The city-state, a relic dating back to Classical or Renaissance times, is making a comeback. Driven by massive growth in global trade, shifts in economic power and the rise of emerging ethnic groups, today’s new independent cities have witnessed rapid, often startling, economic growth over the past decade.
The contemporary city-state has flourished primarily in two regions: the Persian Gulf and Southeast Asia. The development of Hong Kong and Singapore provided a critical stage for Southeast Asia, which has been home to the world’s the greatest economic expansion. Hong Kong, now a quasi-independent part of China, competes with London’s West End as the world’s most expensive office market. By one account, it is experiencing the fastest growth in rents of major office markets in the past year. Once known for their poverty and destitution, these Asian city-states now boast incomes comparable to many European and North American cities.
The Persian (or, as some like to call it, Arabian) Gulf constitutes the other hot bed for 21st Century city-states. Over the past decade, a string of once obscure cities from Dubai and Abu Dhabi to Qatar and Bahrain have risen to positions of global significance. Qatar, a tiny emirate with roughly 1.7 million people, will host the 2022 World Cup–an announcement that surprised nearly everyone. Abu Dhabi, a desert metropolis of some 2 million people, is undergoing the largest cultural development project on the planet, financed by the emirate’s huge oil wealth. This includes three massive museums: an outpost of the Louvre, a branch of the Guggenheim 12 times the size of the New York original, and a museum on maritime history.
These city-states may share religious and political affiliations, but like their Phoenician, Greek and Renaissance forebears, they compete ferociously with one another. Today Dubai, which like Abu Dhabi is part of the United Arab Emirates, easily represents the most evolved expression of the modern Gulf city-state. Not much more than a tiny fishing and pirate haven until modern times, the city had less than 400,000 residents in 1985; it now has close to 2 million. In the past decade Dubai has become a city of superlatives: the world’s largest office tower; the Middle East’s largest port, airport and financial center.
In many ways Dubai’s strengths are those of traditional city-states. Unlike other Gulf Arabs, the Dubai Emiratis have depended more on trade than oil for their wealth. Highly anxious to seize one of the most critical corridors of world trade, they have built the Middle East’s largest port at Jeber Ali and the massive Dubai International Airport, one of the largest and best-run on the planet.
And to an extent largely unmatched in the Arab world, Dubai and its ruler, Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, have fostered an environment well-suited for global trade. Muslim cultural tendencies (like Friday holidays and largely halal food) are gently followed, but there’s room for a great deal of flexibility for expatriates.
Inside the financial towers, it’s not unusual to see people dressed as they would in London or Wall Street–men in smart suits and women in knee-length skirts. Alcohol is readily available in the hotel restaurants, and the cab drivers are as likely to be Hindus from India as Muslims from an Arab country. Restaurants tend to be Lebanese, Persian or Western; there are karaoke clubs, bars and pubs across the city. Business in Dubai is conducted in many languages among a plethora of ethnic groups ranging from Americans and Brits to Indians, Russians, Pakistanis, Koreans and Lebanese, among others.
“Funny” business, as in most trading cities, also fuels the Dubai’s dynamism. The city-state has been a convenient laudromat for money out of sanctioned Iran. Indeed, the Dubai Creek area near the souk is crowded with dhows being packed with crates ready to ship across the Gulf to the Islamic Republic. These can include some relatively harmless consumer goods like televisions, but some allege that some of the cargo includes materials for Iran’s nuclear program.
Then there are the corrupt south Asian politicians, Russian Mafiosi or Southeast Asian drug dealers, who reside part time in the city and also deposit their cash there. Included in this cash in-flow, according to Wikileaks, are many millions of U.S. and other NATO aid dollars skimmed off by our wonderful Afghan allies. (Your tax dollars at work!)
Both the predominate legitimate business and, probably, the thieves see much benefit in Dubai’s largely efficient authoritarian order. There are incidents of violence on occasion, but nothing on the scale of Karachi or Juarez, Mexico, gang wars. A safe place attracts all kinds of business, as was true back in the days when the Doges ran Venice. Backed both by social order and monumental infrastructure investments and high social order, Dubai now boasts the fourth most office space per capita of any large city on the planet–behind only New York, Paris and London.
Since the 2008 financial crisis the office market has become severely overbuilt, transforming Dubai from one of the world’s hottest commercial markets to one of the sickest. Estimates of actual office vacancy rates start at 15% but could rise to 25% or even 50%, according to a recent Jones Lang estimate. However, a walk through the massive new “Business Bay” development–planned as 64 million square feet of office, commercial and residential space–resembles a walk through the real estate landscape left from a neutron bomb. You don’t see much in the way of people except security guards and occasional day laborer. Even optimists, counting on a renewal of global economic growth, do not expect a major improvement in the overall property market until 2013 or 2014.
A more serious and long-term problem may prove political. Unlike Singapore and Hong Kong, where most work is done by citizens, Dubai and the other gulf city-states rely almost completely on imported labor. Expatriates seem to do almost everything from city planning and administration work to running the hotels and basic infrastructure maintenance. This is not surprising as less than 1 in 5 residents is an Emirati.
Some foreign residents live luxuriously, in communities like the Palm that look more like Newport Beach, Calif., than parts of the developing world. Many others inhabit dismal labor camps that are collections of cinderblocks in the desert. These camps, notes Kevin Phillips, a local evangelical missionary who works in Dubai, are plagued with problems typical of any settlement made up of young, temporary males workers: crime, drugs, fist-fights and prostitution.
But arguably the biggest danger to Dubai–and to other Gulf city states–lies in the numbers of Arabic speaking workers and professionals who, despite sharing a language and religion with the Emiratis, often feel only a tenuous stake in the city’s success. Unlike their counterparts in Singapore, they have virtually no chance to become citizens. Commitment to the long-term health of the city is not always evident among people who consider themselves mere sojourners.
Yet for all these problems, one should not rule out Dubai or other Gulf urban areas like Abu Dhabi and Qatar as potential future great city-states. In a world where cross-cultural trade remains an ascendant phenomenon, we are likely to see the emergence of an expanding number of city-states over the coming years. Athens, Carthage or Venice may have constituted the great city-states of the past, but the 21st century is likely to create its own batch of luxuriant successors.
This article originally appeared at Forbes.com
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and an adjunct fellow of the Legatum Institute in London. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.