Rise of the Aerotropolis


I was delighted and surprised to win Best Newcomer at the Travel Extra awards last night for this article on Dubai – guess I still count as a young journalist, which is quite the compliment.

Unfortunately I couldn’t make it, what with being in Hamburg and all, but big thanks to Travel Extra and to Ida Milne for suggesting I enter, and thanks to Thomas Cook for sponsoring the category – much appreciated. Also, thanks to Rachel Sherry and Emirates for the trip to Dubai in the first place.

Here’s the piece – quite an astonishing, fascinating place.

From The Irish Times, December 3rd, 2011

From the air, Dubai looks like a place without a past, with its gleaming skyscrapers standing apart from one another, separated by huge motorways and stretches of residential housing surrounded by vast desert. It’s a skyline that seems to be a work of futuristic imagination.
In many ways that impression is a reflection of its actual history – this weekend marks 40 years since the birth of the United Arab Emirates, when six of the seven emirs of the Trucial Sheikhdoms met in the Dubai Guesthouse Palace to agree to union in the wake of the end of British rule – the seventh, Ras al-Kaimah, joined the following year.
In the four decades since then, Dubai has transformed itself to become one of the most dynamic, ambitious and controversial cities in the world, and the Guesthouse Palace is about the most potent reminder of how far the place has come in a single generation – it’s a modest, single-storey structure, dwarfed by the offices and shops that now surround it, never mind the huge towers that reach for clouds that rarely come.
The anniversary poster that dots the city features an image of the seven sheiks in a row, on the cusp of reinventing the region. They could hardly have imagined what was to come.
Dubai seems barely fathomable before you visit it, and it doesn’t make much more sense even when you’re there. Everything strives to be the biggest in the world, or the most expensive – the stunning Burj Khalifa skyscraper, the huge land-reclamation projects in the shape of three giant palms and another in the shape of the world – all an attempt by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum to accelerate Dubai’s international standing. But those vast ambitions ran into economic reality when the real estate bubble crashed in 2009 – the sense of schadenfreude was audible around the world.
While the real estate dreams have dried up in the desert sun, and the hubristic world begins to sink back into the gulf, the tourism pillar of Dubai Inc is weathering the downturn quite well, according to all in the trade. Many of the luxury hotels that were planned have been put on hold, but those that were already built are operating at capacity, and it’s easy to see why.
At this time of year in particular, the weather is just the right side of beautiful; hot during the day, balmy in the evening. It justifies its reputation as a shopping destination with both bustling gold souks in the old city and megamalls such as the Dubai Mall, which needless to say claims to be the biggest in the world.
In many ways, Dubai is the most globalised of cities, where Arab and Russian oil money is spent extravagantly and labour comes cheap from the developing world, with a growing international middle class occupying the void in between.
The tourists come from every corner of the globe, Japanese and American, German and African, to marvel at the scale of the place and soak up some winter sun on the miles of beaches.
Only the sight of groups of Emirati men in their traditional dishdasha robes acts as a reminder of where we are, and even then they blend into the international tapestry of the place.
The city’s most famous landmark is, of course, the tallest structure in the world. Named after the Abu Dhabi emir Khalifa bin Zayed after he bailed out Dubai in 2009, the Burj Khalifa soars towards the sky, appearing to be on the verge of lift-off, barely tethered to the sand below. It’s a breathtaking sight from every angle, a modern-day Tower of Babel that manages to unite visitors from around the world in admiration.
In some ways it’s fitting that the tallest building in the world is in Dubai, because it’s from the sky that the place begins to come into focus. It’s not an accident that the most ostentatious developments, those palms and the World, reveal their design from the air – Dubai only begins to make sense when seen as the capital of the Aviation Age, the main hub between east and west, the gateway linking Asia with Africa, Europe with Australasia, and so on.
It is, in the words of US economist and academic John Kasarda, an aerotropolis, and it represents the 21st-century vision of the city, where a hinterland isn’t populated by immediate neighbours but is instead made up of all those traders and travellers within the radius of modern long-haul aircraft.
Key to that emergent role is Emirates, the rapidly expanding airline owned by the Dubai government. Matching Dubai’s ambition to become the biggest city in the world, Emirates has grown rapidly since its foundation in 1985, and its growth is barely being checked by either the global downturn or Dubai’s real estate crash. Evidence for its determination to link the world via Dubai is the launch of a direct route from Dublin in January, a measure of its confidence that a market still exists here for holidays in the Middle East, and also for new routes to Asia and Australasia.
Of course, making Dubai the centre of the world requires big aircraft to ferry all those people in and out, and Emirates obliged by placing a multibillion-dollar order with Airbus for 90 of its huge A380s, the double-deckers of the sky. When they’re delivered, Emirates will be the world’s largest long-haul airline.
The ambitions of both Dubai itself and Emirates are so inextricably linked that it’s impossible to judge one without factoring in the other. And in a way, a holiday in Dubai begins the moment you board an Emirates flight, with the polished hospitality and attention to detail consistent in the air and on the ground. The airline, with its smiling image and ubiquitous sports sponsorships and shiny new aircraft, effectively spreads the city state’s brand around the world. The aerotropolis is about more than just building runways and cargo hangars, after all.
This vision of the urban future as extended airport might be hard to envision, especially when the template is as grandiose as Dubai. But an unlikely parallel kept occurring to me, of another scarcely credible city whose physical form was in large part determined by the trade routes it dominated: Venice was and remains a marvel, the notion of a port city taken to its logical conclusion, an unsustainable folly and a tribute to human engineering prowess.
Dubai might lack all that Venetian charm, but it is in many ways a latter-day equivalent, an airport taken to its logical conclusion, designed from the ground up to dominate aviation trade routes and attract sun-seeking tourists. And just like Venice, it needs to be seen to be believed.

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