13 January 2012
Nonetheless, despite a small minority of well-informed reporting, like the occasional column in the New York Times, and sporadic academic research, such as Ahmed Kanna’s excellent Dubai: the city as a corporation, knowledge about the city remains largely based on rumors and canards. What is often forgotten in these stories is that urbanism in Dubai has not stopped. True, it might take a while before we witness the rise of another Burj Dubai, or the blossoming of a series of new palm islands into the Arab Sea. Yet, the urbanization processes at work in the Emirate, rather than coming to a halt, have partly changed their orientation. A trend, in particular, is quite evident to the observant analyst: Dubai’s authorities have gone to great lengths to reorganize the production of urban spaces in a more pragmatic and functional way.
The authorities, whether in the shape of the royal family, its subsidiaries, or the municipal government, have maintained a rather firm clout on the master planning of the city even after the troubles of 2009-10. Seeping through a very small minority of the news from the Gulf is the best known of these projects: the new Al Maktoum International Airport mega-development that promises to put Dubai on the global map once and for all. In what many would call a classic display of the "Dubai model," the new airport is nothing less than a record-seeker: devised to host up to 16 cargo terminals with a prospected 12 million ton capacity, alongside up to 160 million people a year (Atlanta, the current largest, can handle about 90 million), it promises to provide the Emirate with a global hub twice the size of Heathrow. The project is not, however, yet been set to replace the current International Airport, to which it will soon be connected through a revamped 40km highway and a respective high-speed railway. Certainly, the Al Maktoum development is not the Gulf-based only super-project in the area of logistics: Saudi Arabia, with its twin King Fahad (in Dammam) and King Khalid (in Riyadh) international airports, the two largest in the world by land area, as well as the near metropolises of Abu Dhabi and the Bahrain International Airport (in Muharraq), all demonstrate the Middle East remains a global contender when it comes to moving people and goods worldwide.
However, the focus on the airport is perhaps the best example of how Dubai’s large-scale urbanism in post-crisis has shifted towards a more no-nonsense take on the city’s globalization. Pragmatism is more and more the leitmotif in the metropolis’ long-term development. Not surprisingly, local officials now methodically point how Dubai started its worldwide ascent not with the famed ports (Rashid, Hamriya, and Jebel Ali, respectively in 1967, 1975, and 1979), but rather with the opening of its International Airport in 1959. Perhaps overshadowed by some nostalgia and growth of the nationalist rhetoric amidst Emirates, this approach underscores what is at least a partial pragmatic change in the bottom-line mentality in the global city. From the private and para-statal sectors, this logistics-oriented approach has found positive reinforcement as some key Dubayyan businesses such as Emirates Airlines have continued an almost steady rise to worldwide centrality. The flagship company, for instance, is now set to become the world’s largest wide-body carrier by 2015, overtaking Air France-KLM, as a recent report from Boston Consulting Group highlighted.
In this sense, the Al Maktoum Airport development is not the only infrastructural "work in progress" planned by local authorities. This is for instance demonstrate by a substantial enhancement of the highway system connecting the Jebel Ali Port with the city and, most importantly, its nascent mega-airport has been implemented since the beginning of the year and is now set to provide efficient and quick linkages between Dubai’s marine logistics and the burgeoning cargo capacity of both Al Maktoum and International flight gateways. These trade-oriented improvements have been coupled with the opening and expanding reach of the Dubai Metro web to promote cross-city connections and alleviate the burden of the traditional traffic jams of New Dubai. From this viewpoint, the impact of the global economic downturn on the city’s (and royal family’s) ambitions are more and more frequently pointed out to have been somewhat positive; as a local planning consultant recently told me: “the GFC might have been the best PR strategy Dubai could ask for.” Certainly, not all would agree. Moreover, some elements of grandeur remain present alongside this logistics-oriented approach.
While some flagship projects like Nakheel’s kilometer-high Al Burj tower in the Dubai Marina have officially been "put on hold" and a series of even more ambitious (read multi-million) ventures such as Rem Koolhas’ Sphere Complex have been scrapped, Dubai has not lost its ostentatious nature altogether. Even the more menial PR efforts, such as Mohammed Al Maktoum’s recent support of the Metro system by “commuting to work” (one off, amidst cameras and security), tend to spin into the Sheik’s new slogan “we are back.” However, in a series of relatively "small" steps to recovery, at least compared to the grand plans of Downtown Dubai, the World archipelago, or the Waterfront, the Emirate is progressively re-orienting its core attention to key commerce and tourism projects. This measured recovery has been coupled with localized, small-scale and even informal urbanism that has continued almost uninterrupted, if not enhanced, after 2008.
While all of the major developments have made some limited appearances in Western media (arguably, academia still lags behind), this additional dimension of Dubai’s post-crisis development has largely been ignored. Alongside the pragmatic mega-projects of the Al Maktoums, there is a prolific small scale, bottom up and even "everyday" urbanism at work in the city, which has today a crucial role in the Emirate. This is for instance, to cite one of several similar instances, the case of the sprawling activity at the Dubai flea markets initiative, which somewhat uniquely for these small scale "projects" has even been honored by a mention "in passing" from the BBC. The markets are nowadays sprawling centers of micro commerce, barter, and cosmopolitan encounter, promoted by Green Spot Entertainment—a team of expatriates who founded the “Flea Market Cult” in UAE in April 2008 and is today an active presence in the city’s social scene. Likewise, small-scale commercial hubs like those of Deira or Satwa, while far from the immaculate floors of the major malls, still provide an active source impromptu urbanism on the streets of the Emirate. All of these large-scale logistics and localized informal projects might not be able to parallel the worldwide awe that the Burj produced in 2009-10, but certainly contribute to molding the harsh and sterile structures of the city into a more livable conurbation. So, if rumor has it, then, that Dubai has collapsed onto its ambitious globalizing project, evidence on the ground suggests otherwise.