Dubai & Abu Dhabi: Urbanism On Steroids 

Harry Hiller is Faculty Professor of Urban Sociology at the University of Calgary and specializes in the urban impact of mega-events like the Olympics and Expositions.  Recently, he visited the Dubai which will be hosting Expo 2020 and was blown away by how the UAE are creating amazing 21st century cities almost overnight. The hundreds of new buildings, the futuristic architecture, the innovation and “can do” attitude were mind boggling.  

It is a reminder that we NEED to be more aware of what is happening in other cities around the world.

In an email to me, Hiller referred to the what is happening In Dubai and Abu Dhabi as “URBANIZATION on STEROIDS!”  He agreed to allow it to be converted into a guest blog. 

Dubai’s Museum of the Future

Dubai’s Museum of the Future

Dubai is home to the world’s largest indoor ski hill. It is open year-round inside a mega shopping mall.

Dubai is home to the world’s largest indoor ski hill. It is open year-round inside a mega shopping mall.

The Apple store in Dubai is the largest and most luxurious in the world.

The Apple store in Dubai is the largest and most luxurious in the world.

Wow! Wow! Wow!

I am totally astounded, amazed, yet also perplexed by what we saw during our recent 10-day visit to UAE’s cities. In some ways, it doesn’t make any sense.  

 How does a small country about the size of Austria, in essentially a desert and a pile of sand, having periods of the year with temperatures 40 to 50 degrees Celsius, totally dependent on air conditioning, having limited fresh water requiring desalinization of sea water, producing very little of their own food, and a relatively small native population known as Emirati create thriving 21st century cities? 

How are they making Dubai and Abu Dhabi into a powerhouse and global city attracting capital, expertise, and people from all over the world?  How can one explain the level of post-modern architecture everywhere that makes your head spin? Buildings of every colour and shape imaginable shock your senses. Even the airport control tower in Abu Dhabi is built with an attractive curved swoop.  

How can you explain that 25% of all construction cranes in the world are located here? Where are all the people coming from to fill these buildings anyway? It really blows your mind.

Dubai’s population in 1990 was 472,701, today it is 4.2 million.

Dubai’s population in 1990 was 472,701, today it is 4.2 million.

What about all these high class hotels? I don’t know who does the ratings on number of stars but I was told and found some evidence online that the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi is the only 7-star hotel in the world.  Our friends took us there for camel burgers.

You are saying “WOW” multiple times every day.  And it has happened so fast…maybe the last 10-20 years or so.

Link: How you can stay in Abu Dhabi’s most luxurious hotel

Emirates Palace (hotel) in Dubai

Emirates Palace (hotel) in Dubai

Burj Al Arab Jumeriah hotel in Dubai

Burj Al Arab Jumeriah hotel in Dubai

Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world. It was designed by Adrian Smith of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill architects. The same firm that designed Eau Claire Estates condo and the new 707 Fifth office tower. It is surrounded by malls, hotels and condominiums in downtown Dubai.

Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world. It was designed by Adrian Smith of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill architects. The same firm that designed Eau Claire Estates condo and the new 707 Fifth office tower. It is surrounded by malls, hotels and condominiums in downtown Dubai.

UAE 101 

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) was formed in 1971 by joining seven Emirates (an emirate is a political territory that is ruled by a dynastic Arabic or Islamic monarch-styled emir. The term may also refer to a kingdom) into one country - the Abu Dhabi Emirate is the biggest in territorial size with the city of Abu Dhabi as its capital, but the Dubai Emirate is the most populated  (roughly 4 million people in 14 square miles growing from a population density 176 per square kilometer to 763 per square kilometer in 20 years!).  

While the territories that surround the two cities are larger than the cities themselves, they almost act as city states.  (Note: The other five Emirates are much smaller and not well-known). Something I never knew before is that Dubai and Abu Dhabi are only about a 90-minute drive apart on a highway that, at points, is 16 lanes across. 

Yes, there is significant oil in the region, especially in Abu Dhabi, but oil now only contributes about 5% to the economy of Dubai. It has become a major trade and financial center, and tourism has become huge.  

Dubai shares many similarities with Singapore, but the steroid level seems to be much more intense in Dubai.

Link: Hiller: Singapore: Dare To Be Different

Screen Shot 2019-10-01 at 11.24.10 AM.png
Dubai is a major shipping centre.

Dubai is a major shipping centre.

Dubai’s airport is one of the busiest in the world with 89 million passengers in 2018. It is like a huge shopping centre.

Dubai’s airport is one of the busiest in the world with 89 million passengers in 2018. It is like a huge shopping centre.

Dubai has the largest completely automated, driverless metro in the world.

Dubai has the largest completely automated, driverless metro in the world.

Diversification 

So, here is my take. Energy hydrocarbons have had two enormous second level consequences.  One is that oil revenue has been used to transform their economy and built environment in creative ways.  

One of the best illustrations is the establishment of new airlines, seemingly having come out of nowhere with  huge global implications.  Emirates (based in Dubai, founded in 1985) and Etihad (based in Abu Dhabi, founded in 2003) have taken the industry by storm, and now provide superior global service (and why Air Canada fights to restrain them from expanding beyond Toronto (and even lobbied to limited flights) to all other airlines.  

All flights go through the UAE which supports their goal to be a hub for finance, trade, and tourism.  And it works! From here, you can connect to anywhere in the world such as Moscow, Manchester, Milan, India, Asia, Australia in a matter of 5-6 hours (or less) in many cases.  

On the tourism side, people flying from London to Singapore for example break up what would otherwise be a long trip into two segments of six hours or so with a tourist stopover at one of many resorts/hotels in UAE enjoying the warm weather and beaches.  People also just for vacations from the UK or Germany and other parts of Europe in just four hours for guaranteed heat and sun. 

So, the vision was to put the UAE at the crossroads of trade and finance and attract people with a superior standard of living. I have already referred to spectacular architecture of which the 170-story Burj Khalifa (world’s tallest building) is perhaps the most well-known.  But there are many, many more amazing buildings that symbolize a thriving economy. 

What really sticks out is how leisure has been commodified in spectacular ways.  Magnificent malls such as the Dubai Mall is not only known for its size (competing to be the world’s largest mall) but is a huge tourist attraction with its spectacular nightly presentation of the “world’s largest choreographed fountain.” The Emirates Mall with high end stores possesses the “world’s largest indoor ski hill.”  Other leisure attractions such as Ferrari World (with the steepest fastest 220 km/hr), largest roller coaster in the world, several fantastic water parks and theme parks like Legoland, Global Village, Warner Brothers etc. 

Abu Dhabi also has the stunning new Louvre (Yes, a branch of Paris’ Louvre), Opera House and Formula 1 race track – see what money will buy.  

Dubai’s Expo 2020, the first ever in the Arab world, will be held in Dubai next year.  It will feature 192 country pavilions with three themes – Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability.  

FYI: Both Montreal and Vancouver benefited immensely from hosting a world Expo. While Calgary’s bid to host the 2005 Expo failed, the vision of a revitalized  East Village and Stampede Park which was part of the 2005 vision lived on and is currently being realized. A testimony to the powerful impact of thinking BIG and hosting major international events like an Expo or an Olympics can play in establishing a city as a world player. 

Oh yes! Their land reclamation projects have produced spectacular developments such as Palm Jumeirah where reclaimed land has been developed like fronds of a palm tree with water access for all housing built there. Even mosques such as the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, as much tourist attraction as houses of worship, hosts thousands of visitors every day because it is so spectacular.  No photo can ever do it justice.  

I could go on and on.  In other words, the oil money is being used to develop these two cities in ways otherwise not imaginable - physical changes with economic impact that reveal a new kind of city.

Screen Shot 2019-10-01 at 11.28.08 AM.png
Screen Shot 2019-10-01 at 10.34.16 AM.png
Screen Shot 2019-10-01 at 10.34.55 AM.png
Ferrari World theme park in Dubai.

Ferrari World theme park in Dubai.

Dubai’s Park & Resorts

Dubai’s Park & Resorts

Dubai’s Atlantis, The Palm Hotel is one of over 600 hotels in the city including 113 five-star hotels. I don’t think Canada has 113 five-five star hotels. It is part of a huge housing development The Palm.

Dubai’s Atlantis, The Palm Hotel is one of over 600 hotels in the city including 113 five-star hotels. I don’t think Canada has 113 five-five star hotels. It is part of a huge housing development The Palm.

The Palm is built on reclaimed land.

The Palm is built on reclaimed land.

Houses along the man-made beaches of The Palm.

Houses along the man-made beaches of The Palm.

Aerial view of The Palm development with high-rise, shopping, office buildings and Atlantis hotel.

Aerial view of The Palm development with high-rise, shopping, office buildings and Atlantis hotel.

Can Do Attitude 

The second major impact of what I call the “UAE renaissance” is the fostering of a “can-do” entrepreneurial attitude that goes far beyond what exists (or used to exist) in Calgary and Alberta. 

 I am not sure why or how this has happened but there is an attitude in Dubai and now Abu Dhabi “to be the best,” to compete with the rest of the world as financial, trade and tourism centre.  Not only is this reflected in the physical structures, but the goal is to be a leader in innovation and technology even in fields like health care and sustainability.  

Much of this apparently comes from the sheik leadership.  It was striking to see a ruling leader in the Middle East create inspirational quotes like: 

  • “Wealth is not money. Wealth lies in people. This is where true power lies, the power we value. This is what has convinced us to direct all our resources to build the individual, and to use the wealth which God has provided us in the service of the nation."            

  • "He who does not know his past cannot make the best of his present and future, for it is from the past that we learn."

  • "You are the real wealth, not the 3 million barrels of oil. You are the future of this nation’s security and safety net. We are in a good condition now but we want to establish the vision for 50 years ahead.”  

There are also quotes about women making up half the population and that they should not be kept in poverty or poorly educated.  Given our stereotypes, would you wouldn’t have expected this in the Middle East? And, how do you like this progressive indicator - people with handicaps are called “people of determination” and even labelled that way at special parking spots at the mall?

There are also real sustainability issues in the UAE. I heard much about directives from the Sheik about attacking sustainability concerns as a national goal – especially with  regard to the forthcoming Expo 2020 to prove they are a world leader. 

Expansion in innovative activity is particularly viewed as a deliberate attempt to create a thriving society beyond oil.  One example of innovation we saw was the harnessing of pedestrian foot traffic as a form of energy. In short, I did not expect this kind of attitude in the Middle East, especially given the instability elsewhere in the region.

People of Determination signage.

People of Determination signage.

Dubai’s old town’s souk continues to thrive even with all of the new developments.

Dubai’s old town’s souk continues to thrive even with all of the new developments.

Dubai’s souk is popular with locals, as well as tourist.

Dubai’s souk is popular with locals, as well as tourist.

Dubai is home to the world’s largest gold market.

Dubai is home to the world’s largest gold market.

You can still take a tradition water taxi in the harbour.

You can still take a tradition water taxi in the harbour.

Past vs Present

While there are clear signs of a more liberal consumerist society, faith and a strong moral code still prevail.  Prayer is still a part of daily public observance (it is interesting to hear the call to prayer even in the post-modern mega-mall) and traditional dress is still practiced even in modern business circles among the Emirati.  

But this leads to another critical point, namely that Emirati are considered the real citizens of the society and everyone else is considered temporary. Did you know that 80% of the population are considered expatriates (i.e. 1.5 million citizens, 8 million expats)?    

The UAE needs thousands of workers to do all this construction. Virtually all are expats from places like India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. One construction company vice president that I met has  35,000 people on its payroll!  Customer service workers in retail are overwhelmingly from the Philippines. Professional workers are primarily from Europe. 

The big draw is no income tax! 

It is interesting that the government has promoted 2019 as the “year of tolerance” as a way of accepting population diversity. Expats are everywhere and are an overwhelming majority - a unique phenomenon on the face of the earth.  People are moving hear from all over the world even though they have no hope of citizenship or unqualified permanent residence. 

Dubai’s Grand Mosque: Grand Bur Dubai Masjid

Dubai’s Grand Mosque: Grand Bur Dubai Masjid

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center in Abu Dhabi.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center in Abu Dhabi.

Engines Of Growth 

So, what does all this mean? To me Dubai and Abu Dhabi represent new engines of growth and change in the world – not unlike what has emerged in other small territories like Singapore and Hong Kong.  It is interesting to note they exist outside the control of more powerful world empires - US, Russia and China. 

They have become international players in their own right and demonstrate how local leaders with their own pools of capital can create new – an unexpected - centres of urban energy.   

How this all happens in the Middle East, a region otherwise in turmoil, is particularly compelling. Experiencing it in person serves as a critical reminder that things are happening elsewhere of which we often have only marginal awareness. 

Travel Tips

  • Coming here in September is still the hot time of year. It has been 40 degrees Celsius every day and about 32 at night. At home you put on your jacket when you go outside. Here it is the reverse (you often need covering inside because of AC).  When you go out, your glasses always fog up and off come the sweaters.  The best time to travel to this region is in our late fall, winter, or early spring.

  • English is everywhere and serves as the language of communication among all diverse groups.  These are orderly societies in which breaking the law is not tolerated. Speed on the highway? Expect a ticket by text within an hour. Taxis also are highly controlled and safe.

  • There are a lot of nice resorts in this area which are particularly well-priced in low season.  I would go back in a heartbeat even though it is a long flight from the west. It was fun being in the heat as long as air conditioning was available when you had enough.

  • If you are looking for excitement and a cultural experience, try a night safari where they take you to the desert for dune bashing with a 4x4 vehicle plus a meal and entertainment in a Bedouin village.  

Last Word

I felt compelled to document my visit to the UAE cities because what is happening in these cities is just another indication of how the contours of our world are changing.  It actually shocked me into trying to understand how and why this is happening. 

However, being here for ten days (we had been in Dubai before but only for a couple of days in transit) for a doctoral dissertation on the topic of sustainability and mega events using the Expo 2020 as a case study does not make me any kind of expert. This report is not meant to be definitive.  

Harry Hiller (Guest Blogger) 

Everyday Tourist Note:

What I received from Harry was an email with what he called his GRAM Report attached. Turns out it is a Hiller family tradition for everyone who travel to send out a report of their adventure to other family members to honour his mother “GRAM” who loved travel and lived vicariously through the travels of her family through “Gram Reports.”  She passed away at the age of 101, but her character inspires the Hiller family to this day, just like my 88 year old Mom’s (i.e. Queen of the Rails) travels continues to do for me and my family. 

If you like this blog, you will like these links:

Dubai’s Rapid Development

Is the rise Dubai and Abu Dhabi sustainable?

Calgary’s Learning City is blooming!

Eau Claire Estates linked to Dubai’s Burj Khalifa