In Showpiece City: How Architecture Made Dubai (2020), Todd Reisz, an architect and long-standing expert on Gulf cities, asks the same question, over and again: when dealing with the urban history of a city or even an emirate, where is the best place to begin?
In 2014, the curatorial team responsible for Lest We Forget: Structures of Memory in the UAE, the country’s first national pavilion for the International Architecture Exhibition at Venice Biennale, faced a greater challenge when charged with charting the architectural history of a nation.
The art historian Michele Bambling and her team took the long view of the previous century but chose to focus on the 1970s and 1980s, when traditional Bedouin culture evolved into the increasingly settled and urban society that defines life in the Emirates today.
The result was a list of architecturally significant structures that illustrated broader issues that shaped the UAE’s urban fabric as concrete and stainless steel replaced date palms and coral stones as the Emirati construction materials of choice.
This list included landmarks such as Sharjah’s Blue Souq and Bank Street, Dubai World Trade Centre, Deira Clocktower and Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation, alongside long-gone or lesser-known structures such as Abu Dhabi's Old Central Souq, the British ambassador's residence in Abu Dhabi and Dubai’s original Airport Terminal 1.
Lest We Forget was accompanied by a publication that contained comments from locally based and international academics, as well as architects, historians and engineers.
They include Amer Moustafa, an associate professor of urban planning at the American University of Sharjah.
“Such unprecedented transformation, however, has posed a challenge to local identity in the UAE,” he wrote.
“Who is an Emirati? What characterises an Emirati culture? And what inspires a sense of community, belonging and continuity?”
His comment pointed to the subtle distinction between the buildings and landmarks that have come to represent the UAE’s architectural identity, and those responsible for forging a new federal sense of national identity – "Emiratiness" – among peoples from different emirates.
These questions sit at the heart of Matthew MacLean’s research, which focuses on the roles played by infrastructure, transport and suburbanisation in the fabrication of a grassroots sense of Emirati identity, reinforced through the quotidian experiences of mobility and housing, study and work.
“If you move beyond external appearances, architecture in the UAE has created the daily circumstances that allow people to interact in ways that they couldn’t do before,” the historian says.
“When people began to drive from their homes in the Northern Emirates to their jobs in Abu Dhabi or Dubai, they began to meet people from all over the country, and it’s that experience of interaction and spatial change that, over five or six decades, created a new sense of national identity.
“Think of the National Day celebrations. It takes place in cars on a road across all of the emirates. Other than in Gulf countries, I can’t think of anywhere else where that happens.
"That makes the UAE’s roads very public spaces but also very private, especially if you have tinted windows.”
Mr MacLean’s assessment of the historical role played by roads in nation rather than city-building chimes with Rana Al Mutawa’s analysis of the roles of malls and coffee shops in building contemporary Emirati culture and society.
The University of Oxford-based academic sees these structures as 21st century equivalents of the traditional fareej or majlis, semi-private spaces that encourage people with different values and cultural backgrounds to meet and interact, in person and at a distance.
In “Glitzy” Malls and Coffee Shops: Everyday Places of Belonging and Social Contestation in Dubai, Al Mutawa describes how these spaces, often derided as spaces that lack culture and authenticity, have been subtly transformed by Emiratis into places where they can “create, recreate, and negotiate [their] culture and identity”.
Al Mutawa argues that for Emirati women, in particular, malls provide an opportunity to observe, be observed and to experiment in safety, a process that can result in debates around dress, values and behaviour that often continue at home, in the media and online.
“They play a role in beginning discussions about culture and identity,” she writes. “Behaviour that critics might consider daring or immoral can become commonplace as more individuals practise it in such public places over time”.
This emphasis on the important role of the quotidian certainly resonates with Emiratis such as the Dubai-based artist, writer, film curator, blogger and podcaster Hind Mezaina, who makes highly a personal selection when choosing the building that played a formative role in her life.
“I didn’t really engage with the World Trade Centre when I was growing up,” says Mezaina, a long-standing observer of Dubai whose recent solo exhibition, Wonder Land, investigated the impact of the pandemic on the city’s urban fabric.
"I would drive around it but the Hyatt Regency was a place where my dad had membership, my mum would use the swimming pool, and I would hang out in the Galleria because the cassette shop was there and there was a cinema, and an ice rink and an ice-cream place."
Alamira Reem Al Hashemi, an urbanist, architect and historian, and the first Emirati woman to be awarded a doctorate in urban planning, said buildings such as the Hyatt Regency and the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company housing compound, her early family home on Abu Dhabi’s Corniche, played a fundamental role in forming the collective memory of the new country and providing Emiratis with a newfound sense of belonging and place.
As well as serving on the UAE Modern Heritage technical committee, which provides technical expertise and advice to the Heritage Council, Al Hashemi was recently voted on to the all-Emirati board of the Emirates Planning Association.
A 13-strong panel of planners, urban designers, architects and academics from across the UAE, which includes the veteran urban planner, Ahmed Alkhoori, who presented plans for Al Ain to the UAE’s founding father, Sheikh Zayed, the EPA is a non-profit dedicated to creating sustainable, better-planned cities and communities that are people-centric.
“We want to pass on much better, well-planned cities to our children,” says the EPA’s executive director, the urban planner Salem Alshafiei. “Cities aren’t about buildings or roads, they’re about people and everything else should be designed to serve them.”
So, if anything is a measure of the UAE’s development in its first half-century, do not look to the contours of the country’s skylines or the efficiency of its roads, or even the excellence of its many and varied cultural institutions.
Look instead to the wealth of local talent, the planners, architects, academics and artists from every emirate, who now form and lead the local and national initiatives that will shape the urban future of the Emirates.
Their aim is the same as that of the UAE’s founding fathers, 50 years before them, to build a nation defined by a sense of pride, belonging and common purpose.