Andrew Curry writes:

I chaired a session this week at the Building FuturesFutures Fair‘ at the RIBA in London at which Reinier de Graaf, of the architectural practice OMA, talked about the development of Dubai – and some of its implications. The city has grown (been grown) from nothing in 15 years, and every significant architectural practice in the world, OMA included, is building something there. de Graaf described the city as a “multitude of competing theme parks”, as the “monotony of the exceptional”. He added that “there are as many billboards as buildings, and the billboards hold the promise of the finished city”.

The city is – famously – building out into the sea, and before long more than half of the population of Dubai will be living on sea rather than land. This isn’t because of a shortage of land, for there are miles of desert inland. de Graaf observed laconically:

One prefers to make projects in the sea, because they are more expensive and more difficult, and therefore more marketable, because one markets their difficulty.

But this isn’t just a story about urban ostentation. The development of Dubai followed a long-term decision by the Emirates to reduce its dependence on oil, and the last year in which oil contributed more than half of national revenues was in 1985. The three property companies which are building Dubai are each half-owned by the UAE Royal Family, and the men who run them all hold positions in the Emirates government. Property is now one of the Emirates’ biggest exports, and its property companies are now building in all of the fastest growing cities in the world, from Morocco to the Philippines. As Reinier de Graaf noted, ‘the Dubai model’ represents a challenge to our received wisdom that democracy represents the best guarantee of economic prosperity.

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