Dubai’s population is surging. How can it prepare?

An increase of about 90,000 in 12 months requires further careful planning, experts say

Powered by automated translation

Dubai's population is surging. According to the Dubai Statistics Centre, the emirate's population has increased by 86,607 in a year hitting 3,597,829 on Friday.

The growth amplifies a post-coronavirus surge that resulted in Dubai's population hitting the 3.5 million mark in April 2022.

This increase is expected to place pressure on infrastructure and amenities, as well as drive huge demand for new schools, better public transport and hundreds of thousands of new homes.

Many new arrivals are expected to be from Russia and sub-Saharan Africa, in addition to typical markets such as Europe and the Indian subcontinent.

The Oasis by Emaar is one recently announced project set to house 7,000 residential units, while the resurrected Jebel Ali Palm is expected to eventually accommodate about 250,000 people when complete.

It is crucial to address several key issues when considering urban planning and transportation systems
Dr Alexandra Gomes, London School of Economics. 

Meanwhile, the Damac Lagoons cluster of 11 themed residential communities and the 3-million-square-metre Tilal Al Ghaf community off Hessa Street are expected to add significant pressure to existing infrastructure once completed in around 2026.

The developments are some of a huge number of communities expected to swell the emirate’s population.

The rise also underlines how the post-Covid trend of people flocking to Dubai is no one-off.

Even Dubai’s 2040 Urban Master Plan aims to transform the emirate, making it more sustainable and interconnected to cater to an expected population of 5.8 million.

How does a city prepare? The National spoke to several experts.

Moving people around the city

Free-flowing roads and well-managed transport systems are at the heart of an effective modern city, and with a population expecting rapid growth, planning for Dubai’s transport network is more important than ever.

With plans to switch to net-zero emission public transport by 2050, the emirate's Roads and Transport Authority is launching a transformative phase of travel networks around the city.

More charging stations for electric vehicles and access to last-mile solutions such as electric bikes and scooters to encourage more people on to public transport are solutions already up and running.

“Managing transportation is a complex task both within the Middle East and elsewhere,” said Dr Alexandra Gomes at the London School of Economics.

“Public transport faces challenges due to insufficient investment in many cities worldwide and these challenges become even more pronounced in cities with low-density development and easy access to cheap petrol.

“This situation makes it more difficult to implement rail systems, while necessitating increased investment in road infrastructure to accommodate the growing motorisation rates.”

Wider roads to cope with more traffic, with double-decker highways are some options to ease congestion on key routes, solutions already introduced in Abu Dhabi and Kuwait.

In Dubai, a new Traffic Control Centre in Al Barsha will increase smart system cover to 60 per cent of the city’s road network to reduce bottlenecks and accidents, while providing instant traffic information for motorists.

By achieving higher densities, cities can support various rail systems such as trains, monorails or trams, which can be supplemented by bus systems and active modes of transport in areas with lower densities.

“In the UAE, we love our private cars and the convenience they provide,” said Monica Menendez, an associate dean of engineering at New York University Abu Dhabi and director of the Research Centre for Interacting Urban Networks.

“As the population surges, we need to think of other [mobility] alternatives that are more sustainable from an economic, social and environmental perspective.

“Public transport has a much smaller spatial and environmental footprint than cars, so it not only reduces traffic congestion but also emissions.

“We have seen a lot of advances when it comes to both information and technology and could leverage such advances like location-based services, data platforms and autonomous vehicles to significantly increase the appeal, efficiency, and reliability of public transport services.”

The challenge of soaring rents

Rapid population growth in Dubai, fuelled by geopolitics, has driven up house prices and rents at rates rarely seen this century.

The UAE’s much-lauded handling of the global pandemic made the country an attractive place for many in the post-Covid era, while the war in Ukraine has forced tens of thousands more to relocate to Dubai.

That led to a series of bank-busting real estate deals that set new property records in the emirate.

In 2022, two villas on The Palm Jumeirah sold for $76 million and $82 million, while an Emirates Hills mansion was put up for sale for $204 million in May.

While the mega sales offer a boost to government revenue through a Dubai Land Department levy on direct property transfer fees, other pressures are felt elsewhere.

Dr Frederic Schneider, an economist and consultant on Gulf labour and human capital issues, said while a booming property market could top-up spending for local infrastructure, the skills market could face disruption due to higher rents and sale prices.

“The most direct impact of the sales is on government revenue,” he said.

“On the wider economy, residential property investment is correlated with economic growth in the short term, but with a long-term relation that is zero in the best case and negative in the worst.

“This bonanza has stoked speculation that the influx of foreign ultra-high net worth individuals (UHNWIs) and the resulting boom in the ultra-prime property market could carry the UAE’s post-oil economy to sustained heights.

“The effect of billionaires, specifically, on the economy is complex.

“Extreme wealth can come from different sources, including entrepreneurship, inheritance, rent seeking, and nepotism.

“Instead of attracting billionaires – who either never were or have ceased to be entrepreneurs – it would be better to attract highly-skilled professionals and knowledge workers, who may become billionaires through founding SMEs and creating jobs.

“This means that even if the buyers of ultra-prime property live in Dubai, the local economy will likely not benefit if they are heirs, oligarchs or princelings but, maybe, if they are entrepreneurs and move their business with them.”

Building the city of tomorrow

Dubai has already ramped up major infrastructure works to cope with the influx of people.

A metro extension – Route 2020 – to bring passengers to the World Expo site opened in 2021 but new stations were also constructed in residential areas such as The Gardens, Discovery Gardens and Al Furjan.

It brought major communities close to affordable and accessible public transport.

A further Metro extension is planned for growing districts such as Mirdiff, Dubai Creek Harbour and Dubai Silicon Oasis.

Bridges such as Infinity Bride that opened in 2022 have improved connectivity across Dubai Creek while new roads have improved access across the city and to other emirates.

But a major plan launched by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, in 2021 shows a glimpse of the future.

The Dubai 2040 Urban Master Plan was published as the city rebounded strongly from the pandemic, with events and conferences returning and people pouring into the emirate on the back of its pro-business sentiment.

The ambitious framework lays down how the city is going to sustainably adapt to the population swell in terms of schools, hospitals, economic zones, parks and transport while protecting heritage and the environment.

Development is to focus on five main urban areas – three existing and two new. The existing urban centres are heritage neighbourhoods Deira and Bur Dubai, the financial centre of Downtown and Business Bay, and tourism and entertainment centres Dubai Marina and JBR. The new centres are exhibition and events gateway Expo City Dubai and innovation hub, Dubai Silicon Oasis Centre.

Spaces designated for educational and health centres will increase by 25 per cent while beaches will be extended, with about 60 per cent of Dubai comprising nature reserves and natural areas.

Crucially, it aims for 55 per cent of the population to live within 800 metres of a main public transport station.

Dubai’s efforts to build public transport have already been hugely successful. Soaring numbers of people are flocking to both lines of the Metro and this plan builds on those firm foundations.

The plan also envisages green corridors linking the service areas, residential areas and workplaces, easing the movement of pedestrians, bicycles and sustainable mobility means across the city.

Homes for Emiratis are also included, with strategic land banks reserved for housing beyond 2040.

Dubai, therefore, is thinking decades ahead.

Updated: June 28, 2023, 6:45 AM