In a previous article (here), I have discussed the bombastic growth plans of the airports in Dubai, Doha, and Abu Dhabi. With regard to their proximity and location within desserts, I have hinted at the lack of locational advantages these transport hubs have in comparison to competitors like Mexico City, Los Angeles, or Bangkok. The economic indicators predict a sustained growth for Dubai, Doha, and Abu Dhabi – or the United Arab Emirates and Qatar – in the coming years. Each of these places is battling for the leading ranks in various economic sectors (oil refinery industries, international air travel, offshore financing, real estate business, etc.). More recently, they have also started to compete in the fields of culture and politics by building museums and art galleries, as well as hosting prestigious sport events and high-level political conferences.
I do not want to discuss if the decision makers within these states have invested (financial) resources in culture and politics, because they are seriously interested in these fields and/or because they understand the relevance of related activities for economic and political power.
What I want to discuss, however, is the following: In the competition between these cities (and probably also other Middle Eastern cities such as Karachi, Jeddah, or Muscat), it will not be sole economic growth figures that will decide over the medium-term success. If it would be sufficient to offer the largest stadium to receive the most visitors, the development of locations – and cities in particular – would have been very predictable. Quite the contrary, urban researchers, politicians, and economic investors alike have spent years of figuring out why some cities prosper and others do not. Cutting short the well-known and still debated answers to this why-question, I argue that Dubai & Co will only see one or more cities within the region to develop an evolved cityness and global attraction if they reap the liberal first-mover advantage.
Currently, none of the cities on the Arabian Peninsula does sufficiently attract the diverse crowd of urban dwellers, which have fostered the rise and sustained growth of places such as Singapore, Hamburg, San Francisco, or Rio de Janeiro. We know for sure that it is exactly not just the ‘economics’ of a city which makes a place thrive. Right now, Dubai & Co are trying to attract these various types of urban entrepreneurs, creative minds, or ‘just’ employees dedicated to urban life, by offering huge financial incentives. Why do they have to do that? Because they are lacking in so many regards. You can try to build a spin-off of the Guggenheim or transplant a renowned US-American university into one of these oil-wealth emirates. But you cannot tailor dynamic and prosperous cityness from a simple, economic recipe (Or can you?).
Since Dubai & Co are economically competing in too many similar sectors (take for instance their battle for air travel, here), the successful city in the medium term will be the one which opens up first – this opening can refer to political freedoms, social norms and values, cultural diversity, religious tolerance, or other aspects of (urban) life.
In the past, cities such as Cairo, Beirut, Tehran, or Tel Aviv had proven the benefit of welcoming the other or to at least tolerate its presence (even if this tolerance just expressed itself in governmental neglect or a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy). But the advantage of Dubai & Co is that these other places are dealing with a challenging environment and are embedded in a larger, national government system. Dubai & Co, on the other hand, could make use of what Singapore and Hong Kong (until recently?) have put to their advantage as city-states.
If this hypothesis is not completely wrong, the question then is: Which city amongst Dubai & Co is it going to be?