Dubai thinks big, big, and bigger

Dennis Sammut is in Dubai often, and never fails to be amazed by the shameless boldness with which the city takes on ambitious projects which have turned it in five decades from a small village into a dynamic metropolis. In this article for he looks at how in less than twenty four hours Dubai unveiled plans to build one of the largest World Expo sites ever, as part of  its bid to host EXPO 2020, and of plans to construct a new city as part of a vision to “become the capital of entrepreneurship, arts, culture, and family tourism for over 2 billion people.”

Dubai does not do things by half measures. An announcement of a major new initiative on Friday was bound to be followed by news of another on Saturday.

It started in Paris on Friday when Dubai unveiled its plans to host the 2020 World Expo. Although the bid is a national bid on behalf of the United Arab Emirates the location being proposed is the area next to the new Dubai World Central Airport and the Jebel Ali Port, providing ease of access for the millions of international and local visitors expected. The area has been described as equidistant between Dubai, and the UAE capital Abu Dhabi.

According to Reem Ibrahim Al Hashimi, Managing Director of the Higher Committee for Hosting the 2020 World Expo in Dubai “This 438-hectare site will be one of the largest ever used for a World Expo and will ensure an unforgettable experience for the event’s 25 million visitors, who will collectively make upwards of 33 million visits. Throughout the development process, we have also sought to ensure that the site will serve as a permanent attraction beyond 2020 and will enhance further the UAE’s long-term appeal as a premier destination for high-profile global events.”

A computer generated image of the proposed design for the main venue for Expo 2020 in Dubai.

At the core of the site is an open plaza called Al Wasl (the connection) — a historical name for Dubai, and branching out from the plaza are three main zones that symbolise the bid’s sub themes of sustainability, mobility and opportunity.

The design is aligned to the legacy proposition and future use of the site, with the main walkways shaded by a photovoltaic fabric structure, which will capture solar energy to generate clean power, plus contribute nearly 50 per cent of the power requirements that are needed for the Expo.

Four other cities are competing to host the expo: Ayutthaya (Thailand); Ekaterinburg (Russia); Izmir (Turkey); and Sao Paulo (Brazil). Dubai has one year to persuade the 161 member nations of the superiority of its bid before a final decision is announced in November 2013.

Less than twenty four hours after launching its world expo bid, the second grand scheme was announced, a much bigger one that does not depend on any number of countries voting but on the sheer effort of the Dubai leadership.  On Saturday, Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Ruler of Dubai, announced the establishment of a new city within Dubai, which is already being described as setting new benchmarks in urban development in the region. An interesting element for the “Mohammed Bin Rashid al Maktoum city”, or “Mohammedville” as it is already being popularly dubbed, is that it will have an area that “will provide an integrated environment to support entrepreneurship and attract talents looking for a platform to support their projects and innovations in various sectors, paving the way for a new economy based on knowledge, creativity and innovation.”

A map of the new city in Dubai.

According to the plans unveiled during the launching ceremony the city will have four components: “The first component focuses on family tourism, and will include a park that is equipped to receive 35 million visitors and the largest family centre for leisure and entertainment in the Middle East, Africa Indian subcontinent and region; a second component, focusing on retail, will feature the largest shopping mall in the world; a third component will include the largest area for arts galleries in the MENA region; and a fourth component will see the development of a unique area that will provide an integrated environment for entrepreneurship and innovation in the region.

Shaikh Mohammad stressed that, “The current facilities available in Dubai need to be scaled up in line with the future ambitions for the city. Therefore we have to start work immediately on the third phase of development that is aligned to our Vision till 2030 and boost the UAE economy to enable it to enter a new era in which it will become the capital of entrepreneurship, arts, culture, and family tourism for over 2 billion people.”

He highlighted that the current accelerated growth rates require Dubai to start immediate preparations for the future because within just six years, the number of passengers passing through Dubai airport will reach more than 90 million people.

When in the 1960s Sheikh Mohammed’s father Sheikh Rashid al Maktoum proposed to build the first airport in Dubai, his British advisors, who held sway on decision making on a large number of issues, tried to dissuade him saying that this would be a white elephant and that Dubai does not need an airport. Sheikh Rashid politely ignored the advice and pressed ahead with the plans. His son has shown the same obstinacy when faced with those who do not share his ambitious visions for the emirate. Sheikh Mohammed does not stand fools easily, and he does not like to be criticised much either. However like his father he has been open to ideas, advice and suggestions from whoever was willing to give them to him in good faith. The success of Dubai over the last half century is due to a large extent to this approach of father and son, and the sheer  resolve to succeed.

Certainly Sheikh Mohammed has his critics. There are those in the emirate itself who think that Dubai has become too commercialised and too cosmopolitan, and that its people have lost their sense of identity amongst the throngs of foreign workers and visitors. Outside the Emirate some criticise Dubai for over extending itself. The world economic downturn in 2008 for a moment looked as if it was going to bring Dubai to its knees. But with sheer determination, and a little help from Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed saw off both his critics and Dubai’s creditors.

The plans unveiled this weekend are a statement that Dubai is still determined to be the first and the best. But for success to be guaranteed the al Makhtoum family need to do what they have done best for the last fifty years: to listen carefully not only from immediate advisors but from a wider group of citizens and well meaning outsiders, and to ensure that Dubai remains open to those with the best to offer, in whatever sphere.

Dennis Sammut lives in Oxford and writes regularly on Eurasian and Arabian Peninsula history, culture and politics. He may be contacted at