Having already spent a semester abroad in savvy Tokyo, Japan, I would have originally found it difficult to write about any other city so soon after my experience there. Clearly, as an Urban Studies major, I should have known otherwise.
For my senior year I chose to write my thesis in conjunction with the International Topics seminar, a class of about ten people writing about cities all over the world. Because we have such a small number of students, and most other Urban Studies seniors choose to write about issues closer to home, there is a sizable sum of money available to give to students conducting international research. Barnard students specifically can receive grants up to $750. Naturally, with such a discount, I scrambled during midterms to put together a research trip that would take over the majority of my winter break after the New Year.
My thesis topic is a historical analysis concerning the implications of oil discovery on the social dynamics, industry, and infrastructure in Dubai during three distinct time periods: 1900-1955, 1955-1970, and 1970-present. While here I’m mainly looking for information on social dynamics; there are ample reports available on the city’s astounding growth patterns and mind-blowing infrastructural development. I can at this point confirm that the buildings are indeed mind-blowing, and have not failed to shatter my excessively high expectations of the city. However, that is not to say that Dubai does not have its fair share of urban problems, no matter how unique of a city it is.
Due to numerous foreign growth strategies, including the hugely successful commercial free zones (allowing easy set-up for corporations with zero-to-no taxes and the potential for 100% foreign ownership), lax immigration laws, and a high quality of life, the city has exploded only in the past fifteen years. Companies from all over the world have set up headquarters in the city, creating new jobs and bringing an enormous amount of capital into Dubai. That being said, the city has literally sprawled along the Persian Gulf and into the desert. It is not possible to walk between most neighborhoods; tourists take taxis when they cannot walk to their destinations, and thousands of commuters (mainly from Sharjah, which has a much lower cost of living) have no choice but to drive every morning and night, creating tremendous traffic congestion. The city desperately needs a commuter rail to alleviate this problem.
Aside from an improved public transportation agenda, which is in danger of being stigmatized even before construction, the city also suffers from an unstable population demographic. Although Dubai has experienced immigration for hundreds of years, the most recent influx has been so overwhelming that a mere 10% represents native Dubai locals. They rarely mix with the expatriate population, and generally keep separate without acknowledging the severe cultural clash. It is an odd feeling to hear the sounds of the five-times-daily Salah begin at 5AM knowing that there are so few that actually follow Islam. This is not to say that other foreign Arabs do not practice their religious faith, but the numbers are still small in comparison to those that do not.
Dubai is an incredible city; few will deny that. With still a week left to explore, I am confident that I will still agree by the end of it. However, it is not a flawless city-planning model by any means, and future planners should not let Dubai’s incredible jagged skyline and extravagant tourist attractions mask this fact.
Written by Katie Magiera, BC’ 09