Beyond the Spectacle

Dubai’s insane rate of development is easy to misinterpret—even caricature—but the cliché obscures the city’s more serious ambitions.

Fifty years from now, New York will be considered the economic and cultural capital of the previous century, fille­d with quaint artifacts of another time and places to visit for the sake of nostalgia, but not the center of world culture—­somewhat like how we think of Paris today compared to 100 years ago. Federal immigration restrictions, the religious police, and the protection of large corporations from foreign competition will have cut off our biggest sources of wealth—invention and innovation—and historic preservation will have saved the unique character of neigh­borhoods and conserved innumerable buildings but killed the spirit that made the city the greatest of its time.

The megacity of Dubai, one of the seven federal states of the United Arab Emirates, will be the new economic and cultural capital of the world, spanning its neighboring emirates of Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, and beyond in one urbanized mass, rich in the biggest source of renewable energy—sunlight—a pioneer in sustainability and new technology, and conveniently located within easy travel distance of a population of more than two billion in the Middle East, Europe, India, and Africa. In the six years since the Twin Towers fell, a thousand skyscrapers have been rising on the Arabian Gulf.

“Things happen at such a speed, in such a frag­mented way, and with so little governmental over­sight that to find one person with a complete grasp of what’s going on is a very, very difficult task,” says Reinier de Graaf, a partner at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture and director of AMO, the firm’s think tank, which published a survey of the Gulf region last spring in Al Manakh, a special edition of Volume. In Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas once likened signature buildings to a tray of pastries, and Dubai certainly has its share of them. But for the real substance behind the city you have to look beyond the spectacle of its thousand skyscrapers, malls, resorts, islands, and theme parks to the scale of its land-use patterns as manifested in the hundred or so indiv­idually master-planned residential, commercial, financial, and industrial ­districts.

The more than $310 billion in total construction under way or planned over the next decade includes not just mountains of curtain-walled skyscrapers and the over-the-top theme parks that have become patented clichés of Delirious Dubai, but a financial center, an academic hub, an information-technology center, a free media zone, and a minicity devoted to the worldwide distribution of humanitarian aid, as well as environmentally friendly projects such as self-­powered buildings, a solar water-desalinization plant, a subway, and a light-rail system. The tourist spectacles are great publicity and a growing part of the economy, but they’re mainly distractions from the serious business happening here. The doubling in size of Jebel Ali port, the building of a new international airport, and the launch of the Dubai stock market two years ago are more telling signs of Dubai’s long-term goal of positioning itself as the central economic hub between London and Singapore.

The genius of Dubai is that it began as one of the least resource-rich states in the Arabian Gulf. The modest oil reserves discovered in the 1960s were projected to run out long before those of its oil-rich neighbors. That led its ruler, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, to initiate an aggressive strategy to create a diversified economy that would outlast the oil boom. “Whilst others were engaged in political rhetoric, giving politics priority over the economy and over development programs, creating slogans like ‘No voice should speak louder than the voice of war,’ Dubai was working, distancing itself from the shouting,” Maktoum’s son and current ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, told a Kuwaiti newspaper in 2003. “Progress provides power to politics. Without power, politics is a wretched business. By power, I mean economic power, the strength of economic development.”

Oil now makes up barely five percent of Dubai’s GDP, compared to more than half in 1980. The economy is growing by 16 percent a year, among the fastest in the world. Retail, construction, real estate, and financial services are leading the economic boom, not oil. Five million tourists pass through Dubai every year. Its pop­ulation of 1.4 million, composed of at least 60 percent guest workers from South Asia earning two to three times the average income in their home countries, is growing by four percent every year. “People and materials are the biggest constraints,” says John Braley, a development manager at Turner International, which is overseeing 19 large projects in Dubai. “There are not enough human beings on earth right now to deal with construction.” Most development projects are sold out within days of being announced. They cannot be built fast enough to keep up with demand from buyers in Iran, India, Eastern Europe, and the U.K., and are often paid for by the time they’ve been completed.

“Americans don’t even have a clue,” says Steven Miller, the Dubai-based director for FXFowle and a former project director for Emaar Prop­erties, the largest publicly traded development company in the world, which is responsible for building large swaths of Dubai and the Middle East. “They don’t understand what it’s all about. Almost every Indian who has a dime in his pocket buys a home in Dubai because he can buy a vacation home and live better even with the flight than in his own country. Every Ukran­ian, Russian, and Kazakh I know who has disposable income is sniffing around down here. Right now 60,000 apartment units are coming on line this year, and they’re 200,000 short of what’s needed. I have to get new office space; I can’t find any. And yet there are more cranes here than the whole rest of the world put together. How many Americans understand that? None! Because they’re not here.”

In the past five years, building activity reached such a mad pace that in August the government commissioned a new strategic urban-development framework for 2020 to compensate for the fact that its 2010 goals had been reached three years early and planned developments were in danger of absorbing most of the remaining land. To evaluate its land-use patterns and recommend a path of sustainable growth for the next decade, it hired Halcrow, a British firm whose history in Dubai dates back a half century. In 1967 Halcrow dredged the Dubai Creek to double its length, and built Port Rashid, the emirate’s first modern port. More recently it has been one of the major firms shaping the large-scale planning of the emirate, including the excavation of the Dubai Marina to accommodate a new high-rise residential area, the extension of Dubai Creek to cre­ate the Business Bay commercial office district, and the master plans for Dubai Internet City, an IT hub, and Dubailand, the mammoth three-­billion-square-foot tourist des­tination being built by Tatweer and featuring 45 megaprojects and 200 smaller developments.

“The history of Dubai goes back only to about 1967, before which it didn’t exist,” says Asad Shaheed, Halcrow’s London-based director of international urban and regional planning, who has been working in Dubai for about 25 years. “They were a protectorate of the British Empire at that time, and at that stage it was nothing more than a small trading post, a little fishing village with thatched huts. It’s that crazy time scale that we’re speaking about—every decade it has just leapfrogged into something totally unimaginable. Every time it adapts itself to global demand, the plan changes, and it’s one of the few situations that I know of where the plan is going almost in tandem with events.”

Constantinos Doxiadis, the Greek architect and urban planner responsible for the Modern­ist grid patterns of cities like Rio de Janeiro, Islamabad, Riyad, and Baghdad, conceived the early structure of Dubai, but his master plan was quickly superceded by a new model of almost spontaneous development. “You had your typical large urban blocks and a smaller hierarchy of roads in between,” Shaheed says. “All of that was developed for a while and has been now overtaken by a whole new set of cities within cities, very unusual urban forms, and the cities within cities are enclaves of various activities—Dubai Internet City, Dubai Silicon Oasis, a fin­an­­cial hub, an entertainment district.”

The minicities are each planned by separate architects hired by one of the major developers: Emaar Properties, Nakheel, or one of the many subsidiaries of Dubai Holding, a private $22 billion development -and-investment company 99.67 percent owned by Sheikh Mohammed. The subsidiaries lead the development of a specific economic sector—Dubai Properties for residential, commercial, hospitality, and entertainment districts; International Media Production Zone (IMPZ) for the global-media center; Dubai Industrial City for the manufacturing of products to supply local demand—and each is allocated a discrete area of the city for the industry to be consolidated. In Dubai Internet City, you’ll find the regional or national headquarters of Microsoft, Nokia, Cisco, Intel, Sun, Xerox, and hundreds of other IT corporations, all concentrated in a subdivision on the coast opposite the Palm Jumeirah—one of the three palm-shaped islands being built to maximize hotel and condo developments along the coast. Nakheel, a publicly traded real estate company, is in charge of developing the various islands and waterfront resorts. A separate company, Dubai International Financial Centre, has its own district at the end of Sheikh Zayed Road, centered around the Gate complex, designed by Gensler, and presides over the Dubai International Financial Exchange, the new stock market.

“There are a number of these parastatal development companies,” de Graaf says. “They are pri­vate companies but still majority-owned by the royal family, which creates a very interesting mix of business and politics that would be taboo anywhere else but makes them incredibly forceful and determined. These companies are not just active in Dubai; they’re active in a zone of very rapidly growing cities that stretches from Morocco to China—they’re even building in California. They’re often precisely the kind of cities that no one in the West talks about or has much time for. You could say that the formula of Dubai, whatever you think of it, is shaping the world.”

And the world is also shaping Dubai. The top tiers of the development companies—including several other local players, such as Damac Prop­erties, Omniyat Properties, ETA Star, and Cayan, that spe­cialize in futuristic and high-end projects—are run by Emirate nationals, but the project-management teams are largely staffed by West­erners. “Basically all of these companies now—the good ones, the big ones—have European, American, Australian, or South African development officers from the managing director down,” Miller says. “There will be a smattering within that from the six Sunni Arab countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council, and some Syrians, Jordanians, Pales­tinians, and Egyptians, but you’ll never find those people at the high end of the project-­management team. They’re more engineering or architecture types because there was never a profession of development management, project management, or construction management in this part of the world up until a little while ago.”

The greater part of the master-planning and architectural design work is being done by Amer­ican and European firms. There are simply not enough architects in the country or the region to supply the demand for designers, though Emirate and regional firms are also building on a large scale, and architects from India and the Far East are getting in on the action as well. But it’s not enough to be semifamous on the international architectural scene. Firms that establish a local presence and place full-time staff in Dubai have a major advantage in winning commissions from the developers.

FXFowle, a relative newcomer to Dubai, decided to create a local office after attending Cityscape, an enormous real estate conference where developers and architects show off their plans to investors. They eventually won a commission from Nakheel to create a master plan for a section of the Madinat al Arab development, part of a new city being built next to the Jebel Ali airport. “In this age, all the partners felt that we needed to be much more global, so with that in mind we began to go there,” says Sudhir Jambhekar, FXFowle’s design principal for international projects. “If we were just sitting here trying to get business there it would have been rather difficult, so our decision to hire a project manager in Dubai with a supporting staff is what made it happen. When people are hiring architects, there is an expectation of hand-holding to a degree—that when the clients need somebody, they’re available.”

Perhaps the least appreciated aspect of Dubai’s emergence as a capitalist City of Tomorrow is its fundamentally liberal underpinnings: none of this would have been possible without the opening of the economy to foreigners through a system of freehold property ownership set up in 2002, which allows noncitizens to own real estate permanently in designated zones and entitles them to renewable residence visas for life (though not permanent residence or the automatic right to work there). Iranians and Saudis in particular can take advantage of freedom from repressive social policies at home, and economic sanctions against Iran and immigration restrictions in the United States since 2001 have only increased regional investment in Dubai. Its unrestricted social and cultural life is also a basic prerequisite for attracting Indians and Europeans to its tourist resorts and tax-free shopping zones, as well as to its business and industrial centers.

“Everyone talks about the superlatives—it is an unbelievable boomtown,” says Bill Baker, SOM’s exuberant structural engineer, who goes there regularly to oversee the firm’s many supertall buildings—among them the half-mile-high Burj Dubai. “So much work there. And it’s a very easy assignment for somebody from the West. If you’re a multinational corporation and you want to create a regional headquarters in the Middle East, you’ll put it in Dubai because there aren’t the social restrictions you see elsewhere. Your wife can drive and get a job if she wants, or if you’re a woman you could get an assignment there as well. So the things that one would expect in the West are available there. It’s like a bunch of young people from all over the world working really hard and partying all night—that’s what it seems like when I go there.”

Dubai’s success as a global hub is a perfect example of the integral relationship between liberal economic systems—the free movement of capital and investment, the ability of people to buy property and bring in labor from other places—and social and cultural liberalism, which classical theory would ­predict will gradually impact the political system as well. The argument is supported in part by the riots last year that brought worldwide attention to abusive labor practices and forced the government to step up enforcement of laws and institute another amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Along with Dubai’s diminishing oil supply and long-term goal of ­economic sustainability, international pressure has also been a factor in its increasing focus on energy-efficient building and ecologically sensitive site development. The emirate’s carbon footprint—the biggest in the world per capita—has made it the object of international scorn, and like any multinational corporation ­facing a PR debacle, the threat to its reputation has inspired Sheikh Mohammed, often called the CEO of Dubai Inc., to push a wave of initiatives showing off its environmental rectitude: the UAE signed on to the Kyoto treaty in 2005, instituted a set of LEED standards in Sep­tember tailored to the challenges of development in a hot desert climate, and is heavily investing in CO2-recovery technology, solar power, water recycling, and energy-saving cooling ­systems.

The example of Dubai has already had a wider impact on its oil-rich neighbors too, influencing Saudi Arabia to begin privatizing state-run companies, and other members of the UAE to reform their property laws, invest in high-end design, and begin massive eco-friendly building projects. Ear­lier this year Abu Dhabi launched a plan by Foster + Partners to build a zero-waste, carbon-neutral city that will function as a large-scale research institute for developing sustainable technologies in collaboration with MIT.

Officially, Dubai’s progressive policies exist only within well-defined urban zones, but with the vast majority of the population made up of foreign workers, it may ultimately be difficult to maintain the separation—especially if there’s an economic decline and the one million noncitizens are less content with their situation. “Dubai leads a very carefully planned double life,” de Graaf says. “Yes, they allow liberalism—yes, they allow foreigners to indulge in their vices in what is still officially a strict Islamic culture. But it doesn’t mean that the culture has surrendered to foreign influence, because those foreigners can do what they want but they don’t build up any rights or citizenship. There are areas within Internet City without censorship, but then in other parts of Dubai every other site is blocked. It’s comparable to China—it’s an official Communist state but in the Special Economic Zones there are experiments with a free-market economy, without allowing it to make political claims on the governance of the country. Something similar is happening in the Emirates. It’s a kind of political hybrid.”

For now, though, Dubai is a rare example of social and economic diversity in the Arab world where the East is meeting the West on less fraught terms than the exchange of cash for barrels of oil—and where, in a region plagued by dictatorship and bad governance, the state as entrepreneur is being held to international standards by global consumers. Its massive investment in energy-intensive buildings is setting the stage for one of the biggest experiments in sustainable technology anywhere, and if the gambit continues to go as planned, its success will be an example not just to the Middle East but to the entire world.

Find out more about this story on the Reference Page: November 2007

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