biggest shareholder in the UK's second-largest bank, Barclays, buying a 16.3% stake for £3.5bn ($4.8bn).

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