The Childish Folly of Dubai

Dubai from the sky

Dubai feels like it was designed by a five-year-old boy. What kid doesn’t get excited about the BIGGEST BUILDING EVER, or the WORLD’S BIGGEST MALL? And then there’s the idea of a SEVEN STAR HOTEL. Wow!

A real kid’s drawing would have these elements laid out side-by-side, in two dimensions. Drawings by five-year-olds generally don’t have much perspective or depth. Dubai’s recent urban planning efforts seem to lack them as well. Where else can you visit a city that actually implemented all those dumb ideas you thought were cool in kindergarten? And that laid them all out as ineptly as you would have when you were five?

Dubai as a five-year-old's drawing

Dubai is often likened to Las Vegas, but Singapore is probably a better comparison. Both are oppressively hot city-states with plenty of shopping. Both places are known for meting out harsh punishments for minor offenses. But the comparison ends there. For all its flaws, Singapore is a real city with dense urban streets, busy sidewalks, and character. Dubai’s skyline is a mirage. It is the facade of a metropolis, a row of tacky skyscrapers and malls stretching out for miles along a ten-lane highway, an endless string of nouveau-riche bling. Move closer still and each building seems to stand alone, empty expanses between them, lonely monuments to the egos of their starchitects. The tallest looks like a modern, spindly take on the Tower of Babel, lying at the center of all this chaos, like history repeating itself.

This isn’t a city made for walking. The distances are immense. Behind most skyscrapers are parking lots, desert, scraggly buildings, and highway u-turn ramps. Hopping into a cab is the only way to get anywhere. Even getting to the building across the highway involves a cab ride two miles out to the nearest u-turn ramp, followed by some zig-zag shortcuts through a parking lot, and then driving back down the other side of the highway to point A. The city was designed like a power centre. But not just ANY power centre. Oh no! The world’s longest, biggest, and tallest!

World's biggest

Fish tank with the world’s largest acrylic panel, located in the world’s largest mall

Unfortunately for Dubai, real cities are more than a collection of dispersed “world’s largest” monuments. What makes a city interesting is how the different elements mesh together, the dialogue between buildings and places, the people, the street life. There are no proper streets or outdoor places in Dubai. To be fair, an interesting city can’t be built in two decades. It has to evolve organically, develop layers of history. Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine the urban planning that has characterized Dubai in the past two decades maturing in any interesting way. It’s too spread out and doesn’t exist on a human scale.

So far I’ve mostly criticized the form, the surface. This is what Dubai is supposed to be doing right, a city devoted to surface charms, yet even there it fails to deliver. There’s dirt beneath the surface, to be sure. Johann Hari’s excellent article on the dark side of Dubai deals with the “credit and ecocide, suppression and slavery” on which Dubai was built. Although the kid’s drawing above looks innocent, even naive, there’s some nasty Lord of the Flies stuff going on behind it all.


Dubai isn’t all bad. The older part of the city that existed before the building boom can be comfortably navigated on foot, though it only a tiny part of the whole. There are dense streets and (sanitized) souks alongside Dubai creek, and crossing back and forth on the dhows is a memorable experience. The souks may be touristy, but they feel more authentic than the city’s generic malls. What little architectural heritage there is has been cared for, the old Emirati houses, mosques and madrassas. There are also a few hopeful recent developments. The new Dubai metro marks the beginning of some well-overdue sustainable urban planning, though you’ll still need a taxi to get anywhere after disembarking at most stops along the line.

Although the economic crisis has hit Dubai hard, leaving the skyline littered with unfinished skyscrapers, this may yet be a good thing. Let’s hope it will give future plans time to mature on the drawing board before being translated into reality. Hopefully this will lead to more substance and less bling, more pragmatic solutions and fewer childish follies.

This entry was written by Patrick Donovan , posted on Wednesday September 01 2010at 12:09 am , filed under Africa and Middle East, Architecture, Public Space, Transportation and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

5 Responses to “The Childish Folly of Dubai”

  • junior says:

    Can’t agree more. You’ve explained the dubai phenomena perfectly! Thanks.

  • DCorbeil says:

    Well, what can you expect from people in love with our suburbs ?

    The “automobile culture” is still strongly considered as the ultimate proof of success.

    Sad, but the reality for most emerging countries.

  • C. Szabla says:

    Sheikh Mo is not going to be happy that you ripped that illustration out of the sequel to his prophetic book. All it’s missing is “world’s biggest migrant labor transit camp” and “world’s biggest smartphone impound facility”.

  • Zvi says:

    Great commentary. So I suppose that Abu Dhabi is designed by pre-teens. They recognize the infantile folly of Dubai, but they can’t let their kid brother show them up and they are still enamored with technology and gadgets.

  • Patrick Donovan says:

    Interesting shots of Abu Dhabi.

    I didn’t make it there, but what I’ve read recently points toward more sustainable development initiatives, such as this zero carbon city:

    And then there are the planned starchitect art museums, which seem slightly more highbrow than palm-shaped islands and amusement parks, though I doubt they’ll have much in the way of Middle Eastern art.

    It’s still one-upmanship, and it may be two isolated exceptions, but somehow Abu Dhabi seems a bit more mature than Dubai.