National Geographic : 2017 Oct
62 national geographic • october 2017 that off. And if it can happen here, they say, it can happen anywhere. sheiKh MohaMMeD greW up in a house lit by oil lamps, where water from the village well was delivered by donkey cart. The house belonged to his grandfather, the emir; the Al Maktoum family has ruled Dubai since 1833. The house still stands near the mouth of Dubai Creek, a natural harbor that is the reason the city exists at all. Sheikh Mohammed’s father, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, had grown up in the same house and as a young man had endured years when people in Dubai starved; the Great Depression and the inven- tion of cultured pearls had destroyed the market for pearl diving, the town’s main enterprise. It was Sheikh Rashid who began to modernize Dubai after taking over as ruler in 1958 and espe- cially after oil started to flow in the late 1960s. He quickly brought in electricity, running water, and paved roads. He built schools, an airport, and, in 1979, the 39-story World Trade Centre (now Sheikh Rashid Tower), at the time the tallest building in the Middle East. “It was built in the middle of no- where, on the edge of the city,” says Neil Walmsley, a Dubai-based British engineer and urban planner with the consulting firm Arup. “ The city respond- ed by growing towards it”—and then well past it. The pearl business hadn’t lasted forever, and Sheikh Rashid knew the oil wouldn’t either. Dubai holds just a fraction of the U.A .E .’s oil— Abu Dhabi has the lion’s share. So while Dubai was not a center of world trade in 1979, when Sheikh Rashid built the Trade Centre, he set about making it one. That same year he opened a second and larger port at Jebel Ali, 25 miles from the Creek, as it’s known. His son Mohammed filled the empty space be- tween the two, turning Dubai into a hub not only of trade and finance but also, improbably, of tour- ism and real estate development. Each Emirati citizen has long been entitled to a plot for his own villa. But in the early 2000s, when Dubai began allowing property to be owned by foreigners— already attracted by the lack of income taxes— cash flooded in. Four large developers carved up the land. Workers streamed in from South Asia to build villas and skyscrapers clad in glass—not the ideal material in a land of relentless sun, but what the market demanded. The workers lived in camps that were often squalid, in conditions that some said resembled indentured servitude. The city exploded down the coast. It spread out into the Persian Gulf, onto artificial peninsu- las built from titanic amounts of dredged sand; it spread into the Arabian desert. “ When you look at how Dubai has been growing, it’s just been this obsession with building outward into the desert,” says Yasser Elsheshtawy, an Egyptian-American architect who taught at U.A .E. University in Al Ain for 20 years. “There were no limitations. Energy was cheap. You had cars. So why not?” Sheikh Mohammed’s aspiration is like his father’s, only grander: He wants Dubai to out- compete the world, to show the world that Arabs can be pioneers again, as they were in the Middle Ages. His strategy has been to attract the world to Dubai. Some 90 percent of the 2.8 million res- idents are expats living in a place where not so long ago a few thousand Arabs struggled to sur- vive. Dubai’s population, young and incredibly diverse—children attend schools with dozens of nationalities, several expats told me proudly— is its main resource. But all those people have to be kept alive in the desert. These days Dubai has plenty of electricity and running water. Almost all of it comes from a single two-mile-long industrial plant at Jebel Ali. There, in a line of candy-striped smokestacks and evaporator tanks, the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) burns natural gas to generate 10 gigawatts of electricity. The leftover heat is used to desalinate seawater—more than 500 million gallons a day. Gas comes by pipeline from Qatar, with which the U.A .E . severed diplo- matic relations in June, and in tankers from as far away as the United States. Dubai, a tiny emirate we think of as oil rich, depends on imported fossil fuel for life sup- port. One DEWA official, trying to convey to me how that feels, gripped his throat tightly with one hand. But there’s an upside to that chok- ing feeling: It can motivate you to change your circumstances.