GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

Family Name:
Karayil Mohammad Ali
First Name:
Title of Paper:
Dubai: Image and Reality in a New Traditional Arab City
Paper Proposal Text :
Through a careful examination of Dubai’s history of development and its modernization projects, this paper will critique predominant understandings of Dubai’s growth into the quintessential tourist destination. I consider the city’s positioning in the world of tourism (and its general success in inviting visitors of various interests) through various tropes such as its built environment, various megaprojects, spectacular architecture and changes in urban policies. On one level I will critically examine various modernization projects in Dubai and what they represent (as well as what they are meant to represent on the global stage). Adding another dimension to this paper is the contradiction between tradition and modernity when it comes to this part of the world, almost certainly a result of the oriental gaze and the perceived polarities between the “East” and the “West”. While this paper seeks to dismantle the “exoticity” of the Arab region in general to bring the Arab world into global discourse, I however emphasize the unique and exceptional nature of Dubai’s developmental pattern to show how strategically it has garnered global attention.
This paper will examine the contradictions underlying the nature (and narrative) of Dubai’s urban growth and development, to reveal present day Dubai’s hidden connections to its historical past and traditional geographic centres. In Dubai, the real historical traditions of city building since the 19th century – a combination of openness to foreigners, innovation, risk-taking, a gradual development up on past successes through an amplification process – has been concealed in favour of a tabula rasa narrative, of a city that sprung from nothing. However, this paper will examine the various initiatives by ruling Sheikhs over the past 100 years, which have clearly fuelled the city’s development, thereby critiquing assumptions about Dubai’s “sudden” and overambitious expansion. Thus it will be argued that Dubai, the current poster child of phenomenal urban growth, is itself rooted in a tradition of self-referentiality and amplification that has persisted in its vision and built forms. Nevertheless, these real traditions are forsaken in the interest of an imaginary of the city’s magical appearance on the world stage.
Sheikh Mohammed and his ancestors, with an uncanny sense of timing, have strategically used world political events to the city’s overwhelming advantage. The 2010 Burj Khalifa is Sheikh Mohammed’s legacy just like the 1979 Dubai World Trade Centre was his father’s. The vision behind both projects is the same- to build something extraordinary to put the city on the map. But the Burj not only draws on the vision behind DWTC to be the tallest building in the region, amplified many times over. It also draws on Dubai’s general success with superlative projects starting with the 1979 port, which ultimately paid off for Dubai, despite all the media hype. Despite these realities and continuities, Dubai defiantly operates on the level of imagery, in a successful effort to capitalize on global media attention. For ordinary residents, this New Dubai in an artificially created “downtown” remains uninhabitable; they are images and symbols divorced from sociality but powerful nonetheless and consumed in another way, as a source of city pride and uniqueness. One can see by examining the images produced by Dubai that a profound disconnect between the unifying narratives of both tradition and newness, obscures the actual conditions of the city. As scholars, transcending this imaginary and understanding how it constructs and is constructed by hegemonic powers is essential for the understanding of such new urban developments.
While there are clear historical moments of city-making, it is only the present, that is the focus of Dubai’s vision. In this lack of congruence between image and reality, Dubai brazenly sides with image - to maintain the myth of Dubai as having confounded space, time and common sense to become what it is today. The reality of this strategy is that, this image has essentially worked for Dubai in making the world sit up, take notice and visit. The city’s relentless pursuit of modernity seems to have mistakenly equated traditional past with backwardness, a state that must be forgotten and denied at all cost. The fact is, this unpublicized past of the last 100 years cannot be easily termed traditional or modern. If anything it tends towards the latter, hence oddly enough making Dubai deny its own process of modernity, to be seen as modern.
In sum, this paper will show how aggressively and successfully the Dubai state has cultivated its lion’s share of tourists and a “floating population” through its various spectacular megaprojects, be it shopping malls, resorts or residential projects. And how this diversification of the economy has almost been necessary considering Dubai’s lack of oil. More importantly it emphasizes the dual role of imagery—in the literal form of surface architectural elements but also figuratively speaking the “image” of Dubai’s sudden growth. In both forms, the image has had far reaching consequences for Dubai’s tourism development. An equally significant finding of this paper is the effect these developments have had on Dubai’s own residents, instilling a kind of city pride (rather than national pride) due to the city’s unique achievements.