The Dubai Model
Urban Crossroads #66

A View of Dubai. (Courtesy of Government of Dubai, Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing)

A View of Dubai. (Courtesy of Government of Dubai, Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing)

It seems every major city in the region wants to become another Dubai. This is not surprising considering the success and international prominence the city-emirate has achieved. In less than three decades, it has evolved from a little-known backwater (my only recollection of Dubai as a child was of an emirate that produced nice postage stamps) into the undisputed commercial center of the region and a truly global city. Many multi-national companies have established regional offices in this efficiently-run emirate. Its airport and seaport are amongst the busiest in the world. It receives about eight million tourists every year from all over the world, who come to shop in its malls, stay in its hotels, and visit its attractions. Foreigners recently have also been flocking to Dubai to buy property now that they are increasingly allowed to do so.

By all accounts, Dubai is a success story. Even though it has limited oil deposits of its own, it is as wealthy as its oil-producing neighbors. It has emerged as a most successful center of global consumerism, and - to use a most popular term in the press releases coming out of Dubai - a primary “destination” for tourists and businessmen from the Gulf, and also from the rest of the Middle East, as well as from all over the world.

As a built environment, one way of describing Dubai is as an instant city where complete districts are planned and built within very short periods of time. All of Dubai in fact is treated as one large-scale real-estate project. Expansive tracts of virgin desert land are developed at a time. Each of these real-estate developments usually is given a theme. Dubai therefore has a Media City, Healthcare City, Internet City, Sports City, Auto City, Festival City, and even a Culture City. No matter what their announced purpose may be, they all offer high-end housing units, office space, hotels, and shopping malls.

Firms and individuals with international expertise are brought in to design, market, and manage those developments, all of which are intended to dazzle and overwhelm. Dubai’s high-rises therefore are amongst the tallest anywhere, and its malls and hotels are amongst the biggest. Dubai offers indoor ski slopes, rotating apartment buildings, self-rated 7-star hotels (we are informed that the maximum international 5-star rating does not do them justice), and full-size replicas of world-famous historical monuments such as the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal. To top it all, man-made islands, the largest anywhere, are created off Dubai’s shoreline in the shape of palm trees and a map of the world.

Whatever one may think of Dubai, whether an example of marketing ingenuity or of conspicuous consumption with no cultural depth, what it has achieved is impressive by any account. However, following Dubai as a model to emulate, at least on the urban level, is something to be avoided.

For one thing, there is no need to follow Dubai. Each city in the region has its own specificities, and each city should build on these specificities. This basically is what Dubai has done. When it comes down to it, Dubai geographically is not much more than a stretch of desert with a shoreline. It also has relatively little in terms of a cultural and a material heritage. What it does have is a resourceful local population with a very strong entrepreneurial spirit, and it also has an almost unlimited access to the markets of the Gulf, a region that boasts some of the highest per capita incomes in the world, but (with the partial exception of Bahrain) had no established service-oriented centers that could support activities such as tourism, media productions, or shipping and transportation logistics. Dubai accordingly has developed itself as an unmatched service-oriented hub that initially served the Gulf and later on a much wider market, and to top that it also has developed itself a destination that offers its visitors overwhelmingly spectacular attractions.

In contrast to Dubai, many other cities in the Arab Middle East are fortunate to have layers of history and unique geographies. They do not need to peg hopes of achieving economic growth and diversification through starting from scratch and creating replicas of Dubai’s massive dazzling luxury-tourism developments. They just need to build upon the cultural and material heritage they already have.

In addition, the Dubai urban model, in spite of if its remarkable successes, is facing a number of challenges that seriously threaten its long-term sustainability. On the level of daily life, Dubai’s phenomenal growth is creating excessive traffic-congestion problems that often bring parts of the city to halt. This is in spite of (or possibly because of) the fact that it is a young city that has hired the services of countless international urban planning firms. A metro rail line is being planned for Dubai, but it remains to be seen how a population so dependent on the automobile and living in a city developed for the automobile may be convinced to switch to public transportation.

Also, much of the large quantities of housing and office space being constructed in Dubai is ending up as a commodity in which speculators trade, rather than properties to be used as places of residence or business. Such an excess of real-estate supply over demand is a sure sign of a bubble in the making. Real-estate bubbles burst. Under best-case scenarios, they deflate. In the case of Dubai, the bursting or deflation of the bubble most probably will closely follow any significant drop in international oil prices.

Dubai also is greatly dependent on the availability of cheap energy, and its per capita consumption of energy is amongst the highest in the world. Cheaply-available oil is used to desalinize the water that irrigates the lush tropical landscapes implanted in its desert, and that supports the water-spending habits of its leisure tourism. Cheaply-available oil is used to air-condition its massive interior spaces during the gruelingly hot summer months. Cheaply-available oil also is used to run motor vehicles in a city designed exclusively for automobiles (which increasingly are stuck in traffic) and not for pedestrians. As global warming is becoming a more serious and real threat to the livelihood of the planet, there is a rising awareness that such a lifestyle that is dependent on an intensive consumption of fossil fuels is not sustainable in the long run.

Dubai also is dependent on importing low-paid labor for the construction and upkeep of its vast developments. This is causing Dubai some bad publicity as news items appear frequently in the international media about the poor treatment of the low-end foreign laborers who work in Dubai’s construction and service sectors. In addition to the ethical concerns that such treatment raises, it is not good for business. It is bad publicity for Dubai, and bad publicity can discourage tourists from visiting and corporations from investing.

There is a rising awareness in Dubai regarding the need to effectively address these challenges, and it will be interesting to see how Dubai will deal with them. They still do not undermine the fact that Dubai has been a tremendous success of the entrepreneurial, can-do spirit. The other cities of the region definitely should adopt this spirit, but, as they do so, each will have to follow its own route. Every city has its own comparative advantages that need to be identified, utilized, and developed. However, the cities of the region cannot all be Dubais, and there is no reason why they all would want to be Dubais.

And, of course, although the region and the world have fully welcomed the phenomenon of Dubai, it is very much doubtful that the region will be able to handle more than one Dubai. So let Dubai be Dubai, and let the others explore and be who they are.

Mohammad al-Asad

March 1, 2007