Narrative – [Abu Dhabi as an ARTIFICIAL CITY] Part 1 – Confront the Yellow Invasion with the Green Invasion


Part 1 – Confront the Yellow Invasion with the Green Invasion



‘Plant more palm trees and still more palm trees. The desert is before you. Confront the yellow invasion with the green invasion.’

(Sheikh Zayed, quoted in Salloum, 1995)


The Ruler’s Palace in Abu Dhabi in the desert with Existing Date Palms (Heard-Bey, 2006, p. 23)


Aerial View of Abu Dhabi Showing the Existing Sandy Land in the City (Heard-Bey, 2006, p. 23)


Sheikh Zayed, the Ruler of Abu Dhabi was passionate about greenery in the sandy town of Abu Dhabi. Before becoming the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Zayed was the wali (governor) of Al Ain. He encouraged agricultural development and tree plantation during his administration in Al Ain (Reem Bani Hashim, 2019). In Al Ain, he also rebuilt the indeginous falaj irrigation system. In Abu Dhabi, Zayed wanted to engage in afforestation, and solve the issues of desertification and sand erosion (former Abu Dhabi municipality employee as cited by Reem Bani Hashim, 2013). This idea may have been inspired by Lebanon.


Zayed said:

‘I want Abu Dhabi as green as the mountains of Lebanon.’

(Zbal, 2001, p. 180; translated by Reem Bani Hashim)


Zayed was really keen on greenery because plants provide habitats for birds and animals (Reem Bani Hashim, 2019). Plants also beautify the sand covered town of Abu Dhabi and lower the burning temperature in the island (Salloum, 1997). In terms of agriculture, Zayed saw the need to provide food self-efficiency (Reem Bani Hashim, 2019; Salloum, 1997). This post will be dedicated to the investigation of how Zayed confronted the desert of Abu Dhabi with greenery.


Also mentioned in the post ‘Confront the Water’, Abu Dhabi is located in the tropical dry region. The climate is extreme and harsh for plants. Date palm was one of the rare trees that survives the climate of Abu Dhabi. In the pre-modern times, date palm grew around Abu Dhabi wherever there was water (Heard-Bey, 2006). Fruits and vegetables could hardly be grown in Abu Dhabi. As Al-Fahim (1995) mentioned, he could hardly see fruits and vegetables in the city in the 1940s to 1950s. People were undernourished (Al-Fahim, 1995). Zayed became the Ruler of Abu Dhabi in 1966. He sought advice from foreign experts on how to make the desert green (Salloum, 1995). Nevertheless, the experts insisted that it was impossible to plant in the hostile land (Salloum, 1995). But Zayed was passionate enough to try. In the ARABICON Plan, Zayed worked with John Elliott, a British architect who had experiences in Scandinavia. Both Zayed and Elliott wanted Abu Dhabi to have parks and tree-lined boulevards (Reem Bani Hashim, 2019). Zayed had an experimental farm in Al Ain. Elliott also did irrigation and cultivation experiments in his own garden (Elliott cited by Reem Bani Hashim, 2019). Seaweed and manure were used for composting. Tests on new desert plant species like Australian drought resistant plants and Xeric tree species were conducted (Elliott cited by Reem Bani Hashim, 2019).


Sheikh Zayed Watering a Young Forest Tree in Al Dhafra Region of Abu Dhabi in 1969 (Abu Dhabi Farmers Service Center as cited by Al-Yamani, Kennedy, Green, Kemp, and Clothier, 2019, p. 2)


Sheikh Zayed Investigating the Desert Soil Condition with Foreign Experts in the early 1970s (Appropriate Agriculture International Company, pers. comm. 2018 as cited by Al-Yamani, Kennedy, Green, Kemp, and Clothier, 2019, p. 2)


After many experiments and studies, some solutions were found. The solutions include using large amounts of water for irrigation, choosing the appropriate tree species, and cultivating soil for agriculture.


First, to plant greenery, the city needed a lot of fresh water. The annual rainfall in Abu Dhabi is less than 100mm, but the annual reference evapotranspiration is more than 2000mm (Al-Yamani, Kennedy, Green, Kemp, and Clothier, 2019). The limited amount of rainfall makes irrigation crucial. Forestry in Abu Dhabi relies on groundwater. However, as groundwater is recharged very slowly in Abu Dhabi, it is a method that works but is not sustainable (Al-Yamani, Kennedy, Green, Kemp, and Clothier, 2019). Apart from groundwater, potable water is also utilized for irrigation. Potable water in Abu Dhabi comes from desalination of seawater or brackish groundwater (Al-Yamani, Kennedy, Green, Kemp, and Clothier, 2019). As large as 70% of the total potable water usage in Abu Dhabi is dedicated to greenery and agriculture in the city (McDonnel and Fragaszy, 2016). Another more sustainable source of water is the recycled wastewater from the town. Part of the wastewater in the town is treated for agricultural use (Salloum, 1995).


Second, selective species of plants were thoughtfully placed in various locations. Along the coastline of Abu Dhabi grew mangrove, a type of tree that can grow in saltwater (Salloum, 1997). Palm groves were used as a buffer to block the hot desert wind and to push back the desert (Salloum, 1995). The Australian eucalyptus and some other Australian plants were chosen by foreign consultants to be planted in the desert of Abu Dhabi near Al Ain (Al-Yamani, Kennedy, Green, Kemp, and Clothier, 2019). Those plants needed to survive low rainfall, high temperatures, and soil with high salt content in the desert. Although the chosen species require less water to survive, constant irrigation was still required in the harsh climate of Abu Dhabi. The city must expect to pay a high and continuing cost to maintain those vegetations. A network of underground water pipes provided water to the Australian plants throughout their lifetimes (Al-Yamani, Kennedy, Green, Kemp, and Clothier, 2019).


Newly Planted Australian Species in the Desert of Abu Dhabi near Al Ain (Wood et al., 1975, as cited by Al-Yamani, Kennedy, Green, Kemp, and Clothier, 2019, p. 3)


Afforestation in the Liwa Region of Al Dhafra in the West of Abu Dhabi in the early 1970s  (Appropriate Agriculture International Company, pers. comm. 2018, as cited by Al-Yamani, Kennedy, Green, Kemp, and Clothier, 2019, p. 3)


Third, soil is cultivated for plants that do not belong to the group of desert species. The government cultivated farmlands and gave them to farmers for free (Salloum, 1995). Subsidies were also given to farmers (Salloum, 1995). In farmlands and greenhouse, fruit, vegetables, and fodder were grown (Salloum, 1995).


When you walk around Abu Dhabi, you might be fooled into thinking it was naturally lush and green. Planting in a desert seems counterintuitive to many, but Zayed was not afraid of the challenge. He pushed the city to try numerous ways to tame the yellow invasion with his green invasion. A green Abu Dhabi may look ‘natural’, but actually a lot of money and effort was put into making this artificial picture we see now.



  1. Al Fahim, Mohammed, From Rags To Riches – A Story of Abu Dhabi. London: London Centre of Arab Studies, 1995.
  2. Heard-Bey, Frauke. 2006. ‘Adapting to change: an historical background to traditional and modern living conditions in the United Arab Emirates’ The Architecture of the United Arab Emirates, edited by Damluji, Salma S., 14-22. Reading:Garnett.
  3. Reem Bani Hashim, Alamira. 2013. ‘Former employee, Abu Dhabi Municipality.’ May 28, 2013.
  4. Reem Bani Hashim, Alamira, Planning Abu Dhabi – An Urban History. New York and Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2019.
  5. Salloum, Habeeb. 1995. ‘The United Arab Emirates Today: Abu Dhabi Has Been Converted From Desert Land To a Land of Gardens.’ The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, 14, no. 5 (December): 1-5.
  6. Salloum, Habeeb. 1997. ‘How Sheikh Zayed Turned the Desert Green.’ The Christian Science Monitor, 27, no.19 (May): 1.
  7. Wafa Al-Yamani, Lesley Kennedy, Steve Green, Peter Kemp, and Brent Clothier. 2019. ‘The historical basis and future options for native plant-species in the hyperarid forests of Abu Dhabi.’ Land Use Policy, no. 88 (September): 104186.
  8. Zbal, S. 2001. ‘The UAE from 1960–1974: I was a witness, The Journey of Passing from Scattered Sheikhdoms to a United Country.’ Abu Dhabi: Cultural Foundation.


4 Comments on “Narrative – [Abu Dhabi as an ARTIFICIAL CITY] Part 1 – Confront the Yellow Invasion with the Green Invasion

  1. I find the interaction between human and natural environment very interesting. People usually act passively and choose to adapt to their surroundings if the living environment is harsh but the ruler of Abu Dhabi not only adapt but attempt to have a better control / domination towards the environment. And this continuous battling between the yellow and the green forms an intriguing cityscape and formulates a unique identity of the city.

    Moreover, apart from the functionality of greeneries, I think greeneries also serve as a tool to arise interest among locals/ visitors to understand the context of Abu Dhabi as it is uncommon to see so much greeneries in such a city occupied by mostly desserts.

  2. It is very intriguing to read this blog under the title of artificial city while their major efforts were to build a natural setting. In a way this narrative also expands Zayed’s contribution to both urban and natural landscape, which demands a higher level of technology advancement. I noticed that some of your other posts touch upon the lack of water and relevant infrastructure before Zayed’s ruling. Here I’m curious to know the relationship between the irrigation system for the plants here and the water supply projects for the residents. Are they related? Also I assume that the planting experimentation here involved not only Zayed and J.Elliott. Were there any other research groups or institutions participating in this endeavour to confront the dessert with greenery?

  3. For many of the urban planning proposals, urban designers tend to analyze, study, and have their strategies based on the natural environment and existing geographical conditions. Yet, there will be no guarantee that the existing conditions are helpful in creating a quality living environment for the citizens. This example of an artificial city shows that with the development of technology and the amount of resources we have nowadays, there could be a possible change in the mode of design in the future, that a city including its “natural scenery” could be build from scratch. Technology brings us an alternative solution to accommodate the growing population or to lower the urban density, pieces of land that used to seem to be impossible as an urban space could be a new city someday.

  4. It is really appreciating to withness how much the effort had put by the leader of the city to transform this empty and resourceless dessert into full of fruitful context, by using the wisdom of human and scientific thinking, the way they used potable water and the recycled wastewater to replace the minimum rainfall from the environment, choosing the specific kind of the plants to build her own habitat, the basic requirement for productivity through cultivating soil to open up the farmlands, which seems was a hard job for the city planners. I could imagine humans could still survive even in an extreme environment in the future.

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