It’s hard to believe that, until the 1990′s, Dubai was little more than a desert tent city. A brief history of what is perhaps the world’s least sustainable metropolis: electricity arrived in the 1950′s, oil was discovered in the 1960′s, the population tripled in the 1970′s, trade and labor laws loosened in the 1980′s, and petrodollars sponsored the building boom of the 1990′s. The Burj Al Arab, the world’s only “seven-star” resort, ushered Dubai onto the worldstage in 1994. An unbelievable amount of oil money (it is said the the United Arab Emirates sit on 10% of the world’s oil reserves) coupled with the desire to define Dubai as the “Mecca” of international tourism has quickly created a huge, sprawling, fantastical, over-the-top playground for the rich and powerful. Dubai was once famous for its architectural windcatchers, natural Persian ventilation systems from the 18th century that functioned as pre-industrial solar chimneys. Now it is famous for supertall skyscrapers, manmade islands and indoor ski resorts.
Among the most outrageous of Dubai’s indoor playgrounds, Mall of the Emirates features a 5-run ski resort, complete with “real” snow and chair lifts. Currently under construction is Dubailand, slated to be twice the size of Disney World. Dubailand is being financed by private investors, with a price tag of $6 billion. The complex will be comprised of 45 megaprojects, multiple malls, several hotels, many residential neighborhoods, and more than a few theme parks including Marvel, Legoland, Six Flags and IMAX.
Dubai, though, is not just a place to play. It is also a place to put together multibillion dollar business deals. These professional endeavors will take place in several of the world’s tallest buildings. The Burj Al Arab is the world’s second tallest freestanding hotel (after the Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang). The Burj Dubai, which is supposed to be complete this year, will be the tallest manmade structure ever built. It is estimated that 15-20% of the world’s cranes are in Dubai.
My favorites of the hyperbolic developments in Dubai are the artificial islands. With a goal of having the world’s longest artifical coastline, the government of Dubai and several private firms are using a new Dutch dredging technology to create a labrynthine system of artifical islands. The most famous of these islands are the Palm Islands, built in the shape of palm trees. The islands can be seen from space. Yes, yet another superlative. The development will have 2,000 villas, 100 hotels, many malls, more movie theatres and yes, a few additional theme parks. Another artificial island project is The World, a massive complex of private artificial islands off the coast of Dubai, grouped into archipelagos in the shape of Earths continents. The islands are currently being “reclaimed” from the floor of the Persian Gulf and will be ready for residents soon. A sister project, The Universe, will be done in twenty years. You guessed it: another false archipelago in the shape of our solar system.
And here is the absolute, most unbelievable structure being built in Dubai: a luxury, underwater resort called Hydropolis. It will be submerged under 66 feet of water in the Persian Gulf, with walls made of Plexiglas and 220 luxury suites. The complex is shaped roughly like a jellyfish, and will be serviced from the mainland by a silent train. Not to be overshadowed by its unbelievable competition in the Dubai hospitality industry, Hydropolis will include an above-water retractable roof in the main building, a cosmetic surgery facility, and its very own missile defense system. The hotel is being built in Germany and will be installed in Dubai.
All this √ºber-development is both entertaining and absolutely incredible from an engineering point of view. In a very odd way, it makes me proud of human ingenuity. I can’t help but wonder, though, what was there before the hotels and theme parks? The answer is this: a desert paradise. The rolling dunes of the Arabian Desert hosted mammal species such as striped hyenas, caracals and Arabian Oryx. All of these mammals are now endangered in the area. Dubai is also on a migratory route for a host of bird species. Dubai creek is a very unique ecosystem, with a multitude of fish life. Finally, the Persian Gulf used to be a safe haven for sea turtles and dugongs. The widespread dredging of this part of the Gulf is having catastrophic impacts on marine life. The Hydropolis project is said to impact ocean currents and weather patterns. And the consumption of resources to power the silent trains, create the fake snow, ship the underwater hotel, light up the movie screens and fuel the roller-coasters is incomprehensible.
Dubai has come to signify technology, wealth, innovation and indulgence. It has also come to symbolize waste, absurdity and an absolute disregard for Mother Nature. If an island isn’t where you want it to be: move it! The most ironic part, though, is that the Dynamic Tower is also coming to Dubai soon. Its 80 floors will rotate individually, and it will be powered by solar panels and wind turbines, feeding electricity back into the Dubai grid. It will be an alternative-energy factory. Amidst the excess of Dubai’s skyline, it’s a small concession to green building, to be sure. It begs the question, though: has Dubai come full circle? A city famous for its ancient wind-powered solar chimneys is now building a skyscraper that is powered by the wind and the sun. I suppose that, to answer this question, we’ll have to wait and see what the city looks like in another twenty years.