Abu Dhabi and Dubai are arguably among the most developed and fastest-growing Asian cities across the world, though little remains are known about the backdrop of their modernisation (Carter & Dunston 2006). Dubai and Abu Dhabi have a long history of civilization, though their city modernisation seems to have occurred so swiftly and in the shortest evolution period.
Several decades ago, the contemporary Abu Dhabi and Dubai were initially formless, desert-like, and occupied by tumbleweed and cactuses (Hari 2009). The main occupants of the desert land were mainly the Bedouins who were nomads, anglers, and few traditional farmers.
Some few small towns in the 18th century began developing in the lower Persian Gulf region, an area that has been crucial in the history of Dubai and Abu Dhabi (Hari 2009). The Persian Gulf gradually began attracting a cosmopolitan population from the Indian sub-continent, the Persian regions and from other Arab countries, which marked the barging in of the modernised Arab world.
With a great contempt against the western education which nationalists in the two cities remained suspicious about, the form of housing for both Abu Dhabi and Dubai was still in the traditional form of Shantytowns and informal settlements (Kanna 2011). The main form of housing was the traditional nomadic hut settlements historically known as the barastis, which formed the small Shantytowns across the desert.
The Emirates during this moment used mud bricks, coral, dry stones, and even wood in developing their informal infrastructures (Archnet 2013). Along the Persian Coast, anglers provided coral reefs, which turned to be the prime construction material along the coastal plains.
Irregular rubble blocks developed from thick mortar conventionally identified as ‘sarooj’ and thin-chopped coral slabs were useful in building the houses (Archnet 2013). Constructors obtained mangrove timber from the Eastern parts of Africa, which they used as roof beams for strengthening the walls in the form of standing poles. Mangrove beams also supported planks of palm wood in developing traditional ceilings.
Growing of palm trees and fishing were two practices, which provided source of fronds and reefs that acted as major building materials. The Eastern part of Dubai that still borders Oman is hilly and the western region is relatively flat and inhabited by the coastal sandy plains.
The form of housing differed between regions in these old cities. Towns that existed in the oasis region consisted of houses made of mud bricks and split-palm beams predominantly used as roofing material (Archnet 2013). The common historical practice of house construction using palm beams has remained evident in several Arabic cities.
As part of strengthening their structures against wind erosion and water, traditional constructors in the Old Dubai built the lower part of the house using large stone blocks (Archnet 2013). The majority of the buildings along the desert regions of the Old Dubai were structures developed from palm fronds and mangrove wood.
Contrary to the plain regions, the mountain parts contained traditional barasti houses developed from asymmetrical blocks made without mortars. Builders laid these blocks inside the buildings and undertook little mud plastering in some houses.
Historical evidence of the Abu Dhabi and Dubai reveals that the pearl trade that attracted traders was very influential in their urbanisation process. Gradually, diverse population mainly from the Asian regions arrived at the Coast of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, attracted by pearls into the two coasts subsequently accumulating to form a metropolitan zone characterised by trading and oil hunt activities (Kadhim 2013).
After the British Empire decided to withdraw their governance in Dubai following declined oil drilling efforts, an influence from other surrounding states forced Dubai and the Abu Dhabi to merge together to form the Trucial States (currently known as the United Arab Emirates). This is the moment when the ideology of urbanisation in the United Arab Emirates and its related cities began.
Shifting from the old infrastructural setting where traditional huts and barasti were the predominant structures, Krane (2013) asserts that political elites and businesspersons from the two cities began anticipating for concrete and other forms of modern settlements.
Pushed by the good fortune from the oil drilling and pearl business across the Trucial States, the 19th centuries saw an intense approach towards urbanisation (Carter & Dunston 2006). The British oil investors downed their tools after their attempts to drill the oil reserves went unsuccessful, giving the natives from the two cities an opportunity to invest.
People from Abu Dhabi and Dubai slowly began engaging in construction activities that also involved engaging in training and practicing architectural designing together with western-trained architects (Kanna 2011).
With the desire to enhance the construction of railroads, roads and buildings in the modern aesthetic form, the elites from the Abu Dhabi and Dubai increasingly invested in developing their architectural skills through subsequent training.
Behind the modern housing civilization were two ancient politicians, Sheik Zayed and Sheik Rashid, who combined leadership to form a single state (UAE). Carter and Dunston (2006, p. 36) assert that Sheik Rashid was “the driving force behind Dubai’s phenomenal growth and father of modern Dubai.”
The central tenet behind the development of the modernised Abu Dhabi and Dubai from traditional living has a deep historical background that connects with the Westernisation and Asian culture (Sadjadpour 2011). Western civilization, international trade and the exploration of the oil reserves in the Abu Dhabi and Dubai propelled by the British colonization have been crucial aspects towards modernization of these cities.
As postulated by Kadhim (2013, p. 283), “Abu Dhabi has a long history of assisting its more indigent neighbours” and their mutual collaboration with the western traders greatly influenced urbanisation during the 19th centuries. In 1950s, most of the houses in Dubai and Abu Dhabi still consisted of barasti informal settlements and it was until 1956 that the first concrete house emerged.
As the pearl business enhanced and new discoveries of oil reserves commenced, the Trucial states witnessed an influx of western traders, tourists, and immigrants who prompted Dubai’s urbanisation. Towards 1970s, Dubai’s independent drillers continuously explored new oil reserves and this fuelled urban development in the region.
Before the 1950s, the Second World War contributed significantly to the modernisation process as their involvement in the war greatly affected their traditional infrastructural setting. As postulated by Archnet (2013, para. 9), “the phenomenal growth of the emirates since the Second World War has meant that many of the older historical and traditional buildings were destroyed.”
Through Rashid’s governance, people from Dubai continuously dominated oil drilling and oil earnings subsequently dominated Dubai’s economy (Kanna 2011). The American architects were the most dominant new immigrants in Dubai and Abu Dhabi towards 1970s and brought modern forms of art that marked the architectural postmodernism period in these cities.
However, their presence in Dubai might have contributed to a mixture of perceptions about Dubai’s modernisation. The assumption was that, “the architect is a member of a specialised guild or class of individuals outside and above the normal sphere and mere building” (Kanna 2011, p. 79).
Hence, the notion behind the expertise of civilised architects who provided the competent infrastructure in the two cities became an acceptable norm, leading to modernity of these cities.
As leadership allowed modernisation, the American architects began developing houses in the American style, which predominantly aimed at providing residential houses to the expatriates, and consequently rental investment began flourishing (Hari 2013).
Subsequently, the American style homes were the main housing typology that spread throughout Dubai, especially in the residential areas and the rental business became more familiar to the Asians (Carter & Dunston 2006).
As more western-trained architects traversed the Asian continent, native Dubai architects began learning how to integrate modern fine arts with cultural designs that finally emerged with the finest arts currently eminent in the Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Alongside the development of Dubai as a central trading centre, the ports, government infrastructures like roads, rails, bridges, and other buildings began taking the American design (Kanna 2011).
The American structural engineering greatly improved the Asian silhouettes and facade designs. The elaboration of modern aesthetic structures influenced the development of mosques, temples and other religious buildings whose members admired these modern designs.
Among major innovations, the American Halsolow Construction Company carried out the housing for expatriates whom were in charge of the construction of Port Rashid, which remains an important modern port (Hari 2013).
Despite the politics that dominated architectural representation between the elites and modern architects, the American architects believed to have marked the beginning of modernization in the Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Akin to the Saudi Arabian belief, some religious leaders initially believed that the new technologies were associated with the devil (Krane 2013).
Believed to be unique professionals who influenced the development of unimaginable infrastructure, the autonomy of architects remained influential. Even though the Arabic constructors dwelled in the modern aesthetic designs integrated and motivated by the western-trained architects, they maintained their unique culture that influenced their housing strategies (Hari 2009).
Heavily financed by the federal government of Dubai, the modern American building design has grown exponentially in a few decades with intense development witnessed along with these cities in the twentieth centuries where glassed skyscrapers are increasing.
Among critical issues about the urban settlement introduced by the American architects is the educational gap and wealth gap between the emirates, which has affected urban dwelling and related socio-economic order.
Despite having a great impact in the entire economic development of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), this urban settlement design has negative impact on Dubai’s social order as it creates segregation in urban settlement.
This segregated housing trend dates back to the nineteenth-century company town urban structures in England and the US when the skilled and unskilled workers remained divided. Taking over from the American infrastructural reformers, Dubai has continued with the urbanization process that violates social cohesion.
Still, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the urban management has commenced with the urban designing that separates individuals into socio-economic classes.
In the contemporary UAE, Dubai and the Abu Dhabi are the most modernized cities with the greatest veto power on national issues. Unethically, powerful individuals have continued to manipulate and displace poor dwellers while factories layout expanding outside the urban environs.
Archnet 2013, Dictionary of Islamic Architecture. Web.
Carter, T & Dunston, L 2006, Dubai. Ediz. Inglese, Lonely Planet Publishers, Melbourne.
Hari, J 2009, ‘The dark side of Dubai’, The Independent, 7 April.
Kadhim, A 2013, Governance in the Middle East and North Africa: A Handbook Routledge international handbooks, Routledge Publishers, London.
Kanna, A 2011, Dubai, the City as Corporation, U of Minnesota Press, Minnesota
Krane, J 2013, Dubai: The Story of the World’s Fastest City, Atlantic Books Publishers Ltd, London.
Sadjadpour, K 2011, The Battle of Dubai: the United Arab Emirates and the U.S.-Iran Cold War. Web.