Go inside the Middle East's ultramodern city of extravagance

Dubai's untamed diversity makes it far and away one of the most cosmopolitan cities on Earth.

By Jim Krane
photographs by Nick Hannes
Published 22 Nov 2018, 20:01 GMT
Photograph by Nick Hannes

What will happen to the Middle East when oil demand dries up? It might start to look like Dubai.

We know Dubai as the hyper-globalised financial capital of the United Arab Emirates, a flamboyant city-state crammed with skyscrapers and man-made islands. But Dubai used to be an oil town.

In 1975, oil provided two-thirds of Dubai’s GDP. From there, oil’s contribution to the economy declined. These days, it’s almost nil.

The emirate hasn’t suffered. Dubai reinvented itself as a centre of trade, tourism, banking, and real estate. In the process, it became the Middle East’s first successful post-oil economy.

Young Arabs consider Dubai a model for the region: a tolerant Islamic society, diplomatically neutral, riotously capitalist, and stridently autocratic.

Dubai’s unorthodox governance is not for the faint of heart. The city’s development experiments have brought riches and turned the emirate into a global node of commerce and leisure. But this process has simultaneously turned Dubai into a transitory city and a patchwork of cultures.

That is because the majority of its three million residents are short-term economic migrants.

Government figures show that just eight percent of Dubaians are UAE citizens. The overwhelming 92 percent are foreigners, hailing from most of the world’s countries. Dubai’s expatriates have literally built the city and manage its day-to-day operation. But strict residency laws mean that for them, Dubai is a place to live, but it’s not home.

Such untamed diversity makes Dubai far and away one of the most cosmopolitan cities on Earth. The population is constantly being refreshed. It is better conceived of in terms of flows, rather than stocks. Waves of departing Indians and Lebanese are replaced by incoming surges of Burmese, Nepalese, and North Koreans. It’s a new paradigm.

A gardener waters wilting palm trees at a car park.
Photograph by Nick Hannes

“The city has ceased to be a site. Instead, it has become a condition,” writes American University of Sharjah architect George Katodrytis.

Dubai’s demographic imbalance extends to gender. The city is one of the world’s most masculine metropolises, around 70 percent male, by the government’s count. In poor neighbourhoods like the labourers’ district of Sonapur, women are almost non-existent.

The combination of male dominance and social tolerance has created a huge market for prostitution—illegal, but tacitly accepted by the authorities. Dubai’s brothels are stratified, just like the rest of its workforce, with Arab and European prostitutes commanding top rates.

Of course, many migrants open legitimate businesses. The North Korean influx has brought one of the most bizarre, the Pyongyang Okryugwan, where waitresses bring bubbling stews in stone bowls, and then treat diners—including South Korean residents—to North Korean-style dinner theatre with folk dancing and karaoke.

All this is possible because Dubai is an open city that prides itself on keeping friendly ties with neighbouring countries and welcoming almost anyone. Traders and tourists pour in without visas, some speeding their passage by scanning their irises at automated gates in the airport.

But Dubai is also a police state, where electronic surveillance is unrestricted, and where jails confine criminals and debtors along with political activists who publicly disagree with monarchical rule. Politics are strictly off-limits.

Even so, social and religious freedoms are abundant. Dubai is as different from conservative Riyadh as Amsterdam is from Oklahoma City.

The city is legendary for hosting Western excesses in an Islamic setting. Bacchanalian brunches with unlimited champagne coincide with the Friday sermon. Grotesquely intoxicated nightclub patrons stumble into their taxis as the pre-dawn call to prayer rings out. A fifth of the Dubai economy is provided by sun-and-sand tourism that few conservative neighbours would countenance.

In matters of faith, too, Dubai is open. The Sunni-oriented Grand Mosque in Bur Dubai is down the street from the green-tiled Ali Ibn Abi Talib Shia mosque. Just behind is a temple dedicated to the Hindu gods Shiva and Krishna. A few blocks away, Catholics stream to mass at St. Mary’s Church.

But critics wonder whether the Dubai model is sustainable.

A dead-end road in Al Qudra desert re-routes drivers.
Photograph by Nick Hannes

The commercial hub may not have any more of its own oil, but it consumes prodigious amounts of fossil fuel. Since energy is cheap in the Gulf, curbside bus shelters are air-conditioned. Swimming pools are chilled. In the Emirates Mall, £40 gets you two hours’ skiing—even when it’s 40-plus degrees Celcius outside.

Here, too, Dubai has gone too far. The city and its neighbours find themselves on the front lines of climate damage. Rising summer temperatures threaten to render the Gulf uninhabitable, perhaps within the current century. [Related: Can Dubai reduce its ecological footprint by 2050?]

Far from raising the alarm, Dubai is cranking up the heat. It is building the enormous Hassyan power plant, the first in the Gulf to burn coal. The coming leap in carbon emissions all but ensures that Dubai residents remain among the most profligate emitters in the world.

After all, Dubai likes to be first.

Jim Krane is the Wallace S. Wilson Fellow for Energy Studies at Rice University’s Baker Institute. He is the author of Dubai: The Story of the World’s Fastest City (Atlantic Books 2009), also published as City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism (Picador 2010). His forthcoming book is titled Energy Kingdoms: Oil and Political Survival in the Persian Gulf (Columbia University Press 2019).
Nick Hannes is a photographer based in Ranst, Belgium. His series on Dubai, Garden of Delight, was was awarded the Magnum Photography Award in 2017 and the Zeiss Photography Award in 2018 and is now a book.
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