Pursuing development goals while remaining mindful of the past

Believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world, the city of Al Ain – the name of which refers to both the eastern region of the emirate as well as the metropolitan area that serves as the region’s capital – sits adjacent to the Omani border, 160 km inland from Abu Dhabi City at the foot of the Hajjar Mountains. These include Jebel Hafeet – the UAE’s second-tallest mountain, at 1300 metres – which sits astride the border.

Meaning “the spring” in Arabic, reflecting its oasis location, the city of Al Ain differs substantially from other parts of the emirate in several ways. Most notably, it is a low-rise city, with a ban on buildings of more than 20 metres in height in its centre. Al Ain also contains numerous historical sites, more than a dozen of which have been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. In addition to its traditional dominance in agriculture and higher education, the city is also carving out niches in the aerospace industry, as well as in cultural tourism and ecotourism.

Demographics

The population of the region of Al Ain stood at an estimated 653,200 in the middle of 2013, according to the Statistics Centre - Abu Dhabi (SCAD), equivalent to 26.6% of the population of the emirate, for a regional population density of 48.8 people per sq km. This figure is up from 33.2 people per sq km in 2005, underscoring the rapid demographic growth of the region.

Emiratis make up some 31% of the population of Al Ain, compared to 17.6% in the region of Abu Dhabi. As such, despite having a substantially smaller population – at just one-fourth of Abu Dhabi’s – Al Ain’s Emirati population is around half that of the region of Abu Dhabi, accounting for more than 40% of the emirate’s total population of UAE nationals. Moreover, just over 50% of Emiratis living in Al Ain are under the age of 20, while around 85% are younger than 40. Only 36% of the region’s residents (both nationals and non-nationals) are female, due to the high number of male expatriates working in the UAE.

Urban Development

Al Ain City is growing rapidly in size: according to SCAD data, 2045 new buildings were completed in 2013, up from 1421 in 2012. Similarly, 2758 residential units were built during the year, compared to 1871 the previous year. In the first half of 2014, 384 new buildings were completed, down from 1086 over the same period in 2013. Some 625 residential units were also delivered, less than the 1369 seen in the first half of 2013.

The city’s growth looks set to continue. Plan Al Ain 2030 – which sets out the authorities’ vision for the development of Al Ain and is part of the wider Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 plan for the development of the emirate as a whole – forecasts that Al Ain’s population will nearly double from its current levels to 1.1m by 2030. While these figures will be reviewed during a forthcoming update of the plan, the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council (UPC) told OBG that it did not expect them to change dramatically.

Frameworks

Plan Al Ain 2030 is made up of two previously separate documents – namely, Plan Al Ain 2030: Urban Structure Framework Plan, which was released by the UPC in 2009 and focused exclusively on the metropolitan area of Al Ain; and the Plan Al Ain Region 2030 Regional Structure Framework Plan, drafted in 2011, which covers the rest of the Al Ain Region. The Urban Structure Framework Plan seeks to ensure the economic, environmental, cultural and social sustainability of the city of Al Ain, while also equipping it to deal with population growth over the coming years. As such, the plan is based around several key principles, including developing the metropolitan area as an oasis city in which water resources are well managed and conserved, and nature is protected from urban sprawl; preserving the traditional character of the city by relying on low-rise construction; concentrating activity within particular areas of the city to reduce commute times; encouraging social interaction through the development of community infrastructure and parks; and stimulating economic development through support for existing industries, while facilitating diversification into new areas such as ecotourism.

Meeting these principles has given rise to many urban development challenges. “Constraints on the development of Al Ain include the need to preserve its unique character and heritage, and regulations such as the height limitations on buildings that stem from this,” Falah Al Ahbabi, director general of the UPC, told OBG. For example, buildings in the centre of town – with the exception of mosque minarets and domes – cannot exceed a height of 20 metres, while those elsewhere in the city are limited to two to three storeys above ground level.

Furthermore, the authorities have imposed geographical limits on the city’s expansion in order to preserve the surrounding natural environment. However, these constraints should not impede the continuing development of the city or its ability to cater to growing population, given the right approach. “There is still a good deal of room for development, including empty space within the existing city limits that can be filled,” said Al Ahbabi.

Economic Focus

The UPC began the process of updating Plan Al Ain 2030 in summer of 2014 and, as of January 2015, was in the process of finalising the procurement of a consultant to work on the project. According to the UPC, one of the main priorities for the update is to increase the availability of employment opportunities in Al Ain City itself. Indeed, many current residents view the city as a dormitory community from which they commute to Abu Dhabi or Dubai. “A major element of the plan will be to change Al Ain’s image to more of a self-contained, 24/7 city, which necessitates updates to the economic strategy,” Al Ahbabi told OBG.

Traditional Housing

A key element of Plan Al Ain 2030 is the construction of residential neighbourhoods for UAE nationals. Many of these will be based on the fareej concept – a local Arabic term referring to Bedouin neighbourhoods made up of houses built around shaded courtyards that are linked to one another, as well as to community amenities, by sikkak, or small paths. Fareej clusters are often inhabited by extended families, as this housing structure provides them with a substantial amount of privacy. “Maintaining privacy for residents is a key element of Plan Al Ain 2030,” Al Ahbabi told OBG.

Major residential developments planned for the city include the Ain Al Faydha project near Jebel Hafeet, which will see the construction of some 2000 villas for UAE nationals, built according to the fareej concept, over 4.12m sq metres. Due to be completed in 2015, the project is being developed by local property developer Al Qudra Real Estate.

In May 2013 the authorities also approved a Dh712m ($193.8m) project comprising 1580 villas for nationals, known as Sheibet Al Watah. In addition, the master plan for the Al Ain City suburb of Al Khrair foresees the development of 3000 residential plots for Emiratis, as well as parks, community facilities and retail areas.

Developing Downtown

Plan Al Ain 2030 is a long-term vision for development rather than a specific set of mandatory instructions. However, the UPC is currently also working on 15 more detailed plans for the Al Ain metropolitan area, divided by district. They are to be based on the various frameworks for development provided by Plan Al Ain 2030, as well as those from other bodies such as the Abu Dhabi Department of Transport (DoT).

Three of the plans have already been completed, including a draft plan for the development of the city centre, known as the Wasat Madinat Al Ain Plan. “The thrust of the Wasat Madinat Al Ain Plan is to strengthen the attractiveness of downtown Al Ain and establish a more diverse population mix,” said Al Ahbabi. “The area’s population is dominated by low-skilled labourers, but there is demand for more high-quality housing in the downtown area, while Plan Al Ain 2030’s economic strategy should also give rise to further demand for high-quality office space.”

Transport

While Al Ain City is less suited to the development of a dense public transport system than Abu Dhabi City, various options are nonetheless being considered as part of long-term development plans. “Al Ain is much more spread out than Abu Dhabi, with large distances between various areas and neighbourhoods of the city, and as a result the population density is too low to provide high-order public transportation, like a metro system,” said Al Ahbabi. However the city already hosts a successful public bus network, which he said is likely to be expanded. The DoT has also been looking at the possibility of introducing tram and bus rapid transit systems, which may become viable in the future – particularly if the authorities’ strategy to concentrate the city’s population and their activities into several distinct areas meets with success.

Going The Distance

Efforts are also under way to increase walking and cycling in the region. Pursuant to the DoT Walking and Cycling Master Plan, which was released in April 2014, the Al Ain region will see the construction of over 450 km of walking and cycling routes by 2030, at an estimated investment cost of Dh1bn ($272.2m).

The region’s road network is also expanding quickly; it hosted 931 km of major roads in 2012, according to the latest available data from SCAD, up from 831.2 km in 2011, and 2053 km of minor roads, up from 1809 km the previous year. Efforts are under way to improve traffic management, and in June 2014 the DoT began construction of a Transportation Management Centre for the city. The facility, which will cost Dh33m ($8.98m), will house a traffic control system aimed at improving road safety and accident response times, while gathering data on the region’s roads in line with the emirate’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Strategy (see Transport chapter), launched in 2010. Construction of the facility is due to be completed in the third quarter of 2015.

Sky & Rail

Al Ain hosts the emirate’s second-largest airport, Al Ain International Airport, which is located 18 km from Al Ain City and has a 4-km runway as well as a 4-km taxiway. The latest available SCAD data shows that the airport saw 3147 aircraft movements in 2013, down from 4421 in 2012, but up from 2753 in 2011. In 2013 it catered to 75,357 passengers, including 31,250 transit passengers, up from 63,343 in 2012, but down from 88,050 in 2011. Furthermore, some 1127 tonnes of freight also passed through the facility, compared to 1499 tonnes in 2012 and some 497 tonnes in 2011.

While Al Ain International Airport is small in comparison to Abu Dhabi International Airport, Etihad Airways operates two customer service centres in the city, and in September 2014 the airline announced plans to open a new revenue accounting centre there. Initially, the centre will employ 500 Emiratis, expanding to 1000 within three years.

Rail is also coming to Al Ain. The second stage of the country’s Etihad Rail project – due to be completed in 2017 or 2018 – will include a spur connecting the city to the rest of the network, as well as eventually linking to the Omani section of the planned GCC rail network. After being delayed in 2014, tendering for the second stage was set to take place in early 2015. The network will initially involve freight services only, but there are plans to add passenger capacity in the future.

Tourism

Tourism is another sector in which local activity is growing apace. The region saw 641,000 hotel guest nights in 2013, up 12% year-on-year from 571,000, accounting for 7.3% of all guest nights in the emirate, according to SCAD. In 2014 the number of guest nights was up 9% year-on-year to 697,243, according to the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi), while hotel revenue increased 3% to Dh351.1m ($95.57m), for average revenue per available room of Dh270 ($73.49), down 3% from Dh278 ($75.67) in 2013. The region’s hotel occupancy rate remained stable at around 65% in 2013 and 2014, up from 59.3% in 2012.

Projects to increase walking and cycling in the city are overlapping with efforts to boost tourism in the form of the Al Ain Heritage Trail, a walking route that will link historic sites. The project, which is currently being implemented by Al Ain City Municipality, will form the first part of a larger national trail. The trail’s establishment highlights the substantial potential for tourism development in the city given its location – a 90-minute drive from both Dubai and Abu Dhabi City – and its oasis setting. Al Ain’s cultural attractions are also substantial, with 17 sites in the city awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2011. Furthermore, expanding cultural tourism and ecotourism is a key element of Plan Al Ain 2030’s regional economic diversification scheme.

In addition to the historical sites and the varied natural environment on its doorstep, Al Ain hosts a variety of other tourist attractions, including the city’s zoo, which recorded close to 1m visitors in 2013. Plans are under way to expand it into a larger wildlife park and resort that will feature a new facility – the Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre – to provide visitors with information on the emirate’s environment. The city also hosts one of the UAE’s major football teams, Al Ain FC, with January 2014 seeing the inauguration of new grounds for the team – the 25,000-seat Hazza bin Zayed stadium.

However, as it stands, the region’s current hotel infrastructure is unable to accommodate a major expansion in guest numbers. As of the end of 2014, the total number of hotel rooms stood at 2106 (including 514 rooms in hotel-apartments), according to the TCA Abu Dhabi. Tourism development is further limited by the fact that the bulk of these hotel rooms are located in four- and five-star establishments (648 and 668, respectively).

Nevertheless, the situation is improving. For example, in February 2014 Rotana Hotels opened a new facility in the town. The same month, the TCA Abu Dhabi predicted that between 650 and 800 rooms would be added to the Al Ain metropolitan area and its environs over the following 18 months. An Aloft-branded hotel is also due to open in 2016.

Agriculture & Agribusiness

Al Ain is the agricultural centre of Abu Dhabi. The region accounted for just under 50% of the emirate’s farms in 2013, or 11,985 farms out of a total of 24,394, according to SCAD. Al Ain also comprised 84% of farms over 60 dunums – or 6 ha – in size (355 farms out of 425) and 59% of the emirate’s total planted area.

The most important type of agricultural production in the region by land use is growing fruit, with some 194,465 dunums devoted to this in 2013, out of total regional plant holdings of 446,898 dunums. In 2013 Al Ain produced 62,387 tonnes of dates – Abu Dhabi’s most important crop and agricultural export – equivalent to 63% of the emirate’s overall production. Al Ain is also home to state-owned producer Al Foah Dates Company, which is one of the largest date growers in the world.

The region houses 57% of the emirate’s productive greenhouses and 61% of its livestock, or 2.06m heads of livestock (of which 90% were sheep and goats), in addition to hosting Al Ain Dairy, one of the biggest dairies in the GCC. The region is also home to a growing agribusiness and food and drinks product sector. For example, state-backed agribusiness firm Agthia operates a bottling plant for its Al Ain branded bottled water in the region. In late 2014 the company launched a new bottling line at the plant, expanding capacity by 60% to 52m cases per year.

Education

Al Ain is a centre for higher education in the emirate and the UAE as a whole. The city hosts the public UAE University – the oldest university in the emirate – which employed a total of 644 academic and teaching staff in the 2013/14 academic year. The student body numbered some 14,024, up from 13,540 the previous year and equivalent to 27% of the total number of students enrolled in higher education in the emirate. Furthermore, 77% of the students in 2013/14 were female. Other higher education institutions include private institutions like the Al Ain University of Science and Technology and a branch of Abu Dhabi University.

The presence of a strong higher education sector has been a key factor in attracting high-tech business, such as aerospace firms, to the city. Moreover, some of these companies have been working with educational institutions to develop new professional training and education courses (see analysis).

Health Care

The Al Ain region was home to 11 of the emirate’s 39 hospitals in 2012, according to the latest available data from SCAD. This included three government hospitals and one military hospital, as well as seven private institutions. The region is also home to some 129 health centres and 100 clinics. All told, Al Ain has around 241 doctors per 100,000 people – putting the region slightly above the emirate’s average of 237.

To further boost the sector, the authorities are investing in the expansion of regional facilities. In December 2013 the government procurement body Abu Dhabi General Services (Musanada) announced that it had awarded contracts for the construction of the 358,000-sq-metre New Al Ain Hospital, expected to cost some Dh4.3bn ($1.17bn) to build. The new facility, which will replace an existing facility in the Al Jimi area of Al Ain City, will house 719 beds. The construction of the hospital’s main building is due to be completed in 2018, with the entire project set to be fully operational by 2020.

Outlook

Efforts to promote diversification should see the metropolitan area of Al Ain become an economic hub in its own right, with sectors such as aerospace, education and tourism driving development and providing jobs for a young labour force.

Al Ain City is also poised to see substantial physical development and expansion in the years ahead, as its population continues to grow. As it develops, planning restrictions on construction will remain in place to ensure it maintains its distinct character.

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The Report: Abu Dhabi 2015

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