The Modern Day Crossroads of the World: Dubai

Future Cities is a collaboration between Skift and MasterCard exploring how major destinations are using smart design to meet the needs of rapid urbanization.


Emerging as the modern day crossroads connecting east and west, Dubai is as innovative as it is ambitious. Known for iconic buildings and cutting edge city planning, Dubai has become a leader in smart city design, not only in the Middle East, but globally. Its self-aware lack of contentedness has sparked aggressive goals by city officials, who aim to not only make Dubai the most visited destination in the world but also the most connected.

According to MasterCard’s 2015 Global Destination Cities Index, Dubai is the unmistakable world champion when you look at the size of the city’s resident population and look at the number of international overnight visitors that the city attracts per resident. Dubai went from 4.9 visitors per resident in 2009 to a remarkable 5.7 in 2015. The chart below speaks for itself.


Explore how Dubai is shaping the city of the future below.

1. A Playground for Architects and City Developers

If you’re looking for proof of rapid city transformation, look no further than Dubai’s ever-expanding skyline. As synonymous with the term “futuristic” as the hoverboard was to Marty McFly, what was once an undeveloped port on the desert’s rim now looks like something out of a sci-fi movie.

Since the formation of the UAE in 1971, Dubai has seen a remarkable economic transformation, resulting in massive construction efforts and port expansion. Dubai, which once held nearly 25% of the world’s cranes at the height of the property boom, has become a playground for innovative architects and imaginative city developers.

Dubai in the 1950s vs. Dubai today

Dubai in the 1950s vs. Dubai today

It’s home to the world’s tallest structure (Burj Khalifa, at 2,716 feet), tallest hotel (JW Marriott Marquis), biggest mall (Dubai Mall), and second largest man-made marina (Dubai Marina). It also boasts Burj Al Arab, the only 7-star hotel in the world and Palm Islands, the world’s largest artificial islands.

The city has remained bullish on new developments as well, like the $64.3 billion Dubailand theme park, a 500-foot tall picture frame attraction called Dubai Frame, an opera house, a waterfront boardwalk, and countless others.

Skift Take: While these landmarks bring in tourist dollars, city planners need to account for sustainability issues, namely proper sewage treatment and waste management for its mega-buildings.

2. It Has Ambitious Tourism Goals

Tourism has become a vital part of Dubai’s economic growth.

In 2015, Dubai is projected to attract a remarkable 5.7 visitors per city resident, up from 4.9 in 2009, according to MasterCard. International visitor spending per city resident is estimated at US$4,668, nearly doubling the second ranked Barcelona at $2,793.

Last year, Dubai’s airport processed 71 million international passengers, surpassing the 68.1 million that passed through London Heathrow to become the world’s busiest airport.

At this rate, Dubai may be on track to hit their ambitious tourism goals laid out in the city’s Vision 2020 plan, which seeks to double its number of visitors from 10 million to 20 million by 2020 and becoming the most visited city in the world by international travelers.

In an interview with Skift, Dubai Tourism CEO Issam Kazim said that part of the strategy is to cater to families in order to attain larger arrival numbers and to create more opportunities for visitors to extend their stay in Dubai, whether it be through events and festivals or the city’s burgeoning art scene.

Skift Take: Dubai may have a truly globalized population, but with 80% of the population non-native, does Dubai have a culture to call its own or are they living in a existence manufactured by outsiders? How will this play for travelers seeking authenticity?

3. Becoming a Smart City

With the announcement of the Smart City and Initiative 2021 plans, Dubai is moving the needle towards becoming one of the world’s best-connected cities, enabling its residents and visitors to become more deeply ingrained in the cityscape and better connecting them with its government.

It’s customer service for the 21st Century, with mobile technology fueling seamless interactions. With this, citizens will get direct access to all government services and pay public utility bills like water, electricity and telephone through a single portal.

It’s a rare stance for a government to take. Unlike many governments, Dubai’s is breaking traditional silos and centralizing activities for ease of use.

“As with all cities around the world, as Dubai’s population escalates and as we welcome more and more tourists, there is increased demand on utilities, increased traffic, increased impact on the environment, even more queues,” says Kazim. “A ‘Smart City’ tackles these potential issues by fully embracing modern technology, and in particular leveraging the smart phone in everybody’s hand or pocket, in order to run as efficiently and sustainably as possible. Most importantly a ‘Smart City’ is a city that constantly looks at how to embrace technology to enhance the quality of life for residents and the experience of the city for visitors.

The project rests on six key pillars: transport, communications, infrastructure, electricity, economic services, and urban platform. By 2017, 1,000 government services are slated to “go smart.”



”Our country is today ushering into a new era for the improvement and development of quality of life through this gigantic project which got underway through an unprecedented public-private partnership to make a new reality for all and change the concept of city which the human being lives in so as to live with him through his smart phone and who will be its key pivot,” said Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, Ruler of Dubai, during the project’s launch in December 2014.

Part of the initiative includes the building of a 5-D control room, an immersive surveillance space to oversee government projects and stay abreast of traffic, weather conditions, and emergency situations. For commuters, this means less chance for traffic congestion and up to date information during their ride. Eventually, traffic lights across the city will be able to communicate with each other to aid traffic.

Better connectivity is impacting the private sector as well.

As Dubai seeks to enable the “Internet of Everything,” Wi-Fi and fiber optic networks will fuel millions of sensors embedded in just about everything. This affects the urban landscape outside of governance, from remote offices using the cloud to the monitoring of buildings and security, to mobility and collaboration.

4. Innovating on a Deadline

Many of city’s ambitious projects are set to coalesce during Expo 2020, the 6-month long world fair which Dubai is set to host. The international event is accelerating Dubai as a prime destination for meetings and events with an expected visitor count of 25 million, 70 percent of which coming from overseas. With the world knocking at their doorstep, Dubai has it’s work cut out for them.

To prepare for the influx of visitors, Dubai is rapidly evolving its transportation systems. The Roads and Transport Authority is testing the usage of electric busses and driverless cars with hopes to deploy during Expo. Work is already underway to expand Dubai’s driverless, fully-automated Metro system by 15 km while adding seven new stations.

The city has also begun to equip its taxis with free Wi-Fi readily available for passengers. Plus, the RTA has begun extending the use of the Nol system to taxis, a prepaid card already in use for the city’s metro and bus systems.

For those visitors that are not familiar with Arabic or English, smart, mobile device phased solutions will help guide them around the city’s attractions and transport options.

Free public Wi-Fi for most outdoor spaces is also expected for 2020. Two of Dubai’s most popular public spaces, Jumeirah Beach and Azabeel Park have already received Wi-Fi as part of the Smart City initiative.

“In today’s highly interconnected world, a renewed vision of progress and development based on shared purpose and commitment is key. While a single human mind, an individual country, or a specific community is both unique and remarkable, it is by working collaboratively that we truly advance,” Sheikh Mohammed said during the bid for the Expo.

Future Cities is a collaboration between Skift and MasterCard, exploring how major destinations are preparing for the new age of urban mobility. From connected infrastructure to smart technologies, this series explores how global cities are creating seamless and personalized experiences for visitors and residents. 

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