In recent years our perception of wealth in the Persian Gulf has taken an abrupt turn. While prior ideas of these oil-rich states were marked by the profligacy of nations like Saudi Arabia, where princes have been known to purchase personal jumbo-jets and yacht fleets, countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have altered such views. Rather than profligately spend the petro-dollars, these countries, led by their ruling families, have tried their hands at more sustainable forms of investment. From sovereign wealth funds to heavy industry and tourism, these nations are seeking a solution to the long-term reality: oil will one day run out. Yet while these two countries are attempting to accomplish the same functional goal, they are pursuing vastly different routes that are telling of their respective ideologies. My spring break consisted of trips to these exotic locales, and firsthand experience exposed both the substance and vacuity obscured behind the facades we grant the two cities.
Dubai, the flagship city of the United Arab Emirates, has recently gained global recognition through its ambitious projects and plans. The city, under the ruling Maktoum family, is redefining the idea of modern development, blending the scope and scale of state-sponsored projects with the enterprise and vision of private pursuits. In essence, the government is pumping its revenues, derived from extensive oil and natural gas reserves, directly into expansion, namely that of the tourism and real-estate industries. The results of this funding are already apparent, with many ventures completed and still more underway. Dubai’s repertoire of megaprojects includes the Burj Al-Arab, a fifty-four story, seven star hotel that inhabits its own island; the Burj Dubai, a tower that, while months from completion, is already the tallest building in the world; and the palm islands, three artificial land masses shaped like their namesake and sprawling with construction. Undertakings like these, while ambitious and groundbreaking, are turning Dubai into a paradoxical city. The urban landscape is metamorphosing into a tourist mecca, yet it holds no inherent cultural value. Upon visiting Dubai I found the most expansive malls, the tallest structures, and the most exotic islands the world has to offer, yet none of the city’s allure was rooted in its own culture or the culture of the greater Arabic world. While the manmade glamour of Dubai was certainly appealing, no link exists between this beauty and the city itself. As I drove through its dense urban districts, a feeling of alienation from the steel and glass of the city set in. Contrasted with a historically rich space like Manhattan, Dubai left me feeling empty, bearing no connection to its hyper-modern, yet hollow towers. Its structures, beaches, and attractions could be transplanted to any place in the world. Dubai is a transitory city; while massive investment renders it the momentary global “hotspot,” it is hard to argue that its vacuous towers, shops, and beaches will make any true mark in time.
Doha, the capital city of Qatar, provided a refreshing counterpoint to the glitz of Dubai. While also relying on savvy investing to stave off the inevitable depletion of the country’s petroleum reserves, the leadership of the city is following a different developmental path. Doha, certainly undergoing a construction boom, is also maintaining ties to its cultural heritage and higher values. Rather than invest in ambitious projects designed to attract tourists, the Qatari ruling family is attempting to enrich education and culture in the capital city. Qatar Foundation, an institution chaired by the Emir’s wife, is focused on Education City, a massive complex on the outskirts of Doha that incorporates branch campuses of Virginia Commonwealth, Texas A & M, Georgetown, Carnegie Mellon, and Cornell. Developing an educational nexus of this scale involves as much vision and ingenuity as constructing the tallest building in the world, yet this venture is attempting to accomplish a far loftier goal. In housing Education City, Doha is establishing itself as more than another urban landscape, but rather as an educational nexus for the entire region. A meeting with the VP of the foundation revealed both ambitious goals for the future as well as the leadership’s excitement about the present. As I was presented with the foundation’s history and plans, the realization that this man’s goals extended beyond mere greed and into the livelihood of his people conveyed the nature of the government’s aims. One statistic about Education City is particularly telling: a substantive fifty-percent of the enrolled student body is Qatari, impressive considering that the country’s native population is a mere 350,000. Qatar can expect far more appreciable returns as it invests in the intelligence and productivity of its citizens, not an ephemeral skyline. Following this experience, it came as no shock that the city maintains a strong connection its roots. A far cry from the veneer of culture found in Dubai, Doha maintains authentic ties to its past. Where in Dubai I felt a plasticity in the malls, markets, and exhibits offered up by hotel pamphlets, my hosts in Doha conveyed a true desire to share their city’s culture. From dhows docked in the corniche, Doha’s central natural bay, to the expansive collections housed in its I.M. Pei-designed museum, Doha not only presented its unique culture’s place in the present but also imparted what is left of its rich past. Rather than experiencing Doha’s culture as a side-item, I felt a sense that the diverse aspects of the Qatari people were worthwhile to explore. The pearl-diving past, the battle for independence, the discovery of oil: Doha’s culture was begging to be exposed, not hidden behind a dense skyline. It must be conceded that Doha is guilty of many of the same vices as Dubai: yes, it is undergoing a sustained period of development, yes it is growing more western as its ties with European states and America expand. Yet amidst these circumstances, the leadership is attempting to carry the state into the twenty-first century with a definitive identity, rich culture, and educated populace.
In Doha and Dubai we have two vastly different cities. While it is difficult to simply declare one superior and the other inferior, different values are clearly present in the directions these hubs are moving. While Doha’s may seem more thought-out for the long term, Dubai’s stunning present development is a compelling counter-argument. There are fundamental differences and dichotomies playing out in the cities: development vs. culture, wealth vs. education, past vs. future. As the leaders of Qatar and the UAE weigh these values and make corresponding decisions, their cities are expanding and morphing in ways that will determine their role in our rapidly growing, interconnecting world.