Compared to neighboring ultra-glitzy, impossibly modern Dubai, Abu Dhabi was long considered a bit of a backwater. While Dubai was beginning a spate of headline-grabbing construction projects and raising its profile as a tourist destination, Abu Dhabi’s sheikh seemed content with maintaining the status quo in his quiet, oil-rich emirate. That changed in 2004, when the sheikh passed away and his son, Sheikh Khalifa — a progressively minded member of the royal family — came to power.

Financially, Abu Dhabi is anything but a backwater. Its oil wealth makes it one of the world’s richest places. For the past half-decade, a construction boom has been taking place. Surprisingly, there has been as much of a focus on gardens, parks and eco-tourism development as there has been on creating an ultramodern skyline.

A recent plan by Abu Dhabi’s leadership to develop a green tourism scene that is unrivaled by any city in the world might seem overly ambitious, especially considering the inhospitable native desert landscapes of the area. But if even a portion of the emirate’s green projects comes to fruition, it will become the Middle East’s greenest destination and a model for cities that want to balance progress with environmental stewardship.

Urban green

Since Sheikh Khalifa took the helm of Abu Dhabi in 2004, construction and foreign investment have transformed the city. Parks and gardens dominate the landscape, with the green centerpiece, Khalifa Park, hosting gardens, a museum and a zoo. The tree-lined boulevards of the city’s core give it a manicured, but natural, look.

Getting around the city without getting behind the wheel has become easier over the past two years. Taxis were previously the only realistic way to travel from one location to another (the brutal heat making any type of person-powered transport uncomfortable or even dangerous). Since 2008, there has been a tenfold increase in the number of public buses. The fleet of well over 1,000 buses now transports people to most parts of the city of Abu Dhabi, with cheap fares making it a reasonable option for environmentally conscious travelers. In addition, traveling to other destinations within the emirate, like the oasis city of Al Ain , can be done conveniently by bus.

Green future

The first stage of construction is finishing up on Desert Islands , a formerly arid and inhospitable stretch of land off the coast of Abu Dhabi. The multi-billion-dollar project will transform the area into a completely sustainable city surrounded by wildlife parks. Wind and solar power will account for all the energy used on the resort. Attractions will include multiple eco-tourism zones with bird habitats, wetlands and a safari park. Water and waste management, including an extensive recycling program, round out the impressive list of environmentally friendly features.

This is another example of a UAE project seeking to alter nature. However, unlike some of the UAE’s “man-made” islands, such as the Dubai Palm, Desert Islands will be built on existing land and will be completely sustainable .

In addition to the zero waste and renewable energy features, emission-free transport around the island is in the works. Whether Desert Islands becomes the model for other sustainable tourist destinations or is simply an expensive, impractical project funded by an eccentric sheikh with billions in disposable income remains to be seen.

See green

Herds of gazelles inhabit Balghelam Island , a small island near mainland Abu Dhabi. The tidal mudflats along the coastal areas are an important stopping off point for migrating birds. The Sir Bani Yas Island bird sanctuary, part of the new Desert Islands attraction, is home to a mixture of native birds and introduced species. The diverse collection of winged inhabitants makes the area one of the Middle East’s best for birding. Mammals, small (Arabian hare) and large (mountain gazelle), are among the wildlife population on Desert Islands. Though some of the species have been introduced to the area by humans instead of nature, the creatures seem to be thriving. An 8-kilometer (5-mile) no-fishing zone around Sir Bani Yas has attracted a variety of marine life , including dolphins and sea turtles.

Meet green

Abu Dhabi will, in a sense, put its money where its mouth is this December when it plays host to the World Green Tourism Congress . The goal of the conference is to find new ways to develop eco-tourism and to make non-green events and destinations more sustainable. Abu Dhabi’s growing eco-cred earned it the hosting duties. The emirate’s industry leaders are pointing to practical measures, like eco-friendly hotels and nature preserves on Bani Yas Island — which is the current site of Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prix — as practical example of finding sustainable measures that can transform popular events into environmentally friendly events.

Abu Dhabi is developing rapidly. However, its attention to nature, culture and the environment have differentiated this emirate from its neighbors, especially the more glitzy, high profile Dubai. Abu Dhabi doesn’t seem to be content with being a regional eco-tourism leader. With the money to actually see its green dreams come to fruition, Abu Dhabi could seriously advance the sustainable living and eco-tourism.

Also on MNN: See all of our Destinations of the Week

Additional photo credit: Bob McCaffrey /Flickr

Destination of the week: Abu Dhabi
Check out this oil-rich emirate's ambitious plan to develop an unparalleled green tourism scene.