The prestigious Burj Khalifa, presently the world’s tallest building, provides luxury housing and office spaces, along with shopping, entertainment, and dining, in the prime Downtown Dubai development. Affluent investors from India, who own almost 20 percent of the nine hundred apartments in the tower, have recently been joined by a buyer elite from countries affected by the Arab Spring and other anti-government protests, such as Egypt, Iran, or Lebanon, in search of safe havens for their funds. (I) Every night, Burj Khalifa is bathed in the glittering lights of the famed dancing fountains that erupt at its feet to the sounds of Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman’s “Con te partirò,” the Arab dance hit “Shik Shak Shok,” and Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” But a little more than a half hour’s drive away, the construction site of Emirates City—another development envisaged to include picturesque lakes and parks, lavish shopping facilities, mosques, five-star hotels, and educational and medical facilities—stands deserted. Sand-shrouded, the only living creatures in the vicinity are a few camels grazing along its perimeter. Both sites were born out of the same investment boom after the turn of the millennium that attracted expatriates of various nationalities, especially Indian, British, and Pakistani, to buy properties in the United Arab Emirates, yet they seem worlds apart. (II) While the Burj Khalifa stands as a shining testimony to the global power of real estate speculation, Emirates City—employing similar sales tactics but operating on a lower level of investments—fell victim to the financial collapse of 2008 when mortgage flows needed for its completion dried up. Located ten miles inland, in Ajman, the smallest emirate in the UAE, this monstrous gathering of concrete has become a monument to the shattered dreams of small-scale investors from Iran, Pakistan, India, and the Middle Eastern diasporas across Europe and North America.
Strategically positioned directly along Emirates Road, a key traffic corridor in the UAE, Emirates City was one of the last schemes to jump on the Dubai bandwagon of glamorous supply-led development. Racing to outdo each other in demonstrating economic vitality through breathtaking architectural gestures, real estate development companies competing for Arab and non-Arab investors produced such grand visions as the gigantic Palm Jumeirah land reclamation project, which was followed by the even grander Palm Jebel Ali and Palm Deira proposals and the now-stranded islands of The World. (III) These interrelated large-scale developments tried to emulate the earlier success of developments such as Downtown Dubai or Dubai Marina by way of borrowing, replicating, and amplifying such infrastructural typologies as gated communities, business districts, or waterfront developments. In keeping with this spirit, the master plan of Emirates City envisaged the construction of around seventy-two mostly residential towers bearing evocative names such as Paradise Lake Towers, Goldcrest Dreams, and Fortune Residency Tower. But work on the site commenced only a few months before the onset of the global financial crisis and was soon halted thereafter. A handful of towers were topped out but most were abandoned at half height, while others barely rose above their foundations. In spring 2014, a few workers were hired to infrequently attend to the site and give the impression of progress in order to fend off legal or government interventions, and to convince investors to resume their payments. In many places, the concrete skeletons had already fallen into severe disrepair, with reinforcement girders laid bare by erosion. Although several towers have now been completed and work on other towers has slowly picked up, a pattern emerges that echoes the dynamics of other international investment hubs: while successfully branded urban centers such as Downtown Dubai are attracting global interest and prices are spiraling upward once again, peripheral sites such as Emirates City are left behind.
Even those towers that appear finished on the outside remain uninhabitable, and investors cannot take possession of their property because Emirates City lacks the most rudimentary infrastructure, such as road access. In stark contrast to the glossy advertisements depicting solitary skyscrapers amid greenery on the shores of an artificial lake, the ghostly structures are packed close together like a nightmarish vision of Blade Runner in the desert. None of the towers sport the advertised glamorous crowns of penthouses or iconic architectural features. The monotonous replication of the same template of podium-towers—bland apartment floors sitting on top of a multilevel parking structure—adds to their alien appearance and disconnection from the desert surroundings. Looking at the plans, it becomes clear that the vision of an “avant-garde lifestyle” would never have materialized even if building had been completed. (IV) Ignoring the fact that the towers are located in the middle of nowhere at a density that rivals Asian cities such as Hong Kong or Singapore, densely packed one-bedroom apartments were sold as free-floating commodities valued in terms of unit numbers and promised amenities.
Iranians and members of the Indian diaspora from southeast Africa along with the odd European investor were lured to this fictitious environment, and into risking their life savings by the combination of “true 100 percent freehold ownership” (a popular advertising slogan on numerous property websites at the time of writing) and the promise of resident visas for the immediate family. But hopes for residency were dashed when, in 2008, the government of Ajman renounced the prospect of residency visas for property investors, causing a further drop in market values. (V) Since then, blogs have been awash with the concerns of remote investors still clinging on to promises of resumed building work and desperately trying to get hold of some real value, fighting their way through the online jungle of property resale and swap deals. (VI) On the ground, the stagnating building site is screened off from passersby on Emirates Road by a giant billboard with, in large golden letters, the rather ambivalent slogan, “It can only grow BIGGER the next time you pass by.”
The sites of Downtown Dubai and Emirates City indicate, on the one hand, the triumphant excess of the politically administered “liberalization” of global capital flows and, on the other, the many casualties left in the wake of its cycles of boom and bust. What binds their fortunes together is how an architectural aesthetics that signals luxurious quality and style is being deployed to connect actors from around the world and to tie their wealth to property options based soley on financial speculation. In our current era of what may best be described as “affective capitalism”—tapping, channeling, and directing capital flows by utilizing emotional ties—contemporary architecture is increasingly implicated in the maneuvers and manipulations of speculative economies, and in the process is being transformed from a physical environment in which human lives are lived into a mode of operation.
See the annual reports on real estate investment by the Dubai Land Department (2016).
Key to opening up this market was a decree by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoom in May 2002 which permitted foreign investors to aquire property in selected projects by government-related developers such as Emaar (the developers behind Downtown Dubai) and Nakheel (the developers behind the Palm Islands). A new property act passed in March 2006 extended these rights to a series of dedicated special development zones. The geographic background of investors (with a sizeable proportion of investors from India, Pakistan and Iran as well as Middle Eastern diaspora communities) has been relatively stable thoughout the ups and downs of the real estate market; see the annual reports by the Dubai Land Department, the government department responsible for registering real estate transactions in Dubai, e.g. the 2015 report (Dubai Land Department, 2016).
See S. Ramos (2010) Dubai Amplified: The Engineering of a Port Geography. Farnham: Ashgate.140–163.
Along with “modern gracious living” and “substance to your dreams,” “avant-garde lifestyle” is an attribute used in the description of Emirates City properties marketed to foreign investors. See for example “Paradise Lakes Tower B7” (2016).
“Ajman Freezes Freehold Visas“ (2008). In June 2011, the UAE’s federal government introduced a new three-year visa scheme for property investors in order to boost the country’s economy: “UAE Extends Property Investor Visas to 3 Years.“
See the long-running discussions in online forums such as the Emirates City Forum (http://emiratescity.org/) as well as a series of online petitions by aggrieved buyers to the government of Ajman (e.g. “Ajman Real-estate Regulatory Agency (ARRA) and Ajman Government: Refund our Money“.