How Economic Growth Shaped Dubai as a City

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As powerful and influential as they are, history has shown us cities are vulnerable to radical changes, albeit if they are good or bad, forced or unforced , they bear the capabilities to transform the metropolis. This essay aims to explore how a city can be transformed by a force, and as a prime example the designated city chosen is Dubai. As one of the biggest and fastest growing cities, the city is an ideal example as Dubai has risen rapidly to create a reputation for itself. It is only within the last 30 years, that the city has witness rapid growth, primarily due to income generated from oil revenue but also from economics and industrial developments.

Context - Dubai pre oil

Located on the Arabian Gulf, Dubai began as a crossroads for travellers and traders, before it was later established as a fish village in 1830. The bulk of income in the area came from fishing and pearling, while the initial primary motive for control in the area was mainly commercial. This was due to the intention to dictate the spice trade; a vital commodity during the time due to its use in the preservation of food. The Portuguese were the first to colonise the gulf, with the British later emerging as a strong influence within the Gulf region for strategic reasons.

The first phase of Dubai’s urban development occurred from 1900 to 1955; however the overall growth was slow and limited due to economic restraints and marginal growth in population. British influence remained strong during this period, highlighted through the country’s assistance with a series of development projects. At the time many of these projects were arranged in anticipation of financial gain from oil revenue. However British hegemony eventually weakened following WW2, leading to a global rise in anti-colonial movements, with the united states emerging as a replacement.

Dubai as a region was divided into areas located at the mouth of the creek, by which the entire population was confined to three small enclaves. This area was of great importance at the time, as the main revenue of income came from fishing and pearl diving. Until 1955, the urban area did not exceed 320 hectare, with the large majority of the land used for residential purposes , while areas for commercial space were limited . Prior to the first construction of a concrete building in 1956, the vast majority of local inhabitants lived in traditional ‘Barasti’ homes, built from palm fronds . The homes were built in clusters to provide the residents with privacy, but also tribal security as a group.

Discovery of oil

The discovery of oil in commercial quantities in 1966, acted as the catalyst for rapid growth and infrastructure development within Dubai. Aware that the finite resource will eventually become scarce, the choice was made to diversify the country’s economic foundations, with tourism the desired sector. The revenue generated as a result, was invested into infrastructure developments such as schools, hospitals, roads and also a modern telecommunications network. This urban growth was allowed due to 3 main factors; economic affluence, technological advances in transportation and also political changes over land use.

While the tourism sector generates the majority of the city’s excess, the state also gains value through a series of free-trade zones and high tech clusters. This attracts companies to invest and re-located to Dubai, due to freedom and openness of Dubai’s trading laws, with the correlation of greatest growth in mega enclaves or specialised clusters.

The first phase of Dubai’s urban growth was characterised as spatial expansion established through size, appearance, and the city’s urban morphology, while the second phase was focused on the idea of compact growth. This period extended from 1955 to 1970, during which British influence still remained strong, reflected through the nations influence on various projects, such as that of British architect Jon Harris. In 1960 Harris manifested the idea of giving Dubai a more functional and modern layout, through the provision of a road system, and specific areas for; industry, commercial, public and residential areas, and also the creation of a new town centre.

Dubai after oil

The discovery of oil in commercial quantities drove Dubai’s economic increase, allowing the city to expand at a more rapid rate. In 1971, Harris’ new master plan was introduced to improve the city’s infrastructure, while his vision to spatially organise the city into areas of different use was also manifested. Numerous developments also occurred on the corridor along Skeikh Zayed Road , Nicknamed ‘new Dubai’ , the area emerged as the new commercial and financial centre of the city .

There is an obsession for everything to be monumental and record breaking , highlighted through the epic proportions of Dubai’s projects ; the tallest building ,the biggest artificial island , the largest theme park, biggest mall and the largest international airport , are a few to the list . Dubai’s urban identity is ever changing, with the strive to create over-the-top architecture shown through the latest proposal of a 1:1 scale of the world’s best of , consisting of landmarks such as the Eiffel tower and pyramids of Giza .

Spatially , Dubai is divided into ‘city’s’ which cater for different industries , while many of the Dubai’s skyscrapers are located along Sheikh Zayed Road, a stretch of highway linking Dubai to Abu Dhabi. Of the various ‘city’s’, the main consist of an ‘internet’ city, an infrastructure environment which caters for the city’s’ ICT on a local and global range. Situated nearby is Media city, which is arranged in a similar way to internet city, with the primary industry directed at media, while ‘studio city’ is a developed area which caters for production needs. Amidst the rapid expansion of industrial cities, and sky scrapers, there is an interesting lack of cultural projects such as museums and centres, again possibly raising the point of a soulless city.

The population of Dubai in 1995 counted at approximately 700,000, while the figure now stands at over 2 million, a drastic increase in a short period of time. This figure is multi-cultural, with the locals forming minority, and amidst this population combination, society is very open minded . This free and open ideology has helped Dubai’s growth as it encourages investment and tourism . There are downsides, with the diverse population mix, and location of the city at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, meaning the region can be vulnerable to a number of conflicts. However these conflicts have been resolved spatially, achieved through a policy which promotes co-existence, but can also be defined as controlled segregation through defined boarders such as enclaves and zones.

While the rapid growth is monumental and without doubt impressive, there are critics to the Dubai’s growth. The mega projects are perceived as economic and corporately driven, with the city lacking distinct history and ‘soul’. Even so that the Burj lead architect Tom Wright admitted he did not know where Dubai was located prior to the project. The Sail and palm are easily recognisable symbols, and have been used cleverly as a marketing ploy. Claimed as symbols of Dubai, they are act more as universal characters and are not necessarily exclusively linked to Dubai or the UAE.


It is without doubt that the discovery of oil on a commercial scale has been the main driving force behind Dubai’s drastic change from a fishing village, to global mega city. The revenue generated has acted as the springboard for investments, and development on large scales; however other interlinking factors have to be considered for the city’s transformation. The state control free market capitalism helps provide Dubai with an open market to grow, very much like how China has, while in comparison to cities such as London, which is restricted by its history. The strategic move to diversify and turn Dubai into a grand tourist destination , was the final part of puzzle as to speak , with the increase in monumental projects such as ‘The world islands’ , ‘The Palm’ and Burj Khalifa , only a few to name , which cater for tourists , and also define Dubai as a city .

Amidst the glitz and glamour, the city is not a functional as it appears to be , with many to the newly formed buildings , aimed towards generating revenue , opposed to spatial problems . There is an exclusive nature to Dubai’s mega projects, with many located offshore, and controlled access thorough a variety of means: security guards, entrance fees .While social divisions have been created within the population due to the rapid growth, often between the privileged, and workers. As a whole city lacks historical context and identity prior to the economic boom, whether if that is a negative or not remains to be seen, with the city growing at an alarming yet impressive rate, the sky and sea is the limit …


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Weburbanist . (N.D) City image [Online Image] ( Acessed : 12 January 2015)

David Teather . (2009) Palm Islands resort [Online Image] ( Acessed : 12 January 2015)

Dubaiforvisitors . (N.D) Dubai Map [Online Image] ( Acessed : 12 January 2015)