The singular spire of the Burj al Arab, the world’s tallest building, juts out across the sprawling urban expanse of Dubai’s modern-day skyline. Only a few generations removed from a time where the local inhabitants were some of the poorest people on earth, Dubai has become a poster child for a certain kind of reinvention. Fueled by a modest boom in oil and gas exports in the 20th century, Dubai’s oil output peaked in the early 1990s. Since then, the one-time exporter has become a net importer of oil and natural gas. Under the leadership of former Sultan Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum, Dubai began investing its oil and gas revenues to diversify its economy. Now a pre-eminent transshipment hub handling everything from container vessels to oil and natural gas, refined products and even modest steel production, the local economy’s second life has come to be defined by constant construction and ever-fancier extreme building projects. But all the trappings of wealth come at a price, and during the global economic downturn of 2008-2009, the emirate found itself swimming in debt and in need of a lifeline. Neighboring Abu Dhabi was only too happy to bail out its smaller, independent-minded neighbor (who had, among other things, forged strong economic ties with neighboring Iran). Today the city presses on almost as if the unpleasantries of the downturn never happened, but the dust storms that pummel the city from time to time serve as a reminder that the city’s foundations are quite literally built on sand.
For more on the UAE and Dubai’s future see Chapter 7 of The Absent Superpower.