At a 2007 Harvard workshop focusing on sustainable architecture in the Persian Gulf, the assembled academics and practitioners quizzed a public relations official from a large Abu Dhabi real estate developer. The workshop participants, among them experts in the field of sustainable development, were curious to know how the developer could claim its projects—large enclaves of high-end retail, entertainment and tourism—were “sustainable.”

“For 30 years,” replied the PR man, “Abu Dhabi suffered from the stigma that they never developed anything.” Now, the political leadership is committed to “moving forward.” He went on to explain that, because of the lag, Abu Dhabi had little time in which to catch up to its regional and international competitors. “We need to join the global economy. We can’t wait, because we’re already behind, and speed is our biggest challenge.” He assured the audience that, with the assistance of Western experts such as those in the room, his employer would achieve the goal of reconciling its forward march with sustainable demands on the local ecology and economy.

Abu Dhabi, like its fellow United Arab Emirates city-state Dubai, enjoys an image as a whirl of economic activity, a place constantly and productively in flux. All this liveliness and modernity—rare in the Arab world, as Western pundits love to point out—is depicted visually in the omnipresent photographs of the two city-states’ monumental, futuristic architecture and rapidly changing skylines. The image is no accident: Through their patronage of the massive building projects, local elites seek to represent the Gulf as global headquarters of the new, entrepreneurial and forward-looking.

Since the Canadian architect Frank Gehry was tapped by Bilbao to design the Guggenheim Museum, opened in 1997, municipalities and real estate magnates around the world have come to believe that iconic buildings by brand-name architects can stimulate local development and international fame. Non-Western nations, in particular, hit upon urban development featuring “starchitects” as a means of marketing their cities and cultures to the investors and tourists of the world. Although China led the way with its building spree in advance of the 2008 Olympics, the UAE and other Gulf countries are close behind in the race to the future. Claims of novelty and progressivism notwithstanding, the Gulf construction boom is in fact the latest way for rulers to assert a monopoly on space and cultural identity—and to define the meaning of progress. While local elites, among whom must be counted real estate firms, construction companies and other well-connected actors (alongside the aforementioned rulers), are now traversing the well-trodden ground of attempting to demonstrate their power and “vision” through attention-grabbing architectural projects, local, everyday inflections of such spatial and urban projects are not as straightforward. There is a growing neoliberal sensibility among many local players, including but not restricted to Emirati elites, that the UAE is on the verge of unmooring itself from the developing world, and the Arab Middle East in particular, and charting a new course toward a market utopia. Starchitecture takes its place as part of local aspirations for such a future.

Genius Meets Deep-Pocketed Vision

As Edward Said and others have argued, Westerners have long represented the Orient as the locus of “tradition,” its societies suspended in centuries past, its customs and cultures static. But things are not so simple. Prominent architects and urban designers often talk in terms that reverse the Saidian formula, visualizing the non-Western other as more dynamic than the notional West with which they mostly identify. “With globalization, we all have more or less the same future,” the architect and theorist Rem Koolhaas has said, “but Asia and Africa feel much more new. I’ve been doing research on China recently, investigating cities that emerge suddenly, in eight years or so, seemingly out of nothing. These places are much more vigorous and representative of the future.”  There are, to be sure, vestiges of old-fashioned Orientalist romance in the starchitects’ musings about urban spaces. Koolhaas, for example, has also spoken of how “air conditioning, escalators and advertising” has rendered the Western urban shopping experience “much more predictable, almost scientific.” “In Asian and African shopping,” by contrast, “every transaction is also social, really charged. It’s happening in the free air.”  But setting aside such dubious notions of irreducible cultural difference, starchitects are rushing to non-Western cities—and those of the UAE in particular—to realize their grand visions.

Among the significant projects announced for the UAE since 2006 are Koolhaas’ Dubai Waterfront City and master plan for downtown Ras al-Khayma; Gehry’s Guggenheim, Tadao Ando’s maritime museum, Jean Nouvel’s classical museum and Norman Foster’s “Masdar” in Abu Dhabi; Zaha Hadid’s Dubai Opera House and Dubai Signature Towers (otherwise known as the Dancing Towers); and the Ras al-Khayma convention center by Norwegian firm Snøhetta.

These starchitects, as well as Western and Gulf-based journalists, academics, bureaucrats, real estate developers and landlords, are eager to explain the new urbanization of the Gulf as vanguard development for the twenty-first century. The agreed-upon narrative features two stock characters: the architect and the local potentate. Frustrated visionaries both, they are kindred spirits in search of one another. Their meeting is the beginning of a special relationship, in which the architect is finally liberated to experiment unburdened by Western society’s aesthetic expectations and political pressures, literally in the desert, while the ruler gets to stamp his vision with the authoritative imprimatur of world-class design.

In his seminal 1978 book Delirious New York, Koolhaas formulated the theory of “generic cities,” consisting of repeating, modular units linked directly to an airport and whose inhabitants are rootless global nomads. Not until he discovered Dubai, according to a recent reviewer, did Koolhaas have a chance to fully experiment with this idea. His design for the Dubai Waterfront City, wrote the reviewer, “proves once again that he is one of the few architects willing to face the crisis of the contemporary city—from its growing superficiality to its deadening sterility—without flinching.”  For Gehry, architecture in the UAE is “like a clean slate in a country full of resources.”  Patrik Schumacher of Zaha Hadid Architects adds, “We are trying things out for the first time which we wanted to try out, but couldn’t,” praising the “unusual degree of receptiveness to new ideas in the Gulf.”

Not mentioned in these celebrations are the actual, concrete cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, where urban development derives its relentlessness from the surplus labor force of South Asia and the Middle East—a labor force without significant protections. Also left out are the elite origins and political agendas of the local handlers who open up the Gulf cities as laboratories for the starchitects’ aesthetic experimentation.

The figure of the architect as genius, possessing clairvoyance and other elevated faculties, is a common one in the history of modern architecture, from Corbusier in real life to the fictional Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Although emanating from the wider Western cult of expertise and authority, the architect-genius is no technocrat: He is an artist in the benighted present society and a divine of the ideal future society. Compare that characterization with the following: “Indeed, the leader of these times is a poet with the powers of prophecy and the ability to see into the deep future.”   Or with this one: “Take wisdom from the wise. It takes a man of vision to write on water.  Not everyone who rides a horse is a jockey. Great men rise to greater challenges.” These are references, of course, to Dubai’s Sheikh Muhammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, whose “vision” is among the first qualities his admirers cite.

The great man theory of history, of course, has been a familiar narrative throughout the reigns of Sheikh Rashid Al Maktoum (1958-1990) and his sons (of whom Muhammad is the third to be emir). Dubai residents and journalistic accounts trace the current boom to Sheikh Rashid’s realization that Dubai’s oil reserves would run out and his subsequent decision to invest the windfall profits of oil price shocks to build a world-class infrastructure.  Sheikh Rashid authorized the building of the Free Trade Zone, the largest manmade harbor in the world, Jabal ‘Ali, and a massive airport expansion. Oddly, even Dubai’s pre-petroleum economic upturn has been explained as the work of “a liberal and farsighted ruler at the turn of the twentieth century…Sheikh Maktoum bin Hashir, who ruled from 1894 to 1906.”  It is as if politics in “traditional” societies can be reduced to the will of the sheikh.

That both the starchitects and the rulers are called visionary is not just a simple parallel. It is, in practice, how the connection between them is talked about. Witness the words of the Norwegian filmmaker Eirin Gjørv, director of the 2007 PBS film The Sand Castle, the story of a competition involving Koolhaas’ firm and Snøhetta in Ras al-Khayma: “We had the exclusive opportunity to follow some of the most outstanding architects of our time as they work with the progressive and powerful men of Ras al-Khaimah, working to create change at a speed we rarely have seen before. Though the main characters in the film have very different cultural backgrounds, they all share a creative desire that builds bridges despite cultural differences.”

Faster, Faster, Not So Fast

“A speed we have rarely seen before”—such invocations of the building boom’s sheer rapidity are crucial to the image that UAE cities cultivate, for they underline the rulers’ boldness and distinctiveness from their stodgy peers elsewhere. An article titled “The Transformation of Dubai from a Village on the Banks of the Creek to a World City” in al-Khalij, the major Sharjah daily and perhaps the most intellectually serious UAE-based periodical, is typical of the genre. The article quotes “one of the executives of an American airline company” marveling that “the [Dubai people] build 24 hours a day,” adding that he “remarked upon the speed of the emirate’s transformation.” A representative of Dubai’s Emirates airline adds: “In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, there were some who wanted things to remain the way they were, but the immense prosperity really shocked them and convinced them that, had we remained the way we were, we would perhaps still be merely a tiny fishing village.” These radical changes, according to the article, are managed and guided in a positive direction by Sheikh Muhammad. In support of this claim, the aforementioned American executive observes that the sheikh possesses “a penetrating vision” and the “belief that his people are capable of carrying the banner of progress and aspiration.”

Accounts of rapid change and Sheikh Muhammad’s “vision” are so numerous that they are part of the white noise of the media in Dubai. In most respects, these narratives of change differ little from official propaganda anywhere; leaders are always wise, omniscient populists. But in the UAE the discourse of transformation often frames serious intellectual debate and folk theories of local culture and history. An example of the first is political scientist ‘Abd al-Khaliq ‘Abdallah’s (in many ways excellent) analysis of Dubai’s transformation. The essay’s most interesting sections broach the ironies of the city’s uncontrolled urbanization and place modern-day Dubai in a narrative of ancient Near Eastern urban visions, such as that of Babylon, “a city that dreamt of building a tower reaching the sky.” Yet in other respects the piece is fairly conventional, replete with the narrative of transformation and the usual exaggerations dubbing Dubai “the exemplary city.” So, too, there is the apotheosis of Sheikh Muhammad and his elder brothers, Maktoum and Hamdan, “the leadership trinity” to pilot Dubai through uncertain times into the promised future.

There is a correspondence between accounts of local history centered on the ruling family and the neoliberal tendency to commodify everything. Both sanction an approach to architecture putting a premium on spaces that are profitable, but also thoroughly disposable. The Arabic term for consumption, istihlak, with its corollary sense of “exhaustion” or “being used up,” captures the phenomenon well. One generally sanguine European architect with years of experience working for large UAE developers hesitated when I asked him to reflect on the social consequences of UAE starchitecture: “[Such spaces] have to be consumed very quickly. It’s kind of like a drive-through takeaway…The quality of space, continuity and social concerns are subordinated to the image, the icon, the consumption value. [Moreover, it’s a kind of space] where you have to pay to be. It’s not like an Italian piazza, where you can sit and have a sandwich. You have to pay—a lot—to go there… It’s a very shallow approach to architecture.”

The notion of a temporal break, a radical discontinuity, underpins the ways in which many Emiratis, especially those who came of age during the 1990s, understand their identity. Many Emiratis and long-term resident expatriates tell similar stories about how Dubai transformed seemingly overnight from a village into a large city with typical urban problems, such as street crime, anonymity and vices tempting the pious away from family. Several used the same term—tafakkuk al-‘a’ila, the breakup of the family—to describe what has happened to traditionally close-knit Emirati communal and kin networks. A professional in his mid-twenties spoke of the disappearance of empty lots that he and his friends used as soccer fields when they were kids; they have been taken over by real estate developers. A woman of the same generation and occupational background referred to old neighborhoods, such as a large working-class settlement in Satwa, Dubai, that simply disappeared after the municipality targeted them for urban renewal. And locals tell fascinating tales of the gulf in life experience between twenty-somethings and their teenage siblings created by the rapid growth. The computers and advanced science projects in the teenagers’ classrooms, said one woman, made her school experience seem primitive by comparison. Another woman spoke of her younger siblings’ school experience as much more disorienting than hers, due to ubiquitous cell phones and the spread of taboo-breaking behaviors such as extra-marital sex and alcohol and drug use, as well as what she viewed as the positive changes of sex education and AIDS awareness campaigns. These two women described the differences between themselves and their siblings, only a few years their juniors, as “generational.”

Expatriate professionals from other Middle Eastern countries routinely extol the economic dynamism of the UAE, especially as compared to home, where “things,” meaning the facility of doing business, are “stuck.” Though the UAE statelets play a central role in regulating labor markets and creating circuits of rent and profit, these expatriates see governments operating like efficient corporations, happily stripped of red tape. They also see affluent societies blessedly free of stereotypical Middle Eastern militancy. (Never mind that there were two Emiratis among the September 11, 2001 hijackers, and no Afghans or Iraqis.) The UAE’s champions in the Western chattering classes echo this discourse. “Dubai is not a democracy, and it is not without warts. But it is a bridge of decency that leads away from the failing civilization…to a much more optimistic, open and self-confident society. Dubaians are building a future based on butter not guns, private property not caprice, services more than oil, and globally competitive companies, not terror networks. Dubai is about nurturing Arab dignity through success not suicide. As a result, its people want to embrace the future, not blow it up.”  Notice that while the UAE is portrayed as being on the fast track to capitalist development, there is apparently no urgency about progress toward democracy, transparency, accountability or political participation, let alone citizenship or expanded protections for foreign workers. Those things can evidently wait.

Jostling Temporalities

Studying nineteenth-century Paris, Walter Benjamin became fascinated by how deep past, recent past, present and future, and the accompanying worldviews, overlapped in city life. Citing Marx’s formulation that radical change is frequently cloaked in the reassuring “poetry of the past,” Benjamin sensed a deep anxiety beneath the bold, gilded gestures of the Second Empire. More recently, Peter Fritzsche has used the phrase “stranded in the present” to capture the competition between nostalgia and futurism in nineteenth-century European culture. One senses a similar jostling of temporalities in the UAE today. Alongside the emirates’ wildly exaggerated conjurings of the future is an obsession with “heritage preservation” or “revival,” seen in the complex of museums and in the vocal yearning of intelligentsia, the media and folk wisdom for the irrecoverable past. One simple example is the brochures and films produced by the large real estate firms, such as Nakheel and EMAAR. These firms’ residential projects overwhelmingly house foreign clients, yet they seemingly always depict, as a sort of coda, an Emirati family in “national” dress, doing wholesome things such as reposing in a park or strolling along a beach at sunset. One cannot overcome the feeling that the Emirati culture industry protests too much. The future is not simply something to be reasonably planned for; it is lavishly dramatized. The past is not simply reproduced in museum exhibits; it is depicted as the repository of an authentic identity whose qualitative core remains unchanged in spite of immense quantitative change.

While the runaway urbanization of the UAE is fundamentally about power and profit, there is considerably more to it. Arguments that the UAE is a vanguard for the region or even the world clearly oversimplify matters, but they do hold one insight worth pondering: the local persuasiveness (and therefore effectiveness) of the notion that the UAE is charting a path unique to its regional (and even “global south”) situation. The feeling of being Arab while being, simultaneously, unique and more than “merely” Arab—and by implication more than part of the developing world—is a thinly veiled aspect of Emirati identity today. One appreciates this not through perceiving discrete conversations or other isolated social data, but by looking at how social facts arrange themselves in revealing constellations. An Indian businessman, a long-time resident of Dubai, spoke of how, although he loves visiting India, he is always relieved to return to the UAE, where the roads are clean and the buildings gleam. “And the Emiratis too,” he added, “look at India and are relieved that Dubai is not Mumbai.” The same expatriate added that, unlike in the business-friendly UAE, the Indian economy and society have been distorted by “the legacy of Nehru’s socialism, which created a dependent population and a cronyist elite.” An Emirati friend, in another conversation, dismissed the notion of workers’ rights and voiced a sentiment common to both his compatriots and to people like the Indian businessman: “A country is like a company. If it does not make a profit, it does not succeed.” The corporate types who work in the various “free zones” of Dubai often extol the city’s “best practices” (a term which comes out of business and corporate theory). An article in a Dubai daily described the views of Arab expatriates in the UAE: “Unlike the Arab countries” the author wrote, the UAE is prosperous, forward-looking and well organized. Finally, an Emirati high official of the Dubai Technology and Communications Free Zone (Tecom)—which encompasses the Media and Internet Cities and the Knowledge Village, icons of Dubai’s entry into the twenty-first century global economy—said that Tecom is not simply a business venture by Sheikh Muhammad. It is a progressive enclave that will be a model for the rest of the region, rewarding merit and banishing cronyism and welfare state dependence. The latter, it was implied, are regional ills whose remedy is the medicine of free markets and globalization.

Starchitecture enters this discursive field, creating, perhaps unwittingly, spaces which both reflect and reaffirm such notions. It is a variant of architecture that valorizes the individual genius above and outside of constraints, which are denigrated as merely external and socio-political. It responds to the elite of an enclave of the developing world that looks fearfully upon a regional past (and present) of class, nationalist and religious militancy that the developed world, Pax Americana above all, has denigrated as terroristic and atavistic. It is an architectural and spatial vision well suited to the times, in which global economic and political power is restructuring itself and attempting, as Benjamin might say, to convert politics into aesthetics.

How to cite this article:

Ahmed Kanna, Arang Keshavarzian "The UAE’s Space Race," Middle East Report 248 (Fall 2008).
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