Dubai – Governance behind the city-scape

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Photo cred: Kanishk Raghuvanshi
Shadow of Burj Khalifa extending to the Dubai landscape

Standing at the base of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai’s hot and humid summer, we struggled to spot the pinnacle of the tower against the searing sun. Towering at 828 meters (2,716.5 ft.) high, the Burj Khalifa in is the tallest structure in the world. It symbolizes the extreme wealth and grandeur for which the city has become renowned since the 1990s. It doesn’t take a ride in the world’s fastest elevator – shooting up to the 124th floor in a mere sixty seconds – for us to fully appreciate what a technological marvel this skyscraper is. We toured the building with architect who told us about the meticulous planning that went into the building’s construction – everything from lighting and water storage to fire exit plans and material responses to wind force had to be accounted for.  In a country like the United Arab Emirates, a federation of seven emirates whose leaders (the emirs) have been competing to construct the biggest, the best, or the first of everything in the world, Burj Khalifa stands out as a symbol of soaring aspirations.

From the top of the tower, we could see – besides the barren outskirts of Dubai – many of the real-estate projects that have propelled Dubai into the news. These included the “World Islands”, a man-made archipelago of small islands, constructed from dredged sand, and intended to look like a map of the world, and the Palm Jumeirah, another artificial island whose palm-tree shape is visible from space.  Straight below us we could see the sights connected to the Burj itself: the Bellagio-like fountains whose light and water shows attract tourists late into the night and the luxurious Dubai Mall, known, among other things, for its 10-million-litre-large aquarium, with “the largest collection of Sand Tiger sharks in the world”.

Faced with such over-the-top extravagance, we constantly kept wondering, “What is the feasibility or return on investment of a structure like Burj Khalifa and on other marvels like it?” Simply, can it and does it make a profit?  Our architect guide, expressing skepticism about profitability, suggested that perhaps the question to ask is, “How and why does a building like this one get built?” Only a strong leader, he speculated, could make it happen.  As he pointed out, it would be difficult to gain approval for such a structure in a democratic state because it would be difficult to justify the return on investment for a democratically elected ruling party confined by a service term.

The contrast between the sprawling flat desert around Dubai, and shining skyscrapers projecting from the city center, reflects the economic model of the city. This model depends on a strong vision or Dubai set by its ruler, the emir Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum through consultation with the emirates that constitute the UAE federation. From the Burj, one can clearly observe the scale of Dubai’s infrastructural development, with the vast Sheikh Zayed Road stretching through the city, flanked on either side by the Rapid Dubai metro, a network of tram lines, man-made waterways (including canals and a marina), and planned apartment blocks and gated communities.

Photo cred: Kanishk Raghuvanshi
Burj Khalifa at night

As we realized during our visit, these developments depend very little on input from Emirati citizens. The Emiratis constitute a tiny minority of Dubai’s population (by some estimates only 13 – 15%) and foreign workers (“expatriates” or “migrants”) the bulk. These workers fuel the city’s growth but are not represented in the UAE’s political system in any way.  Overall then, Dubai’s cityscape has been mostly shaped by the vision and governance of its leadership, and very little by its residents.

SAMENA : Vedica Kant, Kartik Das, Kanishk Raghuvanshi