A Tale of Two (Middle Eastern) Cities

Diana Ortiz and Yanira Castro on the observation deck of Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building.

My first visit to the United Arab Emirates was in December 2007, a few months before the global financial meltdown. Dubai’s booming real estate market was fueling the growth of the construction and the financial sectors, tourists were flocking to its malls, fine hotels and white sand beaches and the city was one big construction site. At the time, the city was tackling at least five major construction projects simultaneously: the Burj Khalifa, Dubailand, the Dubai Marina, the metro system and the Palm Jumeirah.

Even though many of these projects are finished or close to completion, the exuberance that defined Dubai’s fast-paced lifestyle is today more subdued. Many of the existing building projects have slowed down or stopped as state-owned corporations try to refinance their debt and the Dubai government thinks of ways to stimulate the economy and woo new foreign investors.

Drive two hours west, and the feeling in the UAE’s capital is completely different. Abu Dhabi’s ruling family has decided to follow in Dubai’s footsteps. The plan is to turn the city into the region’s premier arts and cultural hub. But whereas Dubai financed its ambitions with the help of foreign investors, Abu Dhabi is using its vast oil wealth.

At a time when international investors are reluctant to finance real-estate projects, Abu Dhabi has been able to hire the world’s top architects to design the city’s future landmarks. New residential neighborhoods are being built, while older neighborhoods are being fixed up. Abu Dhabi is revamping its museums and cultural heritage sites. In a few years, the Louvre and the Guggenheim will set up shop. As it builds new theaters and concert halls, Abu Dhabi hopes to someday challenge New York City’s Broadway or London’s Drury Lane.

In many ways, that feeling of dynamism I experienced in Dubai in late 2007 can now be found in Abu Dhabi. The global financial crisis may have slowed down Dubai’s growth, but it has not stopped it. It is still well positioned to become the region’s most developed financial sector and in spite of everything Dubai is the Middle East’s most important trading center. Together, these two cities will reposition the UAE in global markets, attract more foreign investments and draw millions of tourists each year.—Carlos Yordán, associate professor of political science

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