Invitation of Foreign Influence in Abu Dhabi’s City Planning – Part 1 (Japanese City Planner)

In 1966, Abu Dhabi’s most respected ruler Sheikh Zayed came to power and called in new planners and engineers. In 1967, US-educated Japanese planner Katsuhiko Takahashi designed a new master plan, which he suggested that Abu Dhabi be built along the utility grid. The city would be easy to get around, and its infrastructure would be quick to access. In 1968, Egyptian planner Abdul Rahman Makhlouf inherited the Takahashi plans, which he amended and continued.

Takahashi and Makhlouf’s modernist planning allowed for a swift transformation. Following modernism’s interest for social progress, large parks were created and public services were made widely available.

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Publication of a lecture held by Dr. Takahashi © September 2009, GASCO Image

The meeting of a Japanese Planner and the Abu Dhabi Ruler

In the early 1970s, Abu Dhabi is defined by a grid system introduced by Katsuhiko Takahashi, a young Japanese planner who had recently completed his master’s degree at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture and Planning in New York. Back then he received a call from the Japanese ambassador in Kuwait, where Sheikh Zayed had reached out to, asking him if he wanted to go to Abu Dhabi. Dr Takahashi managed to make it to the town in 1967, when it had a population of about 40,000.

Planner who speaks without fear, A Ruler who welcomes opinions

“You have hired me because I have the experience and education in this field and you have not. You should listen to me,” Dr Takahashi once boldly told the Sheikh. It was a time when advisers praised everything the ruler said, with comments such as: “‘Yes, your highness, you are absolutely right, what a great idea it is’,” Dr Takahashi says.

The relationship between the two men was close and eventually grew into a dual mentorship, such that the young planner, whose career was just starting, was able to speak frankly with the Sheikh when they had differences of opinion.

According to an interview with Dr Takahashi, over time the Sheikh and himself talked about many things, such as attributes of other cities around the world and Takahashi’s experiences and impressions of them. They shared a vision of how Abu Dhabi should and could progress.

Planning to make Abu Dhabi a modern city at that time required a free flow of ideas first in order to have visionary plans. The decision-maker and planner had to work and speak frankly without fear or favour.

“I was extremely lucky to have a brilliant, broad-minded decision-maker (Sheikh Zayed) across the table from me. He was a hands-on man, interested in everything. He was truly compassionate and concerned about public welfare and the progress of Abu Dhabi and beyond.” – Dr. Takahashi

Imprints left by the Japanese Planner

Katsuhiko Takahashi suggested that Abu Dhabi be built along the utility grid, planned for the wide roads and for the spaces in between, the greenery for the service centres, market places and commercial entities.

Abu Dhabi Officials Overrulled the Japanese Planner

The author of Rags to Riches, which documents the history of Abu Dhabi, says the city would have been far more beautiful if the first chief town planner’s ideas had been fully implemented. Abu Dhabi would have been a beautiful place with a theme and culture of its own, but that is unfortunately lost due to the overulling of Abu Dhabi officials. According to Mr Mohammed al Fahim who worked with Sheikh Zayed for more than four decades, says one of Dr Takahashi’s ideas was to leave Abu Dhabi island as a natural habitat, with just a few tourist resorts on the beach side, and start development of the new town extending from the Mafraq Hospital area towards Sweihan. The main reason for this plan is that Abu Dhabi island would need to be developed and would need a lot of refilling as it was a low-lying area and didn’t have the potential for heavy construction, also the Abu Dhabi island would not have been big enough to cope with an influx of population.

Unfortunately, the authorities overruled Dr Takahashi, who left Abu Dhabi in late 1960s partly because the authorities wanted a planner who spoke Arabic.



Abdo, Rudayna. “Redrawing Lines in the Sand.” Otak, 01 May 2010. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.
Attwood, Karen. “Building a City from the Sands | The National.” The National | UAE, 11 Sept. 2008. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.
Attwood, Karen. “Author Laments Architect’s Departure | The National.” The National | UAE, 11 Sept. 2008. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.

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