The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


Rumour has it that Dubai has collapsed...

... but with the construction of the Al Maktoum International Airport and its surrounding logistics centre in Jebel Ali, and with a flourishing of small-scale economic life in flea markets and local shopping districts, evidence would suggest otherwise, as Michele Acuto observes.

Michele Acuto

Cities: Dubai

Topics: Transport, New cities and special projects, Informal economy, Place promotion, Global cities

Women discussing in a flea market in Dubai. Photo: Green Spot Entertainment
Overview of a flea market in Dubai. Photo: Green Spot Entertainment
Clothing and jewellery sellers at a flea market in Dubai. Photo: Green Spot Entertainment
A woman paints a child's face in a flea market in Dubai. Photo: Green Spot Entertainment
Men compare electronics at a flea market in Dubai. Photo: Green Spot Entertainment
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If we were to listen to the predominant narrative on the subject (or its silence on the topic), one could easily assume that Dubai has sunk into the sands of the Emirates like a modern Babylon, crumbled onto its ambitious project and vexed by the unstoppable tide of the global financial crisis. Rumour has it, at least as echoed in Western mass media, that the once global-city-pretender has collapsed once and for all.

The post-GFC visitor that expects to find deserted malls, multistorey parks filled with dusty luxury cars or empty highways might, however, be met with some disappointment: any contemporary bird's eye view of the Emirate will offer the sense that little has changed in Dubai.

Nonetheless, despite a small minority of well-informed reporting and sporadic academic research, such as Ahmed Kanna's excellent Dubai: the city as corporation, much knowledge about the city remains largely based on rumours and canards. What is often forgotten in these stories is that urbanism in Dubai has not stopped.

Dubai has shifted towards a more no-nonsense take on the city's globalisation since the GFC. Pragmatism is more and more the leitmotif in the metropolis' long-term development.

True, it might take a while before we witness the rise of another Burj Dubai, or the blossoming of a new palm-tree-shaped island into the waters of the Gulf. Yet rather than coming to a halt, the urbanisation processes at work in the Emirate have simply changed their orientation. One trend in particular is quite evident to the observant analyst: Dubai's authorities have gone to great lengths to reorganise the production of urban spaces in a more pragmatic and functional way.

The rise of Al Maktoum

The Dubayyan authorities, whether in the shape of the royal family, its subsidiaries, or the municipal government, have maintained a rather firm grip on the masterplanning of the city even after the troubles of 2009-10. The best known of these projects is the new Al Maktoum International Airport mega-development that promises to put Dubai on the global map once and for all.

In what many would call a classic display of the 'Dubai model', the airport is nothing less than a record-seeker: devised to host up to 16 cargo terminals with an eventual 12 million tonne capacity, alongside up to 160 million people per year, it promises to provide the Emirate with a global hub twice the size of Heathrow. (Atlanta, the current largest, can handle about 90 million.) The project is not however intended to replace the current Dubai International Airport, to which it will soon be connected through a revamped 40-kilometre highway and a proposed high-speed railway.

Certainly, the Al Maktoum development is not the only Gulf-based megaproject in the area of logistics: Saudi Arabia sports the two largest in the world by land area — King Fahad and King Khalid International Airports in Dammam and Riyadh respectively — which with the Abu Dhabi and Bahrain International Airport demonstrate the Middle East remains a global contender when it comes to moving people and goods around the world.

Pragmatism is the motto

Local officials now methodically describe how Dubai started its worldwide ascent not with the famed seaports (Rashid, Hamriya and Jebel Ali, opened in 1967, 1975 and 1979 respectively) but rather with the opening of its International Airport in 1959. The focus on airports is perhaps the best example of how Dubai has shifted towards a more no-nonsense take on the city's globalisation since the GFC. Pragmatism is more and more the leitmotif in the metropolis' long-term development.

This logistics-oriented approach has found positive reinforcement as some key Dubayyan businesses such as Emirates Airlines have continued an almost steady rise to worldwide centrality. The flagship company is now set to become the world's largest wide-body carrier by 2015, overtaking Air France-KLM, as a recent report from Boston Consulting Group highlighted.

Infrastructure planned across the city

The Al Maktoum Airport development is not the only infrastructure work planned by local authorities. The highway system connecting the Jebel Ali seaport with the city will be substantially enhanced, complemented with efficient and quick linkages between Dubai's marine logistics and the burgeoning cargo capacities of both Al Maktoum and Dubai International Airports.

But alongside the pragmatic mega-projects ... there is a prolific bottom-up and 'everyday' urbanism at work in the city, which now has a crucial role in the Emirate.

These trade-oriented improvements have been coupled with the opening and expanding reach of the Dubai Metro which promotes cross-city connections and alleviates the burden of the traditional traffic jams of the new Dubai.

From this viewpoint, the impact of the global economic downturn and the city's (or royal family's) ambitions are more and more frequently pointed out to have been somwhat positive. As a local planning consultant recently said to me, "the GFC might have been the best public relations strategy Dubai could ask for." Though certainly not all would agree. And moreover, some elements of the grandeur of pre-GFC development remains alongside this logistics-oriented approach.

Small-scale Dubai is growing too

While some flagship projects like Nakheel's kilometre-high Al Burj tower in the Dubai Marina have been put on hold, and other ambitious ventures such as Rem Koolhaas' Sphere Complex have been scrapped, Dubai has not lost its ostentatious nature altogether. Even the more menial public relations efforts, such as Mohammed Al Maktoum's recent 'commute to work' on the Metro (just once, surrounded by cameras and security) seem engineered only to promote the Sheikh's new slogan that 'we are back'.

However in a series of relatively 'small' steps to recovery, the Emirate is progressively re-orienting its core attention to key commerce and tourism projects. This measured recovery has been coupled with localised, small-scale and even informal urbanism that has continued almost uninterrupted, if not enhanced, after 2008. While all the major developments have made some limited appearances in Western media, this additional dimension of Dubai's post-crisis development has largely been ignored.

But alongside the pragmatic mega-projects of the Al Maktoums, there is a prolific bottom-up and 'everyday' urbanism at work in the city, which now has a crucial role in the Emirate. This is the case with the overflow of activity in the Dubai flea markets initiative, which uniquely for these small scale 'projects' has even been honoured by a mention 'in passing' from the BBC.

The markets are nowadays sprawling centres of micro commerce, barter and cosmopolitan encounter, promoted by Green Sport Entertainment — a team of expatriates who founded the 'Flea Market Cult' in UAE in April 2008 and is today an active presence in the city's social scene. Likewise, small-scale commercial hubs like those of Deira or Satwa, while far from the immaculate floors of the major malls, still provide an active source of impromptu urbanism on the streets of the Emirates.

All of these large-scale logistics and localised informal projects might not be able to reproduce the worldwide awe that the Burj provoked in 2009-10, but certainly contribute to moulding the harsh and sterile structures of the city into a more livable conurbation. So while rumour might have it that Dubai has collapsed in its ambitious globalising project, evidence on the ground might suggest otherwise.


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