Dubai is all about dazzle: soaring skyscrapers, ultra-luxurious hotels and shopping developments, a plethora of theme parks, and mega-projects such as an archipelago of man-made islands in the shape of a map of the world. The showmanship gives the oil-rich emirate a welcoming face to tourists (particularly wealthy ones) and an image as a futuristic Oz on the Persian Gulf.
It has also been criticized as artificial city, and a place more hospitable to monied foreign visitors than its own residents—85% of whom come from other countries. Based on two decades of research on Dubai, urban scholar Yasser Elsheshtawy examines how members of the city’s marginalized and invisible communities were able to carve out places in which they can feel at home.
He focuses on the street corners, parking lots, and back areas of buildings that were appropriated and transformed into social spaces by city’s low-income residents. There service employees, construction laborers, and domestic workers came together and created a supportive community of their own within a city that essentially marks them as transients. He finds lessons in their resilience that can serve as models in places around the globe in which the urban divide between the affluent and the migrant poor continues to widen.
Elsheshtawy is author of Dubai: Behind an Urban Spectacle and the upcoming Temporary Cities: Resisting Transience in Arabia. He curated the United Arab Emirates pavilion at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale.