Dubai: Future of Cities or Urban Nightmare?

I’m not a big city person.

Having used to living in metropolitans my whole life, the sight of towering mountains impress me more than skyscrapers. But I have a soft spot for cities that can transform us through time. And Dubai qualifies: its harder, better, faster, stronger approach in architecture has resulted in some of the most exceptional and futuristic-looking landmarks in recent history.

But in hindsight, while Dubai impresses, it also underwhelms.

Let’s start with the impressive part about Dubai…

Dubai is like Singapore on steroids, with gravity-defying buildings and land reclamation projects taken to their extremity. Both countries have risen as the crowning jewels of their regions, despite having so little resources in the beginning. (Believe it or not, oil was not discovered in Dubai until 1966. And even today, it accounts for only 2% of Dubai’s GDP.)

Decorated by iconic landmarks such as Burj Khalifa, Burj Al Arab and Palm Jumeirah, Dubai is the indisputable king of futuristic skyline + aerial view. These landmarks would’ve been impressive if you see them even if stable places like Singapore.

But the fact that they have built a mega-city over harsh desert environment with regular sandstorms, permanent heat of scorching sun and unstable sand grains as a construction base? Jaw-dropping, masterpiece of modern engineering.

Yes, Dubai architects and engineers are complete nuts.

But for a city so obsessed with perfection, Dubai underwhelms in many ways…

Dubai is like Disneyland for grown-ups. It’s a luxury playground for millionaires and wealthy tourists. But once you get past the biggest, tallest and most expensive packaging, you’ll soon realize that most of the attractions lack real substance.

I mean… skiing in a mall? Scuba diving inside an aquarium? I’m sure they’re fun and all that, but really? Do I really fly all the way to Dubai for these? Why not go to real alps and oceans for the better experience, at the same price?

“What about the jaw-dropping architectures that you praised so highly?” you asked. “If it’s worth the trouble going all the way to Pisa just for the Leaning Tower, or Paris for the Eiffel Tower, shouldn’t the same apply to Dubai?”

Almost. But here’s the thing… the Leaning Tower and Eiffel are fundamentally gorgeous. They are inherently beautiful works that move you emotionally—with joy, awe or romance. I’m not saying that Dubai is ugly. The oddly-shaped buildings are aesthetically interesting, but they don’t exactly make me feel much.

Plus, I just can’t shake off the reality that they are, almost literally, too beige.

Dubai Marina Skyline, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

When it’s not beige, it’s either pale blue, pale grey or pale white.

Whatever happened to all those color-popping postcard images? I’m about to start a conspiracy theory that Dubai is the world’s most Photoshopped city, but let me give it the benefit of a doubt… maybe a sandstorm hit the city the day before I arrived and dirtied up all those building glasses, or something.

But above all of that, there’s a depressing realization that Dubai’s regressive approach to sustainability makes it an unlikely future city, destined to crash under the excess weight of its ambition as it battles against nature’s inexhaustible force.

Concluding Thoughts on Dubai

Dubai remains a curio worth seeing for yourself.

Even with the lingering questions of sustainability and artificiality, it’s still undeniable that Dubai’s soaring ambition has carried the city to record-breaking heights. This is not a feat to be overlooked.

And while many of the attractions are tourist traps in essence, some are honestly good. Observing sunset during desert safari, for instance, is a truly magical experience. Quite coincidentally, this is also the most authentic aspect of the Dubai experience.

Dubai is at an interesting juncture right now. Whether or not it can overcome its weaknesses remain to be seen.

Have you ever been to Dubai? What’s your thoughts about this superlative city?

And while we’re at it, don’t forget to book a ticket up to the observation deck of Burj Khalifa now. After all, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime-experience to have a bird’s-eye view of Dubai from the world’s tallest building.


5 Comments Add yours

  1. I love how you described the place ‘Dubai is like Singapore on steroids’ and ‘Dubai is like Disneyland for grown-ups.’

    No, I have never been to Dubai and actually have no real plans of ever traveling there. The heat and the sandstorms don’t sound too appealing. I think the only thing that would interest me is its close proximity to the sand dunes – and I would love to check out a real desert.


    1. Andrew Darwitan says:

      Oh yes the desert is awesome!! I think Dubai is still a good destination, it’s just slightly off my expectations I guess.


  2. Rekker says:

    But, the indoor skying and scuba diving stuff is for people who live in dubai, who can’t fly half way across the world to go skiing.


    1. I find that it works both ways. It may attract the locals, but at the same time it’s also cashing in on tourism dollars. As this is a travel blog, I’m writing this from the perspective of a foreign traveler, and from that viewpoint, I personally enjoy their real counterparts a tad bit better. Just my two cents and I’m sure everybody else has their own experiences too. 🙂


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