Dubai, is Abu Dhabi’s smaller, less wealthy cousin with an outsize attitude. Since it lacks the natural resources of Abu Dhabi, it chose its own model–one apparently modeled after Las Vegas, except, bigger, taller and with far more glitz, although with less alcohol and without gambling and sex.
Although its present site has been occupied since about 3,000 BC, the economy began to develop in the 16th century around fishing and pearl diving, where divers descended rapidly with weights and picked and ascended with oysters. And remember, this was all done without any air tanks! Although the divers, who made perhaps 50 three-minute dives per day made working wages, the wholesalers who bought, traded and sold these pearls became rich. These and other traders made even further gains when the government provided big tax breaks for foreign traders in the mid-19th century.
The city, however, remained largely a group of palm frond coastal houses through the first few decades of the 20th century. It began to expand in the 1940s when the British began exploring for oil, in the 1950s when Dubai became a regional center of the gold trade, and in the 60s when the British, in return for a percentage of the revenue, began commercial oil drilling. The seven Emirates were then combined into a single nation in 1971. The real financial and population explosion, however, began in 1997, when the British oil contract expired and the Emirates gained full control of their oil resources and were able to negotiate much, much more favorable contracts.
While all the Emirates prospered, Abu Dhabi, which owned 95 percent to the oil reserves (which are expected to last for another century) became essentially, set for life. Abu Dhabi is intent on helping its citizens develop along with the economy, and is trying to educate and prepare its people for knowledge jobs in an information economy. Dubai has chosen another course to build its own economy. Although it is certainly developing its commercial sector and in educating its citizens, it has placed its biggest bet on tourism.
Dubai is using its money to develop attractions to entice tourists and the world’s big spenders by offering the biggest and the best of everything. The result: Almost everything about the city is outsized and outrageous. This includes its buildings (including the tallest in the world, 2,717 feet, 163-story Burj Khalifa), the largest shopping mall (the 1,200 store Dubai Mall). And when it can’t build the biggest or the best, it builds the most unique. Examples include the only indoor ski slope in the world, the world’s highest golf and tennis club (atop the seven-star Burg Al Arab Hotel) and man-made islands crafted in the shape of giant palm tree (Palm Jumeirah), and the globe (The World).
Although such projects and amenities may appeal to handful of ultra-rich at any time, the broader market pulls back during a time of financial stress. Not surprisingly, the economy took a beating during the financial crisis. Many projects, such as “The World”, were stopped dead in their tracks and Dubai was forced to request a bailout from its richer, less spendthrift cousin Abu Dhabi. Dubai has, however, since regained its footing and is now getting back on track.
Dubai’s building explosion began in 1974. In 1979, it built its first high-rise. That launched the beginning of an all-out competition to build the tallest, the largest, the most architecturally significant and the most luxurious.
The completion really took off in 1990s with buildings such as the Jumeirah Towers and Burj al-Arab. This competition went to a whole new level in the new millennium with The Palm Jumeirah development the Dubai Mall and especially the spectacular Burj Kalifa.
Let’s look at some of the most spectacular and unusual in a bit more detail.
- Dubai Marina is a complex of dozens of residential and hotel towers fronted by a flotilla of luxury yachts. It also provides one of the few areas in which the Emirate has actively tried to get people to walk outside by building “The Walk”, a curved path that fronts on the Marina and is lined with dozens and dozens of cafés. It is very popular—especially in the evening and on weekends. This is despite the fact that ongoing construction makes it difficult to get to and navigate the area.
- Palm Jumeirah was a huge development that was built and almost sold out before for 2008 recession. It is a huge residential and resort complex build on a giant artificial island build in the shape of a palm tree. The central section, build along a monorail that spans the length of the development, is dominated by high-rise condo and apartment complexes while the fronds are occupied by very upscale single family homes. The very tip of the tree is anchored by the huge Atlantis “aquaventures” Resort: a hotel that is presented as a portal into the lost world, with a giant walk through aquarium (with a reported 65,000 specimens), a water park and opportunities to swim and scuba with dolphins and with sharks.
- Dubai Mall is the huge 1,200 store mall (the largest in the world, of course) with some differences, although it has the same general collection of stores as the world’s other upscale malls, it has a number of special features, these include one of the largest aquariums in the world, an Olympic-size ice skating rink, a theme park with a huge play zone for kids, a lovely waterfall and a pond with a fountain whose even choreographed water shows put those of Las Vegas’ Belaggio to shame.
- Mall of the Emirates which, with a mere 520 stores is dwarfed by the Dubai Mall, has something that its neighbor does not–an indoor ski slope with five runs plus a number of jumps. Looking for other winter diversions? You can also hit the slopes on a tube or inside a giant ball, glide down an ice-lined toboggan run, climb an ice wall or just build a snowman and have a snowball fight. Does all this sound a bit incongruous in a dessert whose temperatures can surpass 125 degrees? Sure, but logic must be suspended: after all, this is Dubai.
- Burj Khalifa, the tallest, and in my humble opinion, the most elegant building in the world. At 2,717 ft and 163 floors, it totally dominates the skyline–not with its mass, but as a slender needle piercing the heavens, with incredibly smooth elevators whisking you up at 10 meters per second, you barely notice you are moving and arrive at your destination in a flash.
- Burj Al Arab, although only the world’s third tallest hotel and 1,056 feet, it is considered the world’s most luxurious, with something of an honorary 7-star rating. Build on its own artificial island, it is shaped like a giant sail with a 590-foot atrium. While the interior’s opulence is somewhat off the scale, this is, again Dubai.
- The Corniche, along the oceanfront, houses some of the largest estates in the Emirates, including the palaces of the Sultan of Dubai and, next door, that of his brother.
Stay tuned for more on Dubai in our next blog.