Urban development in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is one characterized by an exceptionally unique set of conditions: primarily, rapid economic growth and modernization over a very short period of time. This intense urbanization was essentially “propelled by an oil-based economy” (Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research), while also simultaneously dealing with a constantly growing expatriate population. Coupled with an overflow of iconic architecture, a celebrated skyline, and an ambitious infrastructure, the country as a whole has set exceptionally unique standards in terms of city-creation, from both an urban and a regional perspective.

Established in 1971, the country is comprised of seven emirates- Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Ras Al Khaimah, and Fujairah- each with its own unique urban development, history, and urban conditions.

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The United Arab Emirates in 1971. Since its establishment, the country has undergone an architectural and urban revolution_©Gulf News

One of the many things the United Arab Emirates is defined by is the relevance of large-scale urban developers, most notably in Dubai- however, this is a concept that extends to the greater GCC region as a whole. Large-scale master planning is exceptionally common in terms of community creation, with a common theme being top-up developments centered around gated communities, with little social input. Developers vary in size, scale, and stakeholder composition, with common examples including DAMAC, Nakheel, Emaar, Dubai Properties, and Sobha Realty, to name a few. Furthermore, the country is characterized by an exceptional amount of iconic, large-scale projects, covering a wide range of different typologies, such as the prestigious Louvre and Guggenheim Museums in Abu Dhabi and The Burj Khalifa in Dubai. 

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Exterior shot of The Louvre in Abu Dhabi, one of the most iconic projects in the country_©Architectural Digest

One of the most notorious large-scale, community-oriented urban developments in the country, as well as the region as a whole, is none other than Abu Dhabi’s MASDAR, which defines itself as “a commercially viable city that offers the highest quality of life within the lowest environmental footprint” (News.Masdar). Considering that Abu Dhabi as a whole is shifting its focus towards more community-centric developments: “Abu Dhabi’s 2030 urban-structure framework implicitly supports the idea of more community centers: an overarching principle is to support the values, social arrangements, culture, mores and traditions of the Emirati community. While U-turn lanes and efficient sewers are necessary in a modern city, a sense of community is vital, too.” (Balalaa, 2021).

While community-led urban development practices are not particularly widespread in the United Arab Emirates, it has been a growing trend in more recent years. This is particularly important in the case of the young emirate, notably considering its population build-up- which is primarily comprised of expatriates living in the country on short-term visas. Allowing for community-centered projects can help foster a sense of identity and belonging in a country that is often faced with issues of transience due to its visa processes.

Despite the aforementioned, community-led initiatives exist- with a relatively notable example being neighborhood councils. These neighborhood councils have been established in numerous emirates, aiming to empower residents to engage in decision-making related to local development projects; for example, Abu Dhabi has a Department of Community Development, of which many aims are to “build integrated communities” (addcd.gov.ae). Public Participation Programs also exist, in which inputs are acquired from the country’s citizens on various urban development projects, notably for infrastructural projects. An evident example launched by the UAE Government, “Designing the Next 50” is essentially “a public participation project to shape the future of the UAE” (u.ae).

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Exhibitions being showcased in The Alserkal Avenue, allowing for intergenerational and intercultural bridging in this community-oriented space._©The National News

A common and recursive theme in terms of community-driven projects is through culturally driven projects. The United Arab Emirates has supported numerous community-led developments through an exceptional emphasis on culture and high-arts, through numerous festivals and heritage preservation efforts. One such example is Alserkal Avenue in Dubai. Alserkal Avenue stands as a dynamic urban regeneration project in Dubai, illustrating the adaptive reuse of industrial zones for cultural and creative industries. Centered in the middle of an industrial zone, Alserkal Avenue has become a series of converted warehouses which act as art galleries, studios, and collaborative workspaces represents a successful example of adaptive urbanism in terms of typology and spatiality. Local artists, urban designers, and entrepreneurs have been integral in driving this mixed-use development, fostering a creative cluster that aligns with global urban trends.

Lower-scale community-centric projects also exist across the different emirates, which often include adaptive buildings. One such example is in Al Ain, a city in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, which includes the Al Qattara Oasis- a prime example of community-driven urban revitalization. Through participatory design processes and adaptive reuse strategies, the center was totally transfigured, integrating heritage preservation with contemporary urban development principles. Local stakeholders actively engaged in the restoration project, ensuring the incorporation of vernacular architecture and sustainable urban design practices. This concept is also applied in Dubai’s Al Fahidi Historical District, which is another urban renewal project that also hosts culturally driven events, such as the “sikka” art fair.

The “sikka” art fair is one of many artistically-driven projects to be developed in the country, being showcased in one of the most historically and culturally relevant areas of the city: Al Fahidi Historical District._©The National

And so, considering the aforementioned, it may be clearly established that the United Arab Emirates has begun emphasizing more community-oriented urban developments in more recent years. Once again, considering the young age of the country since its establishment in 1971, this is an exceptionally progressive step towards a series of sustainable long-term urban goals. And so, this newfound emphasis is one that can celebrate a deeply community-centric and humanistic interconnection between individual and society, rather than a sole production of architecture and urban planning: the shift towards community-led urban development in the UAE is one that deeply enriches interpersonal, social, and cultural relations in the young emirate.


2020: Towards the next 50: The Official Portal of the UAE government (no date) 2020: Towards the next 50 | The Official Portal of the UAE Government. Available at: https://u.ae/en/about-the-uae/the-uae-government/2020-towards-the-next-50 (Accessed: 22 September 2023). 

Balalaa, A.A. (2021) Community centres bring life to Urban Development Projects, The National. Available at: https://www.thenationalnews.com/community-centres-bring-life-to-urban-development-projects-1.382317 (Accessed: 22 September 2023). 

Masdar News. Available at: https://news.masdar.ae/en/news/2019/05/12/10/11/the-importance-of-community-driven-urban-developments (Accessed: 22 September 2023). 

Vision mission values – addcd.gov.ae. Available at: https://addcd.gov.ae/en/Who-We-Are/Vision-Mission-Values (Accessed: 22 September 2023). 


Elham Al Dweik is a Jordanian-Palestinian architect based in the United Arab Emirates. Alongside an architectural background, she maintains a keen interest in reading, writing, and literary reflection.