Cities are machines, the largest things we build. Their airports and seaports digest and expel people and goods, while their roads and rails siphon both through the urban landscape. Their tunnels carry data, power, water, and sewage. Their governing authorities work (one hopes) with deliberateness, imposing coherence on what otherwise could be chaos. It can all hum efficiently—or fail spectacularly. Typically, all of this is constructed over centuries. The Parisian sewer system dates to the 1850s; New York’s first subway line opened in 1904; London got its first central power station in 1891. Avenues follow cow paths; creeks become water tunnels; fiber-optic lines slowly take their place beside electric cables. The lesson of city building is that infrastructure takes forever—the tortoise to technology’s hare.
But Dubai has done it differently. Dubai has built in 50 years what has taken most cities 100. That isn’t hyperbole or a PR stunt—though Dubai is famously expert at both—but a reality plainly visible in this metropolis of nearly 3 million people. For centuries Dubai was a sleepy port, serving the pearl trade in the Straight of Hormuz. In 1966, when Al Gergawi was 3 years old, the newly formed Dubai Petroleum Company found oil off the coast. While engineers worked to pump it up from the seabed, his boyhood school still lacked electricity. He drank rust-colored water, filtered with a piece of cloth. “Nothing was here, actually,” he recalls. The site of the beachfront hotel we’re sitting in had been a smallpox sanitarium. “While you were coming from the airport, probably you drove down Sheikh Zayed, which is an eight-lane highway? My first trip on this road was when it was a dirt road. It was sand dune.”