Dubai: On mobility, policy, and identity
Experience from a trip to Dubai
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Happy 4th from Kraków 🇵🇱🇺🇸
I came out to Poland this past week for the World Urban Forum that took place in Katowice. Excited to share the learnings in the next article.
A quick life update – I’ve been working on Talent City this past year. We’ve made incremental progress, slow for the tech world but considerable in the charter cities world.
Breathing the urban development world meant reading about Lee Kuan Yew, Dubai, and the policies that paved way for the success of new cities.
Earlier this year, I had a chance to visit Dubai. It was intriguing to talk to the people who had made Dubai their home as a direct result of the most foreigner-friendly policies and to walk the streets that were only built in recent decades.
Previously, I wrote about my observations in Lagos, Nigeria. Today, I want to share the same for Dubai.
Would love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to respond to this email directly or drop a note on Twitter.
“Will you move back to Hungary?”
“I don’t think so. The people there are a bit negative, they suck away your energy. Here in Dubai, I feel everyone is more optimistic and I’d rather be surrounded by this kind of energy.” — Fati, a Syrian-Hungarian expat living in Dubai
View from Princess Tower, Dubai Marina.
On urban design, mobility
Walking around Dubai, I felt small. It was as if the city was built for giants, designed to be viewed from the sky.
The main boulevard of Sheikh Zayed Road has over twenty lanes. The difficulty of getting from one side of the street to another on foot is obscure. Moreover, a complex system of freeways dominates the urban layout, creating islands of buildings that cannot be easily reached on foot. These pockets of buildings, therefore, are connected by freeways as opposed to streets.
Each development seems to have a life of its own. Emaar, one of the leading property developers, is known for building great walkable live-work-play communities. Within these developments, it is fully walkable, complete with residential, restaurants, and shopping, many with manmade riverfronts and boardwalks. There is little need to traverse to another “island.” In urban planning, we strive for a 15 min walk radius because this small radius is what really defines our day-to-day and our quality of life. In this sense, these communities are arguably some of the best places to live in.
“I can just walk to the office. On my way back home, I pass by the mall, get my shopping done, my nails done, and meet friends for dinner, and go home without leaving the area.” — Tania, an Arab immigrant living in Dubai
Walkable life in the JLT (Jumeirah Lake Towers). It’s large and populated enough that the neighborhood feels vibrant, while the tall buildings surrounding the lakes make the community feel contained.
Islands of buildings are connected by a network of freeways instead of walkable streets. Unlike other urban capitals, the Metro in Dubai is an afterthought, built less than ten years ago. (Photo by Jens Oliver Meiert)
On governance, policy
Dubai’s success is the result of a set of highly intentional legal frameworks. Policies dictate behavior. Attractive policies attract immigration and investments.
When we consider moving to a new place, the rule of law is often on top of mind: a trust in law enforcement and a reliable legal framework that protects individual and business rights. Dubai's strict security code makes it impossible for crime to thrive. In contrast to many western cities where crime is rampant and sometimes becomes a thriving business, a small crime in Dubai would entail deportation to the home country.
Over the years, the law has constantly evolved to become more foreigner-friendly. Some examples include the introduction of the retirement visa, less strict Islamic personal laws (i.e. the ability to cohabitate before marriage, loosening of alcohol restrictions), and the shift of the weekend from Friday and Saturday to Saturday and Sunday. The Gulf States is traditionally comprised of very different cultural values and practices than the rest of the world. These laws westernized the city, making it easy for foreigners to immigrate and adapt to living in the UAE.
In addition to legal frameworks, the government put a lot of effort into its cultural infrastructure and in making the city a great place to be. One such effort is the establishment of the Ministry of Happiness which oversees the programs and policies for the overall well-being of the people and to achieve a happier society. Aside from city-level marketing, it seems to actually work. A Lebanese friend who lives in Dubai told me that he once reported an unfair traffic ticket to the Ministry, and the ticket was quickly responded to and waived!
Hearing the stories of life in Dubai on a hike in the Rak.
On culture, identity
While the city’s policies encourage immigration and a decent standard of living, they create layers of identities based upon varying socio-economic classes: “temporary” migrant workers, the middle class, and the wealthy Emirati citizens.
About 89% of Dubai’s population are expatriates made up primarily of those from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. A large number of them are from the working class. According to a local, the existence of this socio-economic class creates us and them dynamic. In most other cities, despite having a mix of people from different backgrounds, most of us live a similar life; one goes to a bar and falls in love with a bartender. In Dubai, however, it is unlikely that the two worlds will ever converge.
This divide is enhanced by the geographical separation. The South Asians tend to occupy the older parts of Dubai in the north with more affordable real estate. Whereas western immigrants live in the newer parts of town with beach access, an equivalent to the Miami of the Middle East. The two regions are physically far apart. The public transit system, designed as an afterthought, gives some access to the new regions, with most areas reachable only by car.
“You go to the newer divide, which is the JLT and the Dubai Marina or here, downtown. It’s pretty intense, the glitzy, glamour, the roads are so big. Yet you get to the old side, it’s a completely different universe.” — Tania, an Arab immigrant living in Dubai
Deira old town. That’s where Dubai was. (Photo by Damir Babacic)
The other expatriates, including western or Arab immigrants, make up the middle-class occupying white-collar careers. To them, the many lifestyle perks Dubai offers make it one of a kind place to be as they are spoiled by affordable childcare, tax breaks, and luxurious shopping. Safety and walkable neighborhoods also make the city a great place to raise a family.
Despite the convenience, security, and luxury, new immigrants that made Dubai their home often think about the environment their children will grow up in. In addition to the us and them dynamic, many grow up facing a serious identity crisis.
I met the children of some of the Arab immigrants that came to the country a generation ago. In the 1950s, Iran was one of the wealthier nations in the region. Some left Iran and came to the UAE to pioneer and give back in the new land of opportunity. Their descendants are born and raised here in Dubai, yet hold passports from Iran, Syria, and Pakistan. It is hard to fathom that one can never become a citizen of the country they're born and raised in.
“I was born and raised in Dubai. My father moved here many years ago to start his business. I’ve been to Iran a few times. I’m Iranian, yet my whole life has always been here in Dubai,” — an Iranian-Pakistani friend who runs five shops at the souk.
The UAE has yet to establish a path to citizenship for foreign nationals. In the UAE, citizenship is reserved for the bloodline of the Emiratis. It is a practice common in the Gulf region. There is a fine balance between making a place attractive enough to foreign nationals and protecting the culture, interests, and standard of life of its own people, a balance between bringing in top talent while ensuring the influx of population will not burden the system.
Perhaps, the change will come with time. In early 2021, the country made amendments to “allow investors, professionals, special talents and their families to acquire the Emirati nationality and passport under certain conditions.” It is still limiting, yet, it’s a transformative step for the region. After all, to retain talent for generations to come, there needs to be a simple path to citizenship.
Eating like an Emirati at Al Fanar @Expo 2020. If you ever visit the UAE, try their karak tea. It is the most amazing thing I’ve tasted.
Dubai is a place of opportunity. It is where people from every socioeconomic class come to live a better life. The residents resonate with an overall air of optimism. The commonality, despite class segmentation, is that everyone who is there chose to be there.
Perhaps it is because Dubai is new. This energy may be what was present in America in the decades after the formation of the country. It’s a living example of what the land of opportunity used to be.
Dubai is a place of rapid development, a place that wholeheartedly embraces change. Every time I went back to my hometown of Beijing, I get excited by the new transit lines and shopping villages popping up year after year. Dubai, too, the next time I see it, it will not be the same.
Every city is a snapshot in history that we witness in our lifetime, but for cities like Dubai, we get to see multiple snapshots in a lifetime.
 Note that this layout mainly describes the “new town”. Dubai’s old town in the north is made up of smaller streets and alleyways.
 United Arab Emirates Population Statistics 2022
 The Emirates has long guaranteed its 1.4 million citizens a high standard of living through reserved jobs and a cradle-to-grave welfare system, spending billions of dollars each year on free education, healthcare, housing loans, and grants for its citizens. Foreigner nationals are fine with these arrangements because they do not pay income tax; they came to make money and not to obtain another citizenship. UAE to offer citizenship to select expats is a rare move for the Gulf.
 The UAE is now offering citizenship to foreigners, and the economic gains could be ‘transformative’ Foreigners cannot apply for citizenship; they must be nominated by UAE royals or officials, and the country’s Cabinet would get the final say.
 I’m excited about this new shopping square.
The Arabian Ranches, a new suburban community dotted with villas and retail outlets.
This article is pieced together based on the many conversations I’ve had during my short visit to Dubai.
Special thanks to Dani and Aleksandar for the kind intros.
Thank you all for helping me understand this city: Atta, Ahmed, Tania, Sally, Fathi, Alexandre, Stan, Ounsi
Written by Coco, a designtrepreneur that has a heartfelt appreciation for architecture and urban development.
Reach me @cocobliu
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Great article. I would push back on one aspect though, which is that everyone is there voluntarily. While that might be true for the majority of expats, it isn't necessarily true for Dubai's blue-collar migrant workers who come from India, Pakistan, Philippines, etc since the kafila system prevents them from exercising free choice in labor and from leaving easily. The social exclusion + lack of mobility for this class of workers is a much bigger hurdle than the article implies IMO in making Dubai anything more than a temporary expat playground.