How ‘Dubaization’ Transformed Skylines

Idiosyncrasies abound in nations rich in resources but poor in traditional architecture.

This story appears in the February 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Giant shopping malls and soaring hotels have redrawn the skylines of cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi. In the sweltering desert, indoor ski slopes are dusted in snow and flower gardens bloom. “They are constructing an artificial world that is completely disconnected from nature,” says Roger Grasas, a Spanish photographer whose project “Min Turab”—an Arabic expression meaning “from the earth”—looks at the idiosyncratic landscapes of the oil-fueled development boom in the Gulf region.

These cities—like Dubai, Doha, and Abu Dhabi—“have in a way rejected the past,” says Grasas. “Before the oil these were poor countries. [Now] they are relating the new with something better.”

Rapid development without regard for history or context was dubbed “dubaization” by Yasser Elsheshtawy, a former architecture professor at United Arab Emirates University. Open land has been covered with energy-guzzling high-rises that “enable inequality and segregation,” says Elsheshtawy, and historic neighborhoods are at risk. One silver lining, though, is that urban development has improved roads and public transportation, which benefits everyone.

Efforts to preserve “the odd fort, palace, or souk” are often geared toward tourism, Elsheshtawy says. But recently, as traditional architecture is disappearing, he’s perceived a newfound pressure to preserve “whatever is left.”