It is one thing to try, as Dubai has, simply to expand at whatever headlong pace new investment will allow. It is quite another to link new initiatives with claims about cultural freedom and environmental justice. In essence, Abu Dhabi is attempting to carve out "free zones" for the arts and green development in the same way that Dubai has done for media companies and high-tech entrepreneurs.
This promises to be a hugely complicated task: At least from a Western perspective, cultural openness can be expected, eventually, to create hunger for the political variety. But this is the world we now occupy: Many of the globe's most ambitious states -- economically, politically, culturally, even architecturally -- are also the most closed and autocratic ones. China has been a leading example of the shift, as has Dubai. Now it is emerging -- with a high-design, eco-friendly twist -- in Abu Dhabi as well.
That makes the construction sites for Masdar City and Saadiyat Island more than mere test beds for green-tech and high-art ambition. It also makes them a proving ground for an experiment in forging a new, hybrid civic culture -- a kind of Enlightenment Authoritarianism. And if you believe in the power of culture -- or more grandly of knowledge -- to spawn political change, these initiatives arguably constitute a bolder, riskier strategy than anything Dubai has yet tried.