National Geographic : 2017 Oct
56 national geographic • october 2017 T o plunge headlong into the audacity of Dubai—the sprawling efflorescence of concrete, glass, and steel that has sprung up over the past three decades on the scorched sands of Arabia—you could start by going skiing. From outside the Mall of the Emirates, the slope looks like a silver space- ship impaled in the ground floor. Inside you can window-shop at Prada, Dior, and Alexander McQueen before pushing through the glass doors of Ski Dubai. Passing a mural of the Alps, you zip up your parka, pull on your gloves—and marvel at what air-conditioning can do. The souvenir T-shirt I bought bears a cartoon of a Celsius thermometer. “I went from +50 to -8,” it announces. It didn’t feel quite that cold on the slope, but the temperature outside in Dubai can get close to 50 (122°F) in summer. The humidity is stifling then because of the proximity of the sea. Yet it rarely rains; Dubai gets less than four inch- es a year. There are no permanent rivers. There is next to no soil suitable for growing crops. What kind of human settlement makes sense in such a place? For centuries Dubai was a fishing village and trading port, small and poor. Then oil and a wild real estate boom transformed it into a city that sports a skyline of architectural wonders and the world’s third busiest airport. “From the point of view of sustainability, you probably wouldn’t have done it here,” says Janus Rostock, a prominent architect transplanted from Copenhagen. And yet a sustainable city is precisely what Dubai’s government now says it aims to create. Sustainable? Dubai? When camels fly, you might say. The boom years made the city a poster child for the excess that results when cheap en- ergy meets environmental indifference. Indoor skiing is just a symbol: Dubai burns far more fossil fuel to air-condition its towers of glass. To keep the taps running in all those buildings, it essentially boils hundreds of Olympic pools’ worth of sea- water every day. And to create more beachfront for more luxury hotels and villas, it has buried coral reefs under immense artificial islands. In 2006 the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) de- clared the United Arab Emirates the country with the largest ecological footprint per capita, largely because of its carbon emissions. The shoe cer- tainly fit Dubai, the most conspicuous consumer among the nation’s seven emirates. In the decade BY ROBERT KUNZIG PHOTOGRAPHS BY LUCA LOCATELLI n This article is part of our Urban Expeditions series, an initiative made possible by a grant from United Technologies to the National Geographic Society.