Dubai, UAE

Dubai, UAE

Kevin Mitchell

In less than a century, the city of Dubai has grown from a small coastal village to one of the largest urban areas in the Gulf. According to Government of Dubai statistics published in 2009 the Emirate had a population of approximately 1,770,000 people, with over 75 per cent (1,370,000) of residents being male.1 The gender imbalance results from the fact that many expatriate members of the male-dominated labour force do not earn the minimum salary necessary to obtain residence permits for their families, which was AE Dirham 10,000 (US$ 2,700) per month in late-2009.2 Data gathered by the Dubai Statistics Center in 2009 indicates that the majority of the Emirate’s expatriate males were employed in construction (48 per cent) and trading and repair services (12 per cent), while the majority of female expatriates were employed by families to perform household duties (34 per cent).3 Low wages among a significant part of the expatriate population has contributed to the extraordinary economic growth that supported expansion of the built environment during the first decade of the 21st century.

From the mid-1990s onwards, press releases heralded ever-larger projects presented through lifelike renderings that promised soft light, sea views and serenity. These renderings were necessary for indicating what a building was intended to become, but more importantly they represented the potential for exceptional returns in a real-estate market fuelled by off-plan sales and purchasing with the aim of reselling prior to the project even being completed. Man-made islands created a new coastline and almost instantly increased the supply of waterfront property. The developers of the Palm Jumeirah Island claim that this project alone expanded Dubai’s waterfront by 100 per cent, with the addition of 78 km of coastline. An extra 70 km could be provided by the aptly titled Waterfront scheme, which was purportedly designed for 1.5 million inhabitants. While it is unclear how the current global financial crisis will ultimately affect the project, the Waterfront’s developers have claimed that it ‘is on track to becoming the exemplar sustainable city founded on resource efficiency, social equity, and economic prosperity.’ Perhaps anticipating criticisms of this project, the developer’s statement succinctly addressed some of the negative effects of Dubai’s rapid growth while maintaining the promise of economic prosperity that could potentially attract 1.5 million people to live in the proposed scheme. This chapter takes the claims made by the Waterfront’s developers as a point of departure to discuss the complex interplay between political structure, economic conditions and architecture in Dubai. After providing a brief overview of the governance structure of the Dubai Emirate, I will consider how these political and economic forces have contributed to shaping the built environment, focussing specifically on challenges to sustainability-related measures and the complex issue of ‘identity’.


8.1 Male-dominated urban space in Dubai


8.2 Palm Jumeirah Island


Dubai’s system of governance is autocratic; however, scholars often point to the neo-patrimonial aspects of the system that result in a hybrid web of bureaucratic state structures that are intermeshed with the patronage networks. Gero Erdmann and Ulf Engel have described neo-patrimonialism as:

… a mix of two types of political domination. It is a conjunction of patrimonial and legal-rational bureaucratic domination. The exercise of power in neopatrimonial regimes is erratic and incalculable, as opposed to the calculable and embedded exercise of power in universal rules (or, in Weber’s terms, abstrakter Regelhaftigkeit). Public norms under neopatrimonialism are formal and rational, but their social practice is often personal and informal. Finally, neopatrimonialism corresponds with authoritarian politics and a rent-seeking culture, whereas legal-rational domination relates to democracy and a market economy.4

Another important aspect of Dubai’s governance structure is the complex relationship between the public and private sectors. Martin Hvidt has addressed this in an analysis of the public/private ties as manifest in the autocratic and neo-patrimonial setting of Dubai. In autocratic and neo-patrimonial systems, the decision-making process remains centred on the ruler. But, because power must be legitimated, it results in what has been termed a ‘soft’ autocracy. Within democratic governance structures, the private sector relies on formal channels of interaction through state bureaucracies, whereas in autocratic and neo-patrimonial systems, the ruler is the sole decision-maker and exerts a significant influence over the private sector through patronage networks. However, in spite of the fact that the private sector does not have a formal means of participating in governance, it is not necessarily excluded from decision-making and influencing policy formulation. In the case of Dubai, Hvidt maintains that:

… the more the development strategy relies on the activities of the private sector, the more influence the actors of this sector will have in relation to policy formulation and decision-making. Furthermore, and as a corollary to this, it is assumed that the greater economic power of the private sector in relation to the ruler (the ruler – merchant power balance) the more influence the private sector will have in regard to decision-making.5


8.3 Dhows along the Dubai Creek

During the latter half of the 20thcentury a number of Gulf States depended on oil revenues to increase their prosperity. In contrast, Dubai’s relatively limited natural resources required that the Emirate concentrate on exploiting its established position within an interdependent trade network that extended across the Gulf region and beyond. Throughout the rise and decline of the pearl-diving industry and the increasing dependence on trading activity, Dubai relied heavily on foreign merchants. Michael Herb argues:

The merchants did not translate their economic power into institutions through which they could exert political control over the state. The merchants … did not have a parliament through which they could bargain with rulers over the raising and spending of taxes. Instead rulers levied the taxes and deputed their bodyguards to collect them; the merchants most effective tactic against the rulers’ exactions was that of capital anywhere–the threat of flight. Merchant bargaining power lay in the mobility of their trade (and of pearling) which allowed them to flee to a different shaykhdom if the rulers’ exactions grew too heavy. The position of a ruler, at least in the smaller Gulf state shaykhdoms, could not easily withstand a wholesale alienation of the merchant community, and rulers in any case had an interest in the prosperity of the merchant class.6

Strategic measures such as abolishing import and export tariffs to create a duty-free port during the early part of the 20th century, dredging the creek at the beginning of the 1960s to accommodate larger trading vessels, and the construction of container ports from the late-1960s onwards have made Dubai a primary hub for regional and global trade activity. Measures taken throughout the 20th century formed the foundation for diversification that ultimately contributed to attracting the significant foreign direct investment (FDI) to support the rapid expansion of the built environment during the ten-year period from 1998 to 2008. Data compiled by the Dubai Statistics Center indicates that FDI in Dubai totalled AED 42.5 billion (approximately US$ 11.6 billion) in 2006, which represented a 13.4 per cent increase over 2005.7 The sectors benefitting most were construction and financial intermediation/insurance (each accounting for approximately 35 per cent of the total FDI in 2006). European and non-Arab Asian countries combined were responsible for the largest share of FDI in Dubai in 2005 (82.7 per cent) and 2006 (86.2 per cent). And according to a report from the fDi Intelligence division of the Financial Times, ‘Dubai became the top destination city by number of FDI projects and capital investment, growing by an impressive 59 per cent and 122 per cent, respectively, between 2007 and 2008 and racing past Shanghai and London to take the top spot.’8

While the impressive inflow of foreign direct investment into Dubai resulted in rapid economic development and funded projects that may serve the city well in the future, the built environment has suffered from the lack of planning control and a narrow focus on short-term returns derived from real-estate investment. At the height of the speculative frenzy that drove development in Dubai, investors bought and sold off-plan projects at an alarming rate, pushing prices to levels considerably higher than the initial cost of the property. Although those attracted by immediate gain were keen to believe claims that Dubai was immune to boom-and-bust cycles, the global financial crisis from late-2008 proved otherwise. By late-August 2009, The Wall Street Journal reported that a number of distressed funds were preparing to purchase Dubai real-estate after values dropped 50 per cent in less than twelve months.9 In spite of this significant drop in values there has not yet been a rush of new potential buyers willing to invest in Dubai property; however, analysts suggest that if concrete actions are taken to improve transparency following the 2008 collapse, then capital may once again settle in Dubai due to its liberal economic policies and the progress made in providing public infrastructure and an urban rail system.


8.4 Dubai Metro


8.5 Park and commercial buildings near Dubai Creek

Autocratic rule, neo-patrimonial tendencies, and the intense reliance on the private sector have presented challenges, but these conditions have also contributed to Dubai’s success. Maintaining the delicate balance between public authorities and the private sector, and ensuring that FDI flows in (instead of out) to support growth in the Emirate, are strategies that influence decision-making, policy formulation and, as discussed later, the design and construction of the built environment.


The desire to project an image of a ‘modern’ city complete with shimmering glass facades and grass-filled parks has significantly impacted the natural environment in Dubai. The ‘Living Planet Reports’ of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) have focused attention on the excessive use of resources in the UAE as a whole. According to reports issued since 2004, the ecological footprint for the country continues to remain the highest per capita in the world. Industry estimates indicate that 75–85 per cent of the total power generated during the summer season in the Gulf is used for air-conditioning, and cooling can cost as much as one-third of the total cost of the building over the lifetime of the structure. There has, however, been increasing recognition of the ecological challenges associated with architecture and planning in an environment characterized by intense climatic conditions and a scarcity of fresh water. The UAE Ministry of Environment & Water and the Environment Agency of Abu Dhabi revealed plans to address excessive consumption through the UAE Ecological Footprint Initiative, announced in conjunction with the publication of the Living Planet Report 2010.

In 2007 a resolution decreed that all residential and commercial buildings in Dubai must comply with a set of ‘green building’ specifications that would be effective from January 2008. No legislation had been enacted by the beginning of 2008, and in mid-August that year the Dubai Municipality held a conference in which it announced that along with the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) it would be developing an integrated ‘green building’ system for the city. But no regulations had appeared by the end of 2008, and on 24th January 2009 an article reported that these proposed ‘green building’ regulations would not be unveiled ‘for some time’.10 The article claimed that the delays could potentially be attributed to the global financial crisis and the resultant economic difficulties being faced by Dubai property developers.

The delays in developing comprehensive legislation that would result in sustainable approaches to building design and construction illustrate the complex nature of public/private relations in Dubai. While the governmental decree mentioned above recognizes that the long-term environmental impact of present practices cannot be sustained, the stringent measures necessary to regulate the building industry would almost certainly adversely affect short-term profit margins, and thus may jeopardize a reputation built upon neo-liberal economic policies and laissez-faire capitalism. Dubai’s reliance on FDI to fund its real estate and construction projects ultimately empowers the private sector, and results in concessions that negatively affect the built environment. Michael Herb has pointed out that the early-20th century merchants in the southern Gulf possessed bargaining power resulting from their ability to transfer their operations to a different sheikhdom if the rulers’ demands were deemed to be unfair. However, in the early-21st century, capital is infinitely more mobile, and advanced communication technology ensures that funds can be easily transferred across the globe in minutes. In neo-patrimonial systems this mobility of capital has significant consequences that fundamentally affect the power balance between public and private entities and, because of the influence that can be exerted on aspects such as the development of sustainability measures, it ultimately shapes the built environment.

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Oct 25, 2020 | Posted by in General Engineering | Comments Off on Dubai, UAE
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