Few nations have undergone a metamorphosis as emphatic as the United Arab Emirates, [1] where a once barren desert land of nomads, small ports, and fishing villages turned into a global hub for finance and tourism in the 50 years since its founding. These changes were embedded in the evolution of its built environment as formerly distinct emirates grew to become continuous urban areas [2] during the mid-20th century oil boom in the Persian Gulf. 

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Downtown Dubai ©Getty Images

Its current urban morphology is a testament to the results of top-down development fashioned by the modern order[3] boasting the world’s tallest building, luxurious shopping malls, artificial islands shaped like palm trees, and innumerable dazzling skyscrapers. 

Before this startling transformation, the population of the 18th and 19th-century Trucial States of the region’s British protectorate lived in barasti huts made of wooden frames with palm fronds tied to form walls [4] or in Bedouin tents made of goat and camel hair or sheep wool.[5] The rich, including merchants involved in the thriving pearling industry, inhabited homes made of locally available materials like stone, mud-brick, or coral with wind towers as cooling devices.[6]

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Reconstructed Barasti-Style Home ©Joseph Hobbs

Residences were planned around courtyards, adhering to cultural traditions regarding gender segregation, with traditional Islamic elements such as archways and mashrabiya. There was a strong emphasis on walls as structural, environmental, and segregational barriers. Streets were laid out organically in labyrinthine patterns to deal with the hot and arid desert climate with building typologies including mosques, residential buildings, markets, and defensive fortifications [8] like the Al Maqta watchtower in Abu Dhabi.

The aftermath of the First World War and Great Depression saw the pearling industry declined with the discovery of cultured alternatives from Japan,[9] further compounded by the devastation of the Second World War. The country’s first airport was constructed at Sharjah in 1932 as early explorations for oil commenced during the mid-1930s.[10] 

More changes were afoot in the following decade as oil expeditions continued and Sheikh Shakhbut of Abu Dhabi built the Qasr Al Hosn fort. An imposing structure that dominated the skyline and featured many traditional elements such as pointed facade arches and fortified walls, it is currently the city’s oldest surviving building.

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Qasr Al Hosn ©Abu Dhabi Culture

The discovery and export of oil from within the United Arab Emirates in the late 1950s and mid-1960s proved to be the initial catalyst for the irreversible changes that were to take place. The conditions that precipitated industrialization in the West did not exist in the UAE at the time [11] and its modernization was borne of the need for infrastructure to support migrant labour and local desires for contemporary levels of living comfort. 

Globalization introduced concrete and modernism to the region, [12] with a steady influx of expatriates from South and East Asia who sought employment in the burgeoning oil-driven economy. Newly built road networks allowed a greater variety of building materials to be imported and transported inland. With this, a form of mid-century modernism with a middle-eastern feel arose to address the necessities of housing and office spaces.

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Bank Street Apartments Sharjah ©Darren Bradley
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Al Ibrahimi Building Abu Dhabi ©Darren Bradley

The old urban cores of Dubai and Sharjah containing mid-rise apartments, banks, office complexes, and commercial districts serve as evidence of this development during the 1970s and 1980s that saw the completion of the Bank Street Apartments in Sharjah, the Deira Tower in Dubai, and the Ibrahimi Building in Abu Dhabi. These projects typified the era’s utilitarian modernism with white concrete facades and latticed exterior shading devices.[13] 

Postmodernism brought contrived ornamentation to facades with arches pasted on every building as cosmetic homages to local history. However, results bordered on kitsch without the requisite critical discourse on modern and postmodern principles.[14] Dubai’s World Trade Center completed in 1979, shifted the trajectory of urban development in the city, became one of the period’s emblems, and signified the trends that would follow. 

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Dubai World Trade Center ©Gulf News Archives

Buildings grew taller despite abundant available land as rulers consolidated power while developers chased marketable images to attract tourists and foreign investments. A competition for icons commenced in Dubai during the 1990s – initially peaking with the Burj Al-Arab in 1999, which became a cultural landmark and announced the United Arab Emirates’ arrival on the global architectural stage.[15]  

Architecture became a medium for expressing wealth as glass, marble, and granite were slathered onto walls. A decade of frenzied construction ensued, fuelled by starchitecture, migrant labour and the vision of the UAE’s rulers, which revamped the urban landscape.

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 Burj Al Arab ©Emirates Holidays

Land values rose, real estate speculation gained steam, wealth flooded into the country, and further icons like the Emirates Towers were delivered.[16] The competition for attention climaxed with the Burj Khalifa, symbolizing and announcing the extravagant ambitions of the nation’s rulers to the world. Ambitious infrastructural and cultural projects such as the Dubai Metro and Louvre Abu Dhabi were also pursued, for similar purposes. 

Skyscraper islands formed in the hearts of previously low-rise areas, with little focus on creating cohesive urban environments, and coloured curtain-wall facades became the norm despite their propensity for heat gain in local climates. As compensation, building envelopes were entirely sealed and air-conditioned, disconnecting users from their context.

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Abu Dhabi Central Market ©Nigel Young

Upscale shopping malls employed these systems to move public space indoors, often replacing older commercial districts, incorporating ornamental wind catchers, arches, screens, and calligraphy, superficially layered to depict a bygone era of vernacular architecture. 

Examples include the Dubai Mall, Madinat Jumeirah, or the reconstructed Abu Dhabi Central Marketthat replaced and gentrified a historic commercial zone, with high-rises and a shopping centre. [17] This shift reinforced exclusionary socio-economic structures through the commodification of the built environment. [18]

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Wind Towers In Dubai Heritage Village Al Shindagha ©Joseph Hobbs

Alternatively, there have also been calls for the conservation and reconstruction of heritage structures as museums or cultural sites, as seen in the restoration and promotion of Qasr Al Hosn, Al Shindagha, Al Mahatta Airport, and Al Fahidi Fort as sites for heritage tourism. 

The past decade also saw the incorporation of bioclimatic and environmentally sensitive concepts into buildings like the Al Bahr Towers in Abu Dhabi, [19] amid concerns over high carbon footprints and urban heat islands. 

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Al Bahr Towers Abu Dhabi ©Aedas

While the progress made by the United Arab Emirates is nothing short of awe-inspiring, the country’s limited acknowledgment of its roots betrays a lack of faith in indigenous systems, [20] visible in the hegemony of imported building methods. 

However, the country’s inhabitants and rulers have never designed to look backwardas evidenced by constant architectural innovation over the decades. They have constantly forged ahead, and in many ways, the contemporary built environment of the United Arab Emirates already reflects the aspirations of its people. Thus, with further critical discourses on building methods and socioeconomic inclusivity, a uniquely Emirati way of building may emerge in the years to come.


  1. Mahmoud Abedi & Hosein Soltanzadeh (2014) The Interaction between Tradition and Modernity in Contemporary Architecture of Persian Gulf States: Case Study of United Arab Emirates, International Journal of Research in Humanities and Social Studies Volume 1, Issue 1, November 2014, pp 24-34   [1] [5] [20]
  2. Salma Samar Damluji (2006) The Architecture Of The United Arab Emirates [2] [3] [6] [9] [10] [11] [12] [14]
  3. Joseph J. Hobbs (2017) Heritage In The Lived Environment Of The United Arab Emirates And The Gulf Region, Archnet-IJAR: International Journal of Architectural Research, Volume 11, Issue 2 , July 2017, pp 55-82 [4] [8] [19]
  4. Darren Bradley (2018) Mid-Century Modernism in the UAE: A Tale of Three Cities, https://www.darrenbradleyphotography.com, Web [13]
  5. Mohammad Saeed Al-Shehhi (2017) A Potted History Of Dubai Architecture – From Low-Rise To The Burj Khalifa, From Local To Luxury, From Souqs To Sustainable, The National, Web [15] [16]
  6. Yasser Elsheshtawy(2008)The Reconstruction of Abu Dhabi’s Central Market, Viewpoints Special Edition: Architecture and Urbanism in the Middle East, pp 45-48 [17]
  7.  Kevin Mitchell (2008) Dubai: Selling a Past to Finance the Future? Viewpoints Special Edition: Architecture and Urbanism in the Middle East, pp 49-51 [18]

Jerry recently became an architect, but is still exploring what the title means to him. He arrived at architectural journalism as it seemed to be the most logical medium to combine his education and interests. Additionally, his healthy obsessions with music, sketching, binge watching and reading keep him fairly occupied for the majority of his waking hours