Skip to main content
In depth

Letter from Dubai: Head-Over-Heels Race to the Future Causes Growing Pains


With sky-high aspirations to become a world-class destination and business hub, Dubai has mobilized mega-development on multiple fronts, leveraging its geographic advantages and historic trading role. The ambitions of this UAE city-state (population, 1.4 million) – expected to run out of oil in a few years – and its power to build seem unbounded. Massive manmade islands, Universal and Paramount theme parks, and Bawadi (a 50, 000+ room Las Vegas-style strip) are all part of the current plans to solidify Dubai’s growing reputation as the place to be.

By Gordon Linden and Rupak Chatterjee

Extraordinary architectural landmarks such as the Burj Al Arab Hotel, and the Burj Dubai Tower (world’s tallest building – for now), stellar shopping malls, luxury hotels and sports venues are all expected to materialize in less time than it takes most cities to update a zoning ordinance. Much infrastructure is well underway, including Dubai World Central (world’s largest airport), the Metro-rail network and an ever-expanding maze of roads and bridges.

The projects now taking shape and in the pipeline are ambitiously proposed to be fully populated in just a few short years. The skyline is crowded with building cranes and current residents face years of building noise, dust and truck traffic. Consider Dubai Marina, reportedly the world’s largest man-made marina, which started development in the late 1990s. Today, in spite of glossy ‘sea-view-sky-lounge-living’ brochures, it remains a vast construction site. In fact, very few of the unique, vigorously promoted destinations, such as Palm Island, Palm Deira, Dubai Waterfront, Dubailand, and the Lagoons (which, at 95 million square feet, is four times the size of London’s Canary Wharf) are close to completion. Dubai should be busy moving earth and erecting buildings for at least another decade and probably beyond.

Worker’s Rights on the Agenda

Amid this building boom in the Arabian desert a different set of needs, conditions and opportunities is emerging.

Inevitably, the advantages of cheap labor as well as the tax relief that helped fuel the building boom will be reduced. In this overheated market, the costs of labor and materials are rising, and Dubai must import both. Its raw materials are limited – even its native sand must be washed and blended with other materials for building purposes. Dubai’s huge temporary construction workforce is primarily Southeast Asian immigrants. Improving these workers’ straits is on the agenda, as global media and human-rights concerns have decried their low pay and poor living conditions.

The profile of the workforce will also change. As the attractions, resorts, malls and residential towers become operational, so emerges the need to recruit, hire, house and train permanent employees in management, hospitality, food service, sales and marketing, accounting, customer service, maintenance and operations. 

Rapid Growth and the Inevitable Bumps on the Road.

In the race to get things up and running, developers have skipped some of the traditional steps of project delivery. But overnight planning and sleek, digital ‘fly-throughs’ don’t equal overnight building. The inevitable bumps on the road from concept to completion are magnified in the case of a “one fell swoop” undertaking on the scale and speed of Dubai. Truly, Dubai is showing us – in some respects quite surprisingly – just how streamlined the process can be in the global marketplace. But the skyscrapers are rising faster than the related infrastructure can be delivered to support them. Temporary utilities – i.e. power and sewage treatment plants running on diesel generators – are the current solution. Lack of operator inputs at the front end is another issue. In the years ahead, there will be needs for a lot of tweaking, reworking and replacement of themes, prices, concessions, marketing strategies. Not all entertainment brands travel well. Cultural preferences will manifest themselves as the new Dubai comes into its own.

Dubai’s resident population, which will eventually provide some market supports for its new retail and leisure offerings, is as diverse a collection of expatriates as its transient workforce, albeit of different makeup. Dubai is a safe haven surrounded by several countries facing major political, social and economic challenges, including Iraq and Iran. As part of the long-term strategic vision of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum the Prime Minister and Vice President of the United Arab Emirates, as well as the Ruler of Dubai, it has attracted numerous media, technology, and financial companies; many industrial firms have settled into the plentiful business parks and free zones. Those companies, in turn, draw young professionals from such countries as India, Australia, South Africa, and the UK, looking for a certain quality of life afforded by Dubai’s booming economy.

Whose culture is Dubai personifying?

Emiratis (Dubai nationals) are less than a sixth of the whole and generally not widely involved in the mainstream vocations. Their interactions with expatriates are more business than social. Long-term, there may be social-cultural issues born of this diverse, unbalanced population mix. Whose culture is Dubai personifying? Promotional images tend to be elitist and gentrified, in contrast to the reality of the omnipresent service class.

Dubai, which had no previous manufacturing base (its busy port is now an important and rapidly growing regional transfer hub) has leveraged its assets and the current window of opportunity to create a product set – knowledge industries, retail and leisure – that, well-managed, could sustain it in future times of less oil. The entities developing these properties are, for the most part, quasi-governmental organizations. The money flowing into them – for now – comes from global investors in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Abu-Dhabi, Russia and India among other countries. It is presently reported that the market reflects a great deal of real estate speculation, but at some point demand will slow, profit margins shrink, and the nature of investment will change – a regular cycle in the leisure industry.

The transition from project delivery to operations has already begun and its scope is huge. For the dirham (the local currency) to flow in a profitable direction, the attractions must attract and the guest experience must fulfill its promise. The rides must run (and do so safely), the toilets must flush, the air conditioners cool and the guests receive courteous service – to ensure the repeat visitation on which all such development depends. That success, in turn, will support continued investment interest, and help Dubai’s new leisure offerings to retain their value.

Gordon Linden and Rupak Chatterjee are based in Dubai where Linden is Manager of the Urban Design and Planning Group and Chatterjee is an Urban Planner with Parsons International Ltd. The opinions expressed are solely those of the authors.

Search for something

More from this author

Your web browser is out of date. Update your browser for more security, speed and the best experience on this site.

Find out how to update