DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — If a city can be spectacularly quiet, this waterfront city-state has certainly qualified in recent months. Hundreds of abandoned construction cranes languish above Dubai's gated communities and beach-side developments and, most dramatically, up and down Sheikh Zayed Road, its high-rise spine. According to a recent estimate in the Middle East Economic Digest, projects worth a staggering $335 billion in the United Arab Emirates -- of which Dubai, with a population of about 2 million, is the largest member -- are stalled or have been canceled outright.
Dubai's residents, roughly 85% of them expatriates, have been left to wonder if the current crisis is merely a pause, a recessionary lull that will be painful but temporary, or closer to a fundamental reckoning that will entirely reorder the emirate and how it does business. The same question is being asked in cities around the world, of course. But it's a particularly acute, even existential one here, since it goes right to the heart of Dubai's self-image.
During the boom years of the last decade, the emirate -- which has only a tiny fraction of the oil reserves held by the capital of the UAE, Abu Dhabi -- became synonymous with frenzied real estate speculation and headlong growth. It operated as a highly efficient machine for attracting capital from around the globe -- in some cases from investors who, for political reasons, rejected the idea of sending it to the U.S. -- and turning it into real estate. In a fundamental sense, many of Dubai's skyscrapers were conceived and designed primarily as vessels to store excess liquidity. If the endless rows of stalled towers now resemble mere shells, perhaps shells are all they were ever meant to be.
You wouldn't have to be hopelessly cynical to conclude that it was all a kind of Ponzi-scheme urbanism: city planning a la Bernard Madoff. "During the boom," as the Economist put it, "supply seemed to create its own demand."
But charting the economic collapse and its fallout is not the only story worth telling about Dubai as the global downturn grinds on. Scrape away the signs of financial distress, plentiful though they are, and what you find is an experiment in a new kind of urbanism here -- one that has both winning and alarming elements and that is likely, for a range of reasons, to outlast the current crisis.
Like many first-time visitors, I expected to find in Dubai a messy, vital hybrid of architectural and urban strategies, reflecting the city's history as a regional crossroads and trading center. I could hardly have been more wrong. Dubai is not some Middle Eastern Venice, a polyglot city where the combination of construction workers from Pakistan, bankers from London and Hong Kong and tourists from around the world creates a mash-up of contemporary urbanism.
It is, instead, carved into a series of separate, perfectly ordered miniature cities, each performing a remarkably persuasive imitation of the place that inspired it. There is the Manhattan-like Sheikh Zayed corridor, where skyscrapers line up shoulder to shoulder and where, just off the boulevard, work continues on an impossibly lanky beanstalk skyscraper known as the Burj Dubai. Designed by Adrian Smith when the architect was a partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the tower will officially become the tallest building in the world when it's completed later this year.
Between Sheikh Zayed Road's skyscrapers and the Dubai beachfront, meanwhile, is a series of low-rise gated communities that look just like those in Orange County. Farther inland, the Emirates Golf Club re-creates an artificially green slice of suburban Houston or Phoenix. To the west is a center for high-tech and media companies whose office-park architecture -- mid-rise, mirrored-glass office blocks set into a landscape of rolling grass and ponds -- is an almost perfect replica of Silicon Valley, the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Wash., or new high-tech outposts in China and India. Other Dubai neighborhoods mimic the urbanism of Miami, Cairo and Mumbai.
George Katodrytis, an architect who teaches at the American University in Sharjah, the emirate just northeast of Dubai, calls the resulting condition "cut and paste" urbanism. It's as if Dubai's leaders had taken sections from cities around the world that appealed to them -- or that they decided would appeal to foreign investors -- and imported them wholesale to the shores of the Persian Gulf.