GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

Family Name:
Karayil Mohammad Ali
First Name:
Title of Paper:
A City for Everyone? Sociocultural Implications of Urban Development in Dubai
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 urban growth into a global hub. I consider the city’s strategic positioning in the world and its general success in inviting visitors of various interests from different corners of the world through different tropes such as its built environment (megaprojects, spectacular architecture), history of development and changes in urban policies.
With ‘Dubaization’ (Elsheshtawy:2004) taking place in different parts of the Gulf and Middle East region, there is a need to examine this Dubai model more in depth, especially in the wake of the recent economic revival in Dubai and announcement of a slew of megaprojects for phase Dubai 3.0.
While I emphasize the unique and exceptional nature of Dubai’s developmental pattern to show how strategically it has garnered global attention, one of the main concerns of this paper is to bring out the effects these policies have had on the resident population. For residents, the artificially created “downtown” for instance 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. Dubai presents many paradoxes and seemingly revels in being a mass of contradictions. While it has an open door policy to foreigners and seemingly every new project is geared towards inviting more and more outsiders, access to legal citizenship or even permanent residency is strictly guarded. While nationals or Emiratis are well provided for by the government in the form of numerous hand-outs, public discourse and civic participation are almost non-existent. In the absence of vibrant civil society, how do we conceive of sustainable development? Dubai has been consistently vilified by the media and academics (the much cited Mike Davis piece written on a flying visit), yet people still flock here for work and leisure. Is the reason only money or just hype? In the amount of attention given to the super rich buying country shaped islands and to the terrible conditions of the labourers, two segments of the population are entirely left out—the ordinary residents of Dubai comprising Emiratis and middle class expatriates, and how their social lives have changed as a result of the frantic pace of urban development.
Dubai’s obsession with attracting the outside world in can be traced back to the early 1900s. Today it has diversified the avenues through which they are channeling in the people- where it was purely maritime and trade before, today the possible attractions are business, tourism and holiday homes. While there are clear moments in its history that have sparked off its city-making - early 1900s, mid 1950-60s and the late 1990s-present, it is only the latter, the now, that is put out there as the city’s vision. This image of the city is that of the spectacle that invites the global gaze to consume this hyper modern city that is traditional at the same time. But this traditionality is limited to pastiche architectural elements in buildings that evoke some invented Arab heritage, that of the sailing dhow in the Burj Al Arab, the desert rose base of the Burj Khalifa or the ubiquitous use of the wind towers and mashrabiya features in various hotel resorts and residential complexes.
Carefully examining the history of Dubai’s development from the early 1900s one can see a clear pattern in the kind of projects undertaken which I will historically trace in this paper to show the deep connections much of today’s megaprojects have to earlier urban decisions and rationale. Hence while one can question the sustainability of the current scenario, certainly if Dubai wants to, it can make the case that this is what they have been doing from the early 60s and 70s! Yet even to maintain an “image” of sustainable development they do not do so and this paper will discuss the ramifications of that in some detail.
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). On another level, I critique the very image of Dubai disseminated (by itself and global media)—that of a magical appearance on the world stage—what were vast tracts of desert before, now suddenly shimmering towering skyscrapers. Furthermore, I discuss Dubai’s overarching ambition for global recognition and the contradictions represented in the interplay between tradition and modernity in its many projects. 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 urbanisms.