ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Red carpet met sand earlier this month at a soiree that not so long ago would have been unlikely in this desert city-state.
Hired models in cocktail dresses welcomed guests who spilled from Rolls-Royces. Cameras flashed as members of Abu Dhabi's royal family took their seats before enormous white screens.
The affair was the launch of a $15 billion development known as Masdar City. Its goal: Create the greenest outpost on the planet, a futuristic zero-carbon, no-waste, car-free compound in a place that lives almost exclusively on sales of crude oil. The irony didn't go unmentioned.
"Now, you may be asking, 'Why would Abu Dhabi proactively seek a key role in alternative energy?' " Sultan al Jaber, Masdar's California-educated chief executive officer, told the crowd. "The short answer is: because we can, and because we should."
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Masdar is only the latest project designed to ease Abu Dhabi out of the shadow of its better-known neighbor and fellow emirate, Dubai. Tired of playing second fiddle to the shimmering hub next door, Abu Dhabi — which is bigger and wealthier than Dubai — is working hard to reclaim its place as the United Arab Emirates' capital city. With world-renowned architects and highbrow inclinations, Abu Dhabi is emerging as the more sophisticated and responsible emirate.
While officials from the two Persian Gulf city-states bristle at comparisons, it's clear that Abu Dhabi's urban planners have watched Dubai's unchecked growth and erosion of local heritage to formulate their own expansion agenda, one that puts culture ahead of consumerism.
By restricting mega-developments to outlying islands, Abu Dhabi mostly has preserved its small-town, seaside charm, in stark contrast to Dubai, which is famous for its manmade islands, indoor ski slope, ultra-luxurious hotels and traffic jams.
"It's not about four to five years, short term, how many visitors. We're looking at results 20 or 30 years from now," said Mubarak al Muhairi, the director general of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority. "All these commercial projects — it's not Abu Dhabi. It's slower-paced here because it's planned."
There's still plenty of over-the-top spending in Abu Dhabi, where an Emirati businessman made news earlier this month for dropping $14 million on a one-of-a-kind vanity license plate emblazoned with the number 1.
Increasingly, however, Abu Dhabi's ostentatious wealth is channeled into creating a cultural and entertainment oasis in the desert. The Louvre and the Guggenheim are building museums here; the internationally acclaimed architect Zaha Hadid designed an opera house. New York University and France's prestigious Sorbonne are opening Abu Dhabi campuses.
Warner Bros. inked a multibillion-dollar deal with Abu Dhabi's chief building firm for projects that include a Universal Studios-style theme park, movie production studios, multiplex cinemas and video game development.
Paying homage to Sheik Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, the late ruler of the United Arab Emirates who insisted on preserving local culture, tourism officials are planning music and theater festivals that showcase Arab contributions to the arts. Rare Qurans and other museum-worthy works graced an exhibition of Islamic artifacts this month. In March, the opera "Don Giovanni" will be performed here for the first time in Arabic.
"As long as you are keen to reinforce your roots, you can open up to the rest of the world," said Zaki Anwar Nusseibeh, a presidential adviser who was a trusted confidant of Sheik Zayed. He reclined on a plush sofa at the $3 billion Emirates Palace resort, itself a challenge to Dubai's billion-dollar, sail-shaped Bourj al Arab hotel.
"This achievement is a miracle," Nusseibeh said, with a toothy smile. "It's good to have a success story in the Middle East."
Dubai, with its new Autodrome, pitched itself as a destination for racing enthusiasts — until Abu Dhabi lured the automotive world's most exclusive club, Formula 1 Grand Prix racing. Construction is under way on a nearby island for a first-class F1 track and the world's first Ferrari theme park.
As Dubai's swanky Emirates airline garnered industry awards for amenities such as hot facial towels even in economy class, Abu Dhabi's Etihad became more aggressive in marketing itself as "the national airline of the United Arab Emirates." As Dubai contractors build extravagant manmade island resorts, Abu Dhabi's tourism officials make it a point to boast of "200 natural islands."
"Abu Dhabi is going at a much slower pace than Dubai deliberately," said Razan K. al Mubarak of the local office of the World Wildlife Fund, a partner in the Masdar project. "We're a federation, but it's like the United States. Why should Washington be like New York? Each state has its own strategy, its own laws, its own competitive edge — and it's going to use it."
Growing pains are beginning to show in Dubai, where construction leads to new road detours and traffic snarls every day. There aren't enough cabs or highways to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of foreign workers who've arrived to cash in on Dubai's boom. Rents are soaring, and winter rains flood the city, exposing the lack of a drainage system in a place so hastily built.
Religious Emiratis fear reprisals from Islamist militants who see their customs and religion disappearing among hordes of American entrepreneurs, European sightseers and Asian prostitutes.
In Abu Dhabi, most of the major landscape-changing development is on nearby islands, not in the city itself. There are height restrictions on towers and an emphasis on traditional Arab structures to prevent mushrooming skyscrapers. Mosques, conspicuously absent in Dubai, are sprouting across Abu Dhabi, including one said to be among the largest on earth.
In about three years, Masdar City, the pedestrian-only environmental compound, will open for business. Aware that status-conscious Emiratis might need some prodding to forgo their creature comforts and approach Masdar, the project's managers are touting "green living" as the new luxurious lifestyle.
But officials are quick to stress that Masdar isn't just another UAE ego project, noting that millions of dollars are earmarked for research in the field of renewable energy.
That point is central for Masdar CEO al Jaber. He recalled his fondness for American shopping and entertainment outlets during his years as a student at the University of Southern California.
"I would think, 'How come we don't have these malls, these movie theaters, in Abu Dhabi?' " he said during an interview at his office, which overlooks the wooden dhows and shipping vessels in Abu Dhabi's port.
His goals, however, have changed. He's now eager to move into his new environmentally friendly home in Masdar, where he won't be able to drive or crank up his air conditioner to the icy temperatures favored for summertime.
"Now we're able to position ourselves in a very competitive manner, but we have to do it in a sustainable manner," he said.
"It would have been easier for us to build the tallest building in the world or the biggest manmade island," he said in an apparent slap at Dubai, which claims both. "It's not easy by any standards to build a city like Masdar, and to build a sustainable city."
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