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Global cities: Dubai

This is the last post of the global cities series; in my previous posts I explained the concept of global business cities and outlined London’s example. Today I will attempt to highlight the key features of one of its main competitors, hoping to give you a wider view on this very exciting (for me!) topic of global cities.

View of the Burj Khalifa, Dubai UAE.

Dubai is a global city with a particular cultural footprint and it competes successfully with western global cities. Its development is not linear: until the 19th century it was a small fishing village in the Persian Gulf and until the 1960’s it was a small town without an airport. Within a few years Dubai has grown significantly (mainly the gold trade sector); oilfields have accelerated the economic growth (by 1990 they have contributed 24% to GDP), it has ceased to be a British protectorate and its population has tripled. Contrary to the London’s development, which is based on liberalism and private initiative, the Constitutional Monarchy of Dubai creates an indissoluble bond between the city and its leader (Sheikh Maktoum Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum is the leader whose ambitious vision had been the cornerstone of modern Dubai).

Today, in this largest business hub of the Middle East, only 5% of the economy is oil-based, while trade, tourism, construction, transport and financial services flourish. Dubai's venture capital strategy is quite aggressive: by offering a complete income tax exemption and facilitating investments, it attracts international capital while offering highly competitive remuneration packages to professionals (which usually include lifestyle benefits in line with the Arab culture of hospitality).

In addition to the usual advantages of a global city, Dubai also offers the Arab experience to its inhabitants: the city's unique feature is glamour and exoticism. The Dubai visitor enjoys water sports in the warm waters of the Persian Gulf, coastal guided tours of spectacular artificial islands, desert safari and wildlife views either in their natural surroundings or in captivity in luxurious entertainment venues. Despite the typical ban on specific (not ‘modest’ enough I guess) products and services, the nightlife in luxury hotels in Dubai is particularly intense, and this is part of the experience that the public enjoys.

Unlike London, whose urban tissue is composed by independent agents, Dubai's distinctive and contradictory urban landscape is governed by an otherwise compact and consistent aesthetic element: the idea of the luxurious western city that emerges through the sand. Of course, there are some particular architectural concepts applied locally (e.g. the Wafi area is influenced by the ancient Egyptian element). Dubai’s urban development is sectoral; specific areas are designated for the development of sectoral activities; besides, the city planning is conformed to Constantinos Doxiadis’ template design for Islamabad (check out

Dubai's development strategy also includes hosting international events (e.g. Formula 1 race), and actions to ensure that its visibility in the international community is always high. Take as an example the ambitious project of Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world) in 2010, or even the Palm Jumeira Complex (the 5th largest artificial island in the world) in 2011.

Last, but not least, I do have to mention the Smart Dubai 2021 project. With this project Dubai embraces technological innovation and seeks to become the happiest city in the world, providing ‘an impeccable, safe, efficient and personalized city experience for all residents and visitors’. This is Dubai’s imprint on the global consciousness: the only city in the world that unites the modern, competitive West with the tradition and luxury of the East.

As we can see from the London / Dubai comparison (please refer to my 4th June 2019 post), these two cities compete with each other on the key criteria of a global business city (i.e. investment opportunities, technological developments, business networking opportunities, accessibility), but they also compete in their endeavors to highlight their comparative advantage.

For this very reason, I personally think that their strategies do justify the concept of postmodern geography, which returns to the importance of space and recognizes the value of heterogeneity and uniqueness. It is these two elements, which make every space, a place of history and culture, running through time and interacting with the international environment, making up the modern supranational urban tissue.


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