What does Dubai's Palm Jebel Ali revival mean for the growth of the UAE?

The ambitious project can take lessons from Palm Jumeirah and other island projects farther afield, experts say

Powered by automated translation

Dubai's revival of the Palm Jebel Ali mega project is the latest in a wave of headline-grabbing developments in a city renowned for rapid growth.

Palm Jebel Ali will be twice as big as Palm Jumeirah, adding about 110km to Dubai’s coastline and providing 35,000 families with beachside residences, green spaces and other amenities, as well as 80 hotels.

Much of the reclamation work was completed more than 15 years ago, giving developer Nakheel a head start as activity begins again. Engineers are likely to first undertake ground investigation work and other surveys.

“It could be treated effectively as a blank canvas,” said Noor Hajir, Middle East head of transport planning and mobility for WSP, which has undertaken numerous projects in the UAE and other Gulf Co-operation Council countries.

“This could perhaps allow Nakheel to revisit the overall structural plan, land-use density and even the road hierarchy. Once that initial revalidation exercise is complete, groundworks can of course commence for the major infrastructure.”

It may be that, within two or three years, key infrastructure will be in place, allowing for the development of individual plots.

How will the transport system cope?

As in other fast-growing cities, the road network in Dubai has come under considerable pressure, so limiting further impact will be a priority.

“In general, for traffic congestion to be mitigated, the key solution is to push the agenda of public transit and create more holistic communities,” Ms Hajir said.

Doing this, Ms Hajir noted, is a key target of the Dubai 2040 Urban Master Plan, which includes a focus on the 20-minute city concept.

An echo of similar initiatives in other major cities, this involves ensuring that important services, including mass transit systems, are, where possible, within a 20-minute walk or bicycle ride. Dubai aims for 55 per cent of residents to be within 800 metres of a mass-transit station.

The absence of a dense central area means that Dubai is not ideally structured for mass-transit, but Ms Hajir said that Palm Jebel Ali could have a system of its own. Also, the many entry points will reduce the likelihood of traffic bottlenecks.

Another opportunity, she said, is to have an active mobility network – pavements and cycle paths – covering the entire development.

“We see the success of the boardwalk of the existing Palm Jumeirah really being a testament to people’s eagerness to ride bikes and utilise other micromobility modes,” she said.

“We’re seeing a shift in the mobility sector as a whole, not just in Dubai but globally. We’re seeing this shift away from traditional transport planning and traffic engineering to mobility planning, looking at all user groups and modes.”

What transport lessons can be learnt from elsewhere?

While Dubai is an extensive rather than a high-density city, the RER network that serves Paris, including its outer regions, is an example of a longer-distance public transport system that functions well. It has been described as a cross between mass transit and commuter rail.

“You can implement a railway line that can transport more people at higher speed. Everything depends on the distance and traffic,” said Patrick Desforges, vice president for business development in Asia at the transport firm Systra.

“I don’t think relying on only the existing roads and putting on more cars and increasing traffic will be a solution, but developing an efficient, modern and sustainable rail connection will definitely be more suited to the development of the suburbs.”

Singapore is often seen as the gold standard for sustainable transit, achieved through an extensive public transport system and policies such as restricting vehicle licensing.

The city-state’s Sentosa island, a mixed-use development with entertainment, hotel and residential developments, may offer lessons for Palm Jebel Ali.

Sentosa has limited vehicle access, but has an express monorail, cable car, cycle paths and walkways, all connected to the main island through boardwalks and supplemented by shuttle buses.

The absence of cars has created a peaceful and attractive environment, Ms Hajir said, that has pushed up land values – the type of outcome that encourages developers to invest further in projects that are not car-centric.

Is the UAE's population growth set to continue?

In Dubai’s master plan, the population of the emirate is forecast to grow from about 3.5 million in 2022 to 5.8 million in 2040.

The UN has said that the population of the UAE as a whole, which was about 9.4 million in 2021, could reach 11.1 million by the end of the decade, 13.2 million by the middle of the century and 14.8 million by the end of the century.

Since 2010, the UAE’s population has shown a roughly linear increase of about 70,000 to 80,000 more inhabitants per year, according to Frederic Schneider, an economist who analyses the UAE’s post-oil transformation. This has mostly been because of migration rather than organic growth.

More recently, there seems to have been an acceleration in the rate of migration to the UAE, Dr Schneider said, with the war in Ukraine among the possible factors that may have caused this, although the effect may not last.

“You would expect as [these factors] peter out, we will see a return to more modest increases,” he said. “If we have this influx, it increases real estate prices, which, in turn, will dampen the influx again.”

Emirati families typically have fewer children than they used to, although still enough for the UAE national population to grow in absolute terms. Emiratis make up about 11 per cent of the UAE population.

Average residential property prices in Dubai have increased 10.9 per cent compared to May 2022, and heavy rises were previously forecast for 2023.

Growth in real estate prices may act as a dampener on migration rates to the UAE, Dr Schneider said, although pressing ahead with Palm Jebel Ali may cause property price growth to slow.

“Palm Jebel Ali – that’s a huge amount of real estate you’re opening up. That will relieve the pressure on prices. Part of the thinking is to keep the prices affordable by extending the supply,” he said.

Aside from higher property prices, Dr Schneider said that in the longer term, climate change could affect the habitability of the Gulf states, especially as temperatures are rising faster in the region than in many temperate areas.

Are other emirates also growing?

It is not only Dubai that has seen growth in population, with recent census figures indicating that Sharjah’s population has grown from 1.4 million in 2015 to 1.8 million now, a 22 per cent increase.

“We do see internal shifts with Sharjah and the Northern Emirates – they are probably becoming more popular because of the increased prices in Dubai,” Dr Schneider said.

“People are looking for more affordable homes, especially in Sharjah since it’s very close, but even … Ras Al Khaimah. If you’re willing to drive from there, if you work in an area close to the E611 [road], it’s very easy to reach now.”

Abu Dhabi, too, has been developing rapidly, with a string of flagship residential and cultural projects.

Dr Schneider indicated that, for the UAE to sustain growth, it would need to look for an influx of highly skilled workers and entrepreneurs.

For this, as well as residential real estate, continued development of sectors such as health care and education would be important, he indicated.

“If you want to sustain an economy based on research and development, you need that kind of industry,” he said.

“If that is the goal, it needs to be a more comprehensive strategy than just opening up more real estate.”

He added that the UAE was adopting such a strategy – as seen, for example, with the introduction of the golden visa, which is open to the likes of scientists, entrepreneurs, investors and “outstanding” students, among others.

The announcement in 2021 that citizenship would be available to some expatriates is another move in this direction.

“Now that the cities are largely built up, it’s plausible their desire for construction workers … may taper slightly, because you’re not building the entire city, but the UAE has an insatiable desire to build,” said David Roberts, an associate professor at King’s College London and author of Security Politics in the Gulf Monarchies

Updated: June 10, 2023, 3:00 AM