From Desert Village to World Metropolis
The story of the modern great city of Dubai is a new one. Of the great cities of the world, Dubai is a newcomer, and a relatively small one at that. Of the ten tallest cities of the world, it is the second smallest in population by any measure (city proper, metropolitan area, or urban agglomeration). Of the cities of the world, it is not yet in the top 100 in population size. As of 2013, estimates put Dubai's population at just past two million. If one includes its neighbor Sharjah, Dubai's metropolitan urban area population is still half that of most of the other ten tallest cities.

What is more remarkable is that as recently as the 1950's Dubai was a desert hamlet of only about 20,000 people. With the exception of Kuala Lumpur, which had a population of 200,000 in 1950 (ten times bigger than Dubai), all the other top ten of the World's Tallest Cities of 2014 already had at least one million people in 1950. Up to this point in history, only the largest cities of the wealthiest nations could produce an architectural landscape on the scale of Dubai. Prior to the 1990's, Dubai did not have a single significant skyscraper. It's tallest building, built in 1982, had 23 floors. As recently as the year 2000, New York City's last full year as the world's tallest city, Dubai still did not even rank among the top 25; but by then it's building boom was picking up speed, and already sported its first 1000-plus foot skyscraper.

Today, Dubai is a financial center of investment capital on a par with London, Paris, and Hong Kong, and attracting more capital annually than New York City in 2011. It is the global transportation hub of the Middle East. It has ensnared America's top leaders with business scandals (former President Clinton in a business partnership that in 2006 tried to gain control of major American ports, and then U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney when his former company of Halliburton chose it as its new headquarters to escape U.S. taxes).
Fortunate City Looks Forward and Up
So how did this little dusty outpost of human civilization work its way into the center of world attention in the span of half a century? Its truly skyrocketing growth has been propelled by three principal factors of good fortune.

The first blessing for Dubai was being in the fortuitous position to share in the tremendous transfer of wealth of from the advanced Western countries to the then-poor, but very oil-rich kingdoms of the Middle East. This transfer of wealth of what amounts to literally trillions (that's with a "t") of dollars is one of a kind in history. In 2007 alone, estimates put the number at $700 billion dollars. And this transfer of wealth has been taking place since the 1950s.

The second piece of good fortune was that this began in the middle of the 20th century. At any other point in history, where a dominant power found vast quantities of a highly desired natural resource in the hands of a much weaker one, it simply conquered and took what it wanted. At best, a small power could only hope to accept whatever price its overlords set. This was true from the Babylonian Empire to the British Empire, up until World War II. But all this good fortune, by itself, could still have resulted in waste and missed opportunities, as it has in Nigeria and Venezuela, or in a more conventional approach of public spending, as with Saudi Arabia, or Dubai's fellow emirates. What was different - the third blessing - was Dubai's ruling family that looking to the future, sought to develop an economic base that went beyond oil. This approach was then turbo-charged by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, who was appointed Crown Prince by his brother in 1995, and acted as de-facto ruler in more recent years until his outright ascension to the emirate's throne in 2006.

His efforts led to Dubai's fantastic island cities in the shape of a palm tree and a world map, an underwater hotel, a mall with an indoor snow-ski slope, and of course, a gleaming skyline second to none, now topped by what is by far the tallest building in the world. From 2000 to 2010, Dubai built six buildings as tall or taller than Houston's 1002-foot (305 m) Chase Tower, and another twenty at 750 feet or more. That's a whopping twenty-six (!) 750-plus foot buildings in ten years. In that same time frame, New York City built seven, and Houston none. And of course, Dubai's brand new glass skyline rising out of the Arabian desert sands includes the gleaming 2,717-foot (828 m) high Burj (Tower) Khalifa building, the world's tallest by almost a factor of two. Two Empire State Buildings stacked on top of each other would still fall 217 feet short of the Khalifa Tower. With the formal completion and opening of the tower on January 4, 2010, its inclusion in our CAHTT* score put Dubai at the top of our World's Tallest Cities ranking, taking the title away from Chicago (see the World's First Tall City page), and will likely retain the title for years to come. (Please see sidebar below on past top title-holders.)
* CAHTT - Calculated Average of the Ten Tallest. See our Methodology Page for details.
Tower Meant to celebrate Dubai, Instead Honors Abu Dhabi
For all its glitzy displays of wealth and new favor among the jet set, for all it's unusually open cultural atmosphere for a Middle Eastern country, upsetting some of its neighbors, Dubai still retains many of the old ways. It is still a true monarchy, and still holds on to some very un-modern attitudes shared by fellow Arab countries. For one thing, though it may not always enforce it, it has laws that call upon it to deny entry visas to Israelis, or those with Israeli stamps on their passports.

We first asked on these pages back in 2005 how a city of Dubai's scale would fill a skyline that is usually found in a city several times it size. If Dubai was hoping for continued growth at a record pace, the global economic downturn that began in late 2007 brought that to a halt. Commercial real estate prices in Dubai fell 50%-75%, leases and constructions projects were cancelled, and laid-off foreign workers returned home. The financial crisis really hit home with Dubai in 2009, when it had to ask it's fellow emirate Abu Dhabi (capital of the U.A.E.) for emergency aid to service its debt. In apparent gratitude (or servitude), what was going to be the Burj Dubai was renamed the Burj Khalifa, after the emir of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, also the current president of the U.A.E.

Yet, since 2010, Dubai has seen a recovery and a re-engagement of stalled projects. And, it has grown dramatically in population almost doubling in size in the last ten years.

Dubai's intended icon of its new ascendancy among the world's top cities became a symbol of its sudden financial and political precariousness. Nonetheless, the setback is likely temporary (the Empire State Building opened amidst the Great Depression, and was called the Empty State Building in its early years), and the rise of the stratospheric half-mile tall Burj Khalifa and the rest of the crystaline Dubai skyline, along with others across Asia, are certainly an amazing wonder to behold. But unlike a desert illusion, these are more than a fantastic mirage, they are message - a message Americans would do well to heed.
This article was originally published in 2010, and updated in 2012 and 2015.
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