A Dream of Dubai

Half fantasy, half reality, Dubai is re-writing the book on urbanism

| March 2, 2006

The US Congress' trepidation over the Dubai port deal hinges upon a central talking point: that we would be handing over many of our ports to a foreign company owned by an Arab state. Yet what the debate fails to recognize is that Dubai, home base to the company that would manage the ports, is quickly becoming the paragon of modern urban infrastructure and planning.

Part offshore investment haven awash in global capital, part luxury theme park, Dubai accelerated its rise to prominence after Sept. 11, 2001. Realizing both that their oil supply was soon to run dry and that many Arab countries were withdrawing investment from Western nations, Dubai officials embarked upon a massive development agenda that has dropped jaws around the world.

Unverified reports claim that some 20 percent of the world's construction cranes are in the Emirate of Dubai, which is the size of Rhode Island. And what are they building? Indoor ski slopes; the biggest shopping mall in the world; underwater hotels; the tallest skyscraper ever; and archipelagoes of islands, some forming massive palm trees, another forming a 24 square kilometer world map.

'Dubai is a prototype of the new post-global city, which creates appetites rather than solves problems,' opines George Katodrytis, an architect working in Dubai, in a piece originally published in Bidoun. Indeed, Dubai has remade itself as the paragon of imitation culture, a nowhere-land that has architects salivating. Suddenly unburdened of nearly all constraints save profitability, those late-night bouts of wishful thinking go from sketch to concrete with lightning speed.

It's as if the Americanized global subconscious suddenly bubbled over and spawned a city of fantasy -- in Las Vegas you can ride a gondola in a casino, but that's small change compared to skiing in the desert. In the course of becoming, in the words of The Guardian's Adam Nicolson, 'not the modern centre of the Arab world but, more than that, the Arab centre of the modern world,' Dubai has bent a few -- albeit major -- rules. Political dissent is nonexistent, child labor standards are as weak as the children working for the Emirate's ruler, and immigrant workers are held in slave-like conditions.

Nevertheless, the city is quickly becoming the most architecturally and infrastructurally advanced in the world. It's been said that Dubai is being run like a corporation, and many think that tack is working, turning it into what Mike Davis, writing in Tomdispatch.com, refers to as 'the new global icon of imagineered urbanism.' The world is taking note -- whether out of fascination or fear it is too early to say -- waiting to see what is dreamed up next in Dubai.

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