Built on oil

Built on oil

Column Eike Becker, "Immobilienwirtschaft" 03/2018

We miss our connecting flight and experience a desert metropolis in Amman that has to fend for itself, a city far removed from international trade flows, without billions from oil but with millions of refugees. Jordan borders on the crisis-ridden areas of Palestine and Syria; the Jordan and the Dead Sea have all but dried up, not many tourist attractions that have emerged since Roman antiquity. The people here have a hard time getting by in the dusty heat. At least, there is peace.

Oil billions
Four hours later, we can see how different a desert city with oil billions looks. We land with amazement in Abu Dhabi, the booming capital of the UAE, the United Arab Emirates. 8 % of the world's oil reserves are found here under the desert sand of the seven small sheikdoms, which merged into one state after their independence from Great Britain in 1971. Two generations later, the billions from the oil business and consistent state management have sufficed to turn villages of Bedouins and pearl divers into sparkling megacities.

Superlatives are the goal
After overcoming the crisis, skyscrapers are growing back into the sky in Fast Forward mode. Superlatives are the goal for this marketing campaign that has been turned into a city. Dubai has the world's largest airport (70 million passengers per year), the world's highest skyscraper (Burj Khalifa, 820 m), the largest artificial island (The Palm), the hotel with the most stars (Burj al Arab), the longest indoor ski slope (400 m downhill), the largest aquarium (3-storey), etc. Dazed by all the dizzying numbers we stagger into our hotel at 4 o'clock in the morning (3 hours time difference). In keeping with our physical condition, the construction of this tower winds its way into the night sky (of course the world's most sloping skyscraper, Capital Gate, 18% incline. The helipad is straight again).The soaring oil prices and the worldwide low interest rates are still firing a splendidly carefree growth course today. But with the foreseeable end of oil reserves in Dubai, the pressure to become independent increases. Tourism (architecture as a lure) and trade (seaport, airport, east-west, north-south hub) are the bearers of hope. Even if some of the new quarters are only connected to the public sewage treatment plant via what is probably the longest queue of tankers in the world, the next highest building in the world is already being planned by Calatrava ("very high", still secret) and the world's newest, largest major airport in the world will also be opened for the 2020 World Exhibition.

Liberal business climate

Here, the muezzins call to prayer more quietly, the business climate is liberal ("What is good for trade is also good for the country"), ranking 8 out of 180 countries in the Index of Economic Freedom. Per capita GDP is US$ 38,000 (Germany US$ 42,000). When an Emirati marries, he gets a house as a wedding gift. Education is free, employment is guaranteed, taxes are not payable.

Authoritarian regime
But there are political and cultural worlds of difference between the Emirates and Europe.The UAE is an authoritarian state (147th out of 167 countries in the Democracy Index). For every 1 million Emiratis, there are now 9 million foreign migrant workers from all parts of the world, mainly from India and Southeast Asia. Their residence permit is valid for two years, can be extended with an appropriate job but does not have to be renewed. Naturalisation? There is no such thing. Construction worker? Hand over their passport and work for a minimum wage (still better than at home without a job). Unions? Forbidden. Workers' safety? Secondary. Censorship? Applies generally to all digital and analogue information. Sustainability? An alien word. The country has the largest ecological footprint in the world per capita.

That is why the reputation of the UAE and that of Saudi Arabia is threatening to topple. Autocratic monarchies naturally find it difficult to build pluralistic and creative societies. Quick and far-reaching decisions are made here but not necessarily sustainable ones. The Burj Khalifa, as the tallest high-rise building, is a great advertising success that tourists are queuing up for. But in a desert environment with over 50 degrees without shade, the cooling and development costs of such a large-surface, towering volume are absurdly high. Ground-hugging, self-shading building structures, similar to traditional Arabic designs, are much better suited. Why shouldn't the tourists come for these too?

In Germany, people are also queuing up on the subject of high-rise buildings. But not to be the first to get onto the observation deck rather to demonstrate against those responsible. So what is different? When young, autocratic, oil-rich societies (UAE: average age of 30 years) make decisions, then they are more daring and symbolic than those of the pluralistic, older (Germany: 45 years) societies, who want to take various positions into account. So when a high-rise discussion is held in Berlin, the courage reaches a maximum of 120 meters. If at all. Because the city is said to have a special flatness built into its DNA. What kind of history is Dubai supposed to be based on? That of a fishing village? Efficient cities are the result of continuous coordination between as many, opposing protagonists as possible. The results are often more differentiated and often of longer duration. Although I often despair at the slowness and tragedy of many decisions on the brink of failure, there are hardly any more efficient structures when it comes to creating lively and sustainable cities.

Changes from within

In the newly opened Louvre Abu Dhabi, under the 180 m large flat dome, spanning the 55 cubic structures and an open agora, this becomes so clear to me. I see a masterpiece of contemporary architecture by Jean Nouvel. In partnership with the Louvre in Paris and France, a world-class museum has been set in the sea. The opening exhibition offers a polycentric view of the cultural history of mankind. Here you can find a Madonna and a Koran in one display case and the marble bust of the critical enlightener Voltaire smiles next to the dictator Napoleon. The exhibition stands for enlightenment, tolerance and respect. These are the fuel for pluralistic, creative, innovative societies. They are always hard fought for. But the exhibition does not show the disputes behind it and thus adapts to a low-conflict society, pacified with the oil billions that is opening a museum for international art for the first time. In reality, every advance in human history has been fought for going through controversy and suffering.

Older societies can be an inspiration, as seen in the Louvre Abu Dhabi, but the changes must come from within a society. The United Arab Emirates have made a start with their cities. But at best, they still have a long, rocky road ahead of them before they may become an inclusive, creative, self-sustaining society that is independent of oil, gas and dictatorship.