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Ideas

The Internationalist

Is Dubai the future of cities?

As instant boomtowns compete with ancient metropolises, the Middle East debates what makes a true urban center.

Burj Khalifa soars above the other buildings in Dubai.

AFP PHOTO/MARWAN NAAMANI/Getty images

Burj Khalifa soars above the other buildings in Dubai.

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Palestinian poet and filmmaker Hind Shoufani moved to Dubai for the same reasons that have attracted millions of other expatriates to the glitzy emirate. In 2009, after decades in the storied and mercurial Arab capital cities of Damascus and Beirut and a sojourn in New York, she wanted to live somewhere stable and cosmopolitan where she also could earn a living.

Five years later, she’s won a devoted following for the Poeticians, a Dubai spoken-word literary performance collective she founded. The group has created a vibrant subculture of writers, all of them expats.

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To its critics—and even many of its fans—“culture” and “Dubai” barely belong in the same sentence. The city is perhaps the world’s most extreme example of a business-first, built-from-the-sand boomtown. But Shoufani and her fellow Poeticians have become a prime exhibit in a debate that has broken out with renewed vigor in the Arab world and among urban theorists worldwide: whether the gleaming boomtowns of the Gulf are finally establishing themselves as true cities with a sustainable economy and an authentic culture, and, in the process, creating a genuine new path for the Middle East.

Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest tower

KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images

Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest tower.

This is a question of both economic interest and huge sentimental importance. The Arab world is already home to a series of capitals whose greatness reaches deep into antiquity. The urban fabric and dense ancient quarters of Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, and Beirut have long nourished Arab culture and politics. But, racked by insurrection, unemployment, and fading fortunes, they have also begun to seem, to many observers, more mired in the past than a template for the future.

The Dubai debate broke out again in October when Sultan Al Qassemi, a widely read gadfly and member of one of the United Arab Emirates’ ruling families, wrote a provocative essay arguing that the new Gulf cities, Dubai most notable among them, had once and for all eclipsed the ancient capitals as the “new centers of the Arab world.” A flurry of withering essays, newspaper articles, and denunciations followed. “I touched a sensitive nerve,” Al Qassemi said in an interview.

His critics object that Dubai is hardly a model—as they point out, 95 percent of the city’s population is not even naturalized, but made up of expatriates with limited rights. And there’s another problem as well. Every one of the Gulf boomtowns—besides Dubai, they include Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Manama, and Kuwait City—has been underwritten, directly or indirectly, by windfall oil profits that won’t last forever.

A mosque in Cairo.

Amro Maraghi/AFP/Getty Images

A mosque in Cairo.

In her seminal work “Cities and the Wealth of Nations,” Jane Jacobs argued that cities that were a “monoculture” last only as long as the boom that created them, whether it involved bauxite, rubber plants, or oil. To thrive in the long term, cities need adaptable, productive economies with diverse, high-quality workers and enough capitalist free-for-all so that unsuccessful businesses fail and new ones spring up. Otherwise they risk the fate of single-industry cities like New Bedford, Detroit, or the completely abandoned onetime mining city at Hashima Island in Japan.

Can Dubai and its peers successfully make that transition? Started as the kind of monocultures that Jacobs argued are doomed to fail, they are now trying to harness their money and top-down management to create a broader web of interconnected industries in the cities and their surrounds.

Dubai is the cutting edge of this experiment. With its reserves depleted, its growth comes from a diverse, post-oil economy, although it still receives significant financial support from other Emirates that are still pumping petrochemicals. Its rulers are determined to make their city a center for culture and education, building museums and institutes, sponsoringfestivals and conferences, with the expectation that they can successfully promote an artistic ecosystem through the same methods that attracted new business. What happens next stands to tell us a lot about whether an artificial urban economy can be molded into one that is complex and sustainable. If it can, that may matter not just for the Middle East, but for cities everywhere.

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Jacobs, a pioneering writer on cities and urban economics who died in 2006, is perhaps best known for “The Death and Life of the Great American City,” her paean to Greenwich Village and small-scale urban planning. But in her 1984 follow-up about the economies of cities and their surrounding hinterlands, Jacobs showed a harder nose for business. To be wealthy and dynamic, she argued, cities needed not to depend on military contracts or to be hampered by having to subsidize other, poorer territories—pitfalls that have driven the decline of many a capital city. In her book, she touted Boston and Tokyo as creative, diversified economic engines. But many of the world’s storied capital cities, like Istanbul and Paris, she wrote, were fatally bound to declining industries and poor, dependent provinces.

Today, that description perfectly encapsulates the burden carried by the Arab world’s great cities. Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo historically hosted multiple vibrant economic sectors: finance, research, manufacturing, design, and architecture. Eventually, though, they were hollowed out. Oil money, aid, and trade eliminated local industry, and the profits of these cities were siphoned away to support the poverty-stricken rural areas around them.

As these cities fell behind, a very different new urban model was rising nearby, along the Persian Gulf. As the caricature of the Gulf states goes, nomadic tribes unchanged for millennia suddenly found themselves enriched beyond belief when oil was discovered. The nouveaux riches cities of the Gulf were born of this encounter between the Bedouin and the global oil market.

The reality is more nuanced and interesting. The small emirates along the Gulf coast had long been trade entrepôts, and Dubai was among the most active. Its residents were renowned smugglers, with connections to Persia, the Arabian peninsula, and the Horn of Africa. When oil came, the Emirates already had a flourishing economy. And because their reserves were relatively small, they moved quickly to invest the petro-profits into other sectors that could keep them wealthy when the oil and gas ran out. Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah (all in the Emirates) pioneered this model, with neighboring Manama, Qatar, and Kuwait City following it closely.

Skeptics have decried the new Gulf cities, often vociferously, ever since the oil sheikhs announced their grand ambitions to build them in the 1970s. In his 1984 classic “Cities of Salt,” the great novelist Abdelrahman Munif chronicled the rise of the Arab monarchs in the Gulf. He explained the title to Tariq Ali in an interview: “Cities of salt means cities that offer no sustainable existence,” Munif said. “When the waters come in, the first waves will dissolve the salt and reduce these great glass cities to dust. With no means of livelihood they won’t survive.”

And yet, despite the apparent contempt of cultural elites, when civil war swept Lebanon, the Arab world’s financial center moved to the Gulf. Soon other sectors blossomed: light manufacturing, tourism, technology, eventually music and television production.

Dubai led the way. It built the infrastructure for business, and business quickly came. Over the decades, investment and workers flowed to a desert city of malls and gated communities, which had a huge airport, well-maintained streets, and clear rules of the road. Abu Dhabi, Manama, and Doha followed suit, although they took it more slowly; with continuing oil and gas revenue, they didn’t need to take the risk of growth as explosive as Dubai’s. Unlike the austere cities of Saudi Arabia, all the Gulf’s coastal trading cities had a tradition of a kind of tolerance. Other religions were welcome, and so were foreigners, so long as they didn’t question the absolute authority of the ruling family.

In the last four decades of the oil era, that model has evolved into the peculiar institution of a city-state dependent on a short-term foreign labor pool from top to bottom. The most extreme case is Dubai, where less than 5 percent of the 2 million people are citizens. Citizens form a minority in all the other Gulf cities as well. Wages for expatriates—especially workers in construction and service sectors like the airlines—are kept low, and foreign laborers are isolated from better-off city residents in labor camps. Construction workers who complain or try to unionize have been deported. White-collar residents who have criticized Emirati rulers or who have supported movements like the Muslim Brotherhood have had their contracts canceled or their residencies not renewed.

The economic crash of 2008 wiped out some of Dubai’s more excessive projects (although the signature underwater hotel finally opened this year). The real estate bubble burst; expats abandoned their fancy cars at the airport. “There was this glee that the city was over. But it was resilient,” said Yaser Elsheshtawy, a professor of architecture at the UAE University. The Gulf cities bounced back. Millions of new workers, from Asia, Europe, as well as the Arab world, have migrated to the Gulf since then.

“The Dubai model might be good, it might be bad, but it deserves to be looked at with respect,” Elsheshtawy said. Egyptian by birth, Elsheshtawy has lived on three continents, and he’s grown tired of having to defend his choice to work in the Emirates. After he read dozens of ripostes to Al Qassemi’s polemic, including many that he felt smacked of cultural snobbery toward anyone who lived in the “superficial” Gulf cities, Elsheshtawy penned an eloquent defense of Dubai called “Tribes with Cities” on his blog Dubaization. He doesn’t like everything about the Gulf, but Elsheshtawy believes that Dubai and the other booming Gulf cities, “unburdened by ancient history” and blessed by a mix of cultures, can provide the world “the blueprint for our urban future.”

***

Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the showcase cities of the Emirates, often seem like a they’re run by a sci-fi chamber of commerce. They’ve got the world’s tallest building, the biggest new art collections in starchitect-designed museums, the busiest airports, and growing populations. Beneath that surface, though, lies a structure that worries even many supporters: Freedoms are tightly constrained, and most of the population is made of explicitly second-class noncitizens. Other growing cities chafe under censorship or political restrictions—Beijing, Hong Kong, and Singapore spring to mind. But there’s a difference between those places, where citizen-stakeholders live out their entire lifetimes, and a city where almost everyone is fundamentally a visitor.

Even Al Qassemi, the Emirati who believes the new cities have pioneered a better economic model, has argued that the citizenship restriction will hurt Dubai and cities that follow its model. “Without naturalization, all the Arabs who move here and are creating these cities will see them only as stepping stones to greener pastures,” Al Qassemi said. “People make money and they leave.”

There’s a glaring moral problem with a city ruled by a tiny clan where most of the workers have no rights. But the last few decades suggest that citizenship and political freedom aren’t prerequisites for GDP growth. Jacobs wrote a lot about what cities need, but the only kind of freedom she wrote about was the freedom to innovate and create wealth. The new Gulf cities have carefully provided a state-of-the-art, fairly enforced body of regulations for corporations—precisely the kind of rule of law they actively deny to foreign workers.

In treating businesses more solicitously than individuals, the Gulf city model may depend on a twist that Jacobs never foresaw: They don’t care whether people stick around. In fact, these new cities assume they will be able to innovate precisely because they won’t be encumbered by citizens whose skills are no longer needed. If Dubai needs fewer construction and more service workers, or fewer film producers and more computer programmers, it simply lets its existing contracts lapse and hires the people it needs on the global market. The churn isn’t a flaw in the model; it’s part of its foundation.

That may explain why even Dubai’s defenders are not planning to stick around. Shoufani, the poet, says she cherishes the secure space to create that Dubai has given her, but she still plans to move on in a few years. So does Elsheshtawy, the architecture professor whose academic studies of urban space have helped counter the narrative of Dubai as a joyless, dystopian city interested only in the pursuit of money. He plans to retire somewhere else. It may not matter to Dubai’s fortunes, however, as long as people arrive to take their place.

The next few years will begin to tell how this experiment has turned out. Just as Jane Jacobs said, it doesn’t matter so much how a city was born. It matters how its economy operates. If Dubai and its imitators outlive the oil revenues and regional instability that helped them boom, it will be a lesson for cities everywhere in how to invent a viable urban economy—even if it leads to a kind of city that Jacobs herself might have loathed to live in.

Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel.” He is an Ideas columnist and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com.

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