The Future of Dubai?

In previous years, the brash city-state of Dubai has made news with its exuberant stream of headline-grabbing megaprojects. The emirate, one of the seven that make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE), erected iconic buildings such as the billowing-sail-shaped Burj al Arab. It was a place where architects could realize visions considered impracticable anywhere else, and it became known as a tourist destination for global celebrities (its “heliport” has served as a tennis court for Andre Agassi and Roger Federer and a golf green for Tiger Woods). When that was not enough, the state-owned real estate firm, Nakheel, began building a series of artificial islands, including one in the shape of a palm tree and another a collection of small islands forming a map of the world. These projects led New Yorker writer Ian Parker to note that “Dubai … is smitten with the idea of its own aerial legibility.”

Last week, however, Dubai made news after Nakheel’s parent company, Dubai World, announced it was seeking to restructure $26 billion of debt, including a $3.5 billion Islamic bond that is due for repayment on December 14th. While this crisis has sparked a new round of concern about Dubai’s future, it has not been the first sign of trouble. Over the summer, construction ground to a halt and an indeterminable number of Dubai’s foreign residents (who make up 90% of its population) have fled. Some reportedly abandoned their luxury automobiles, bought with loans they could no longer pay back, at the airport.

As we wait to hear the results of closed-door negotiations between Dubai World and its now-very-nervous creditors, the future of Dubai remains uncertain. In the meantime, to gain some perspective on the on the situation, we checked in with author Waleed Hazbun. A professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins University, last year he published Beaches, Ruins, Resorts: The Politics of Tourism in the Arab World, which includes a chapter on the emergence of Dubai as a travel and tourism hub.


As some reviewers have noted, Beaches, Ruins, Resorts did not attempt to foreshadow the current economic crisis. What it does provide is a framework for understanding the underlying political economy of Dubai. In short, I argue that the ‘Dubai model’ and the emirate’s external image are based on continually re-inventing itself and its urban form, refracting global trends in architecture, real estate, leisure, and capitalist development. The island projects, which literally remodeled the shape of the emirate, exemplify this process.

In contrast to those like Thomas Friedman, I show how this flexibility is not a product of embracing free markets and liberal capitalism but is sustained by a system of authoritarian control over space and flows. Here, I follow cultural anthropologist Ahmed Kanna, who refers to Dubai’s jagged edges.

In Dubai territory is almost exclusively owned by the ruling family and managed by the government and state-owned entities allowing the government to partition the emirate into separate zones with their own rules and incentives for different private sector activities and social groups.

In this system, the social and economic dislocations caused by the emirates need to adjust to global markets is born not by the citizens or government but rather by foreign capital, foreign firms, and foreign labor–all of which are treated as expendable.

Thus for Dubai in the future to realize its self-defined goal of being a ‘global icon’ and model for other cities in the Arab region and beyond, it will have to again attract massive flows of capital and people. It will need to project yet another round of startling images of ambitious projects like the soon-to-be-completed Burj Dubai, the world’s tallest building. With its solid infrastructure, efficient bureaucracy, political stability, pools of talent, and location within an unstable region still afloat in petrodollars, this seems possible, but increasingly less likely to match Dubai’s script.

I began thinking about alternative futures for Dubai last spring when asked to speak on a panel, “Dubai. Building a Thematic City” at the Disseny Hub Barcelona (find video of the full session here). I was asked how the economic crisis, then beginning to hit Dubai, would impact its future. Rather than suggesting I could predict how Dubai might evolve, I outlined five possible alternative futures, each representing some of the critical forces now at work shaping Dubai’s evolution:

1. Spectacle of decline:
The real estate crisis leads to a crash-and-burn. Expats and investment flee. A city of financial ruin, half built buildings, broken dreams, and ecological disaster.

2. A monument to the moment: Unable to re-invent itself with new projects, Dubai’s urban form remains frozen in its present, quickly dated form. A slowly decaying reminder of an experimental vision of the future that never came.

3. Nationalist retrenchment:
The citizens of Dubai and the other emirates rein in the excesses of Dubai’s leaders and expat communities, bringing Dubai more in line with the socially and financially conservative neighbors and more under the thumb of the UAE’s oil-rich political capital Abu Dhabi.

4. Boutique “neo-liberal” city for the global elite: Unable to sustain its middle class residents and tourists, Dubai becomes an exclusive luxury holiday and second home location for a narrow slice of the global jet-set. Governed by merciless neoliberal economic policies and a stark separation between the super-rich and its exploited labor force, Dubai comes to better resemble the ‘evil paradise’ depicted by radical geographer Mike Davis and the world of Michael Winterbottom’s film Code 46 (partially filmed in Dubai).

5. A cosmopolitan metropolis: It is possible the downturn will refocus Dubai around its diverse, cosmopolitan community of residents and professionals of all class backgrounds. If the regime gave them more of a stake in the place and opened up public spaces for fostering community, creativity, and a sense of place, Dubai might evolve into a cosmopolitan metropolis. Architect Rem Koolhaas has sought to promote aspects of this vision in his design for the Dubai Waterfront that would give Dubai an area with Manhattan-like density and spaces for street-level activity (see a recent New York Times article on his vision).

For those in New York City this weekend, Waleed Hazbun will be participating in a debate exploring questions relating to future of the urban form in Dubai and elsewhere. The panel, “Short-stay / Long-stay: City Planning and City Marketing” will take place December 12, 2009, between 3pm and 5pm at Studio X, located at 180 Varick Street.

This panel is the forth in a global series organized in preparation of the publication of Al Manakh 2, a survey of new urban developments unfolding in the Gulf region, produced by Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi) and Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) with Rem Koolhaas, Archis Foundation and Pinktank.

Also: In 2011 the University of Minnesota Press plans to publish what promises to be a path-breaking work by cultural anthropologist Ahmed Kanna, who has conducted extensive ethnographic fieldwork in Dubai and writes about its architectures of the past and future.

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