Thursday, March 08, 2007

Is Dubai's development model sustainable?

I've asked this question and examined its effects before, but someone else has explored the possible pitfalls of Dubai's hyperbolic development pattern with more detail and eloquence than I (emphasis mine):

...[T]he Dubai urban model, in spite of its remarkable successes, is facing a number of challenges that seriously threaten its long-term sustainability. On the level of daily life, Dubai’s phenomenal growth is creating excessive traffic-congestion problems that often bring parts of the city to halt. This is in spite of (or possibly because of) the fact that it is a young city that has hired the services of countless international urban planning firms. A metro rail line is being planned for Dubai, but it remains to be seen how a population so dependent on the automobile and living in a city developed for the automobile may be convinced to switch to public transportation.

Also, much of the large quantities of housing and office space being constructed in Dubai is ending up as a commodity in which speculators trade, rather than properties to be used as places of residence or business. Such an excess of real-estate supply over demand is a sure sign of a bubble in the making. Real-estate bubbles burst. Under best-case scenarios, they deflate. In the case of Dubai, the bursting or deflation of the bubble most probably will closely follow any significant drop in international oil prices.

Dubai also is greatly dependent on the availability of cheap energy, and its per capita consumption of energy is amongst the highest in the world. Cheaply available oil is used to desalinize the water that irrigates the lush tropical landscapes implanted in its desert, and that supports the water-spending habits of its leisure tourism. Cheaply available oil is used to air-condition its massive interior spaces during the gruelingly hot summer months. Cheaply available oil also is used to run motor vehicles in a city designed exclusively for automobiles (which increasingly are stuck in traffic) and not for pedestrians. As global warming is becoming a more serious and real threat to the livelihood of the planet, there is a rising awareness that such a lifestyle that is dependent on an intensive consumption of fossil fuels is not sustainable in the long run.

Not to mention the havoc that rising ocean levels possibly caused by global warming could have on this seaside city (and especially its man-made offshore islands).

Indeed, there are great risks - both economic as well as environmental - that accompany Dubai's spectacular growth and development. And, while other places in the Middle East (for example, Qatar and Abu Dhabi) have been trying to "keep up with the Joneses" (or, in this case, the Al Maktoums) by implementing grand-scaled development projects of their own, they would do well to not try to be "just like Dubai:"
There is a rising awareness in Dubai regarding the need to effectively address these challenges, and it will be interesting to see how Dubai will deal with them. They still do not undermine the fact that Dubai has been a tremendous success of the entrepreneurial, can-do spirit. The other cities of the region definitely should adopt this spirit, but, as they do so, each will have to follow its own route. Every city has its own comparative advantages that need to be identified, utilized, and developed. However, the cities of the region cannot all be like Dubai, and there is no reason why they all would want to be like Dubai.

And, of course, although the region and the world have fully welcomed the phenomenon of Dubai, it is very much doubtful that the region will be able to handle more than one Dubai. So let Dubai be Dubai, and let the others explore and be who they are.

Indeed. Dubai is a fascinating city of shimmering skyscrapers, vast construction sites and opulent shopping malls (and unfortunately, I still don't know when or if I'll make my next trip there), but it is also a mind-bogglingly massive, multibillion-dollar experiment in citybuilding, and nobody can predict with certainty the outcome of this experiment. Twenty years from now, Dubai could be the world's premier city: wealthy, powerful, dynamic and amazing. It could also be an economically-shattered wasteland of abandoned skycrapers and half-completed construction projects. While other cities (not just in the Middle East but in the rest of the world as a whole) should pay close attention to, and learn from, Dubai, they should not try to engage in Dubai's experiment for themselves. The costs of doing so are enormous, and the potential risks are even greater.


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MAJDI said...

Dubai is the "best" example of an erratic and traumatic growth in the Arab world. While other cities not that for from the "New Vegas" are suffering major urban or life concerns, Dubai continues to build the inefficient model to over-impress the consumption society.

Tamsyn Ayre said...

Hi, I found your post very helpful. Im sourcing this article in a research project for my Geography A-Levels, can I just ask why some sections are in Italic? Does it bear any significance regarding sources?

Thomas said...

Tamsyn: they were quotes from the Middle East Online article I linked to at the top of my post. The link is no longer active, however, and it says you have to be a subscriber to access the archives.