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Why Dubai is Growing So Fast—And May Eventually Slow Down

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Anyone who’s ever seen a photo of Dubai knows how quickly the city has turned desert into metropolis. And anyone who’s ever stepped foot in the city knows that photos don’t do justice to the massive scale of the city’s ambition. Ski slopes sit adjacent to man-made islands, not far from aquariums encased in enormous shopping malls, and hundreds of high-rise condos, many still awaiting residents.

Now, finding a Dubai hotel with fewer than five stars is harder than it was to find Dubai on a map 30 years ago. That was before the city state—de facto culture capital of the United Arab Emirates—found oil, leveraged its oil, then realized the oil wouldn’t be sustainable, so it diversified its economy into tourism and real estate.

But the cornerstone of Dubai’s economy isn’t oil, it’s logistics: getting people and materials into a city that not long ago was just overheated expanse of desert.

Welcome to Al Maktoum International Airport, Dubai’s second busiest passenger airport (and highly unhappy about being in second place). The current busiest is Dubai International, home of Emirates, one of the world’s biggest airlines. Dubai International will be expanded too, but Al Maktoum, which is part of an even bigger complex called Dubai World Central, will ultimately be bigger and busier.

Last week, Dubai’s ruler Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum endorsed a $32 billion influx of money to start building the world’s largest travel hub. Under a ambitious plan to grow Al Maktoum, the airport aspires to accommodate 200 million people—far bigger than the current busiest airport in Atlanta (94 million passengers a year), as well as Beijing (83 million), and London (72 million). Dubai’s project will take six to eight years and, when finished, is likely to be the go-to crosswords for international travelers, goods, and of course, money. Just watch the promotional video the airport authority already made.

What allows Dubai to grow this fast? The trite answer is oil, but it’s not entirely true. Its leaders wisely knew in the early 2000s that oil wouldn’t last more than a few decades, so it invested in trying to build a more stable economy that would bring in money the old fashioned way, by building a city attractive enough to entice people to come, stay, and cash their paychecks. Dubai’s prowess is impressive, yet not entirely to its own credit. Heightened security on travel to the west after Sept. 11, 2001, in combination with big, populous countries like India and China building new classes of consumers eager to spend their new money, has created a perfect storm for Dubai to cash in.

The bigger question, and the only one that matters, is whether it can keep the party going. Visiting Dubai, I remember being struck by the emptiness. Enormous buildings shoot up practically overnight, then sit vacant. Cafes with fine food from all over the world seemed to have more chefs than patrons. Ample supply, sluggish demand.

For now, there just aren’t that many Emiratis. Ninety percent of Dubai’s population is comprised of guest workers from places like India, Bangladesh, and Vietnam—a strange imbalance explored at length in the January 2014 issue of our fine magazine. On top of that, there simply aren’t enough tourists yet.

The wisdom of Dubai’s ruler Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is that building a bigger airport will maintain, and, he hopes, increase, the inflow of foreign cash. It’s hard to imagine Dubai becoming even bigger, even flashier, accommodating even more people. Ultimately, no matter how badly he wants it, Sheik Mohammed won’t be the one who decides Dubai’s fate. It’ll be the newly-middle class Bangladeshi who decides to vacation in Dubai, or buy goods shipped through the UAE, or invest in a company with business dealings in the Emirates. Millions of people will soon be looking for places to bring their increasing income. Dubai’s big bet is whether it’ll be the most attractive place to spend it.