“The past, he thought, is linked with the present by an unbroken chain of events flowing one out of the other…” wrote Chekhov.
Nothing could more accurately encapsulate the sentiments more accurately than looking at Dubai over the astonishing year that has transpired, as the zeitgeist morphed from one of cautious optimism amidst a sea of despair at the beginning of the year, to one of strength, exuberance and triumph as the sun sets on 2021. The “onetime future of past generations”, to quote Reinhart Koselleck.
The urban landscape of the city is replete with palimpsests and pentimenti, but it is also a self-assured entity, striving confidently into the future brimming with confidence and aplomb.
How did this happen? What forces shaped its singular character and identity? Limning the soul of its city, its genius loci, has been a reinvigoration of the multi-valent energy that has made the city always operate in a state of flux. Its fulcrum has always been the fact that it has been a field of dreams for all those who reside and travel to it- a tabular rasa onto which all sorts of metropolitan fantasies could be projected, whilst in the background, reforms on the legal, immigration, financial and healthcare front meant that its borders remained open.
Build its way back
This meant that even as the world reacted to the events of the pandemic, Dubai continued to forge ahead by announcing an astonishing range of projects (all envisioned in breathtakingly ambitious 2040 urban plan). It helped that asset prices were trading substantially below replacement value as the year began, allowing for a torrent of money to pour in as family offices, institutions and startups all made their way to the shores.
In that sense, the pandemic has brought about another inflection point for the city, as the newcomers who arrived have been fiercely ambitious, but also keenly aware of their and the city’s new status in emerging culture. There have been similar inflection points in the past. But it has been these events that have fused Dubai’s strange alchemy of ambition and self-reflection and the reason why it has churned out more raw talent and the ability to aesthetisize than any other city in the region.
Reforms push the boundaries
It has been for this reason that luxury offerings have been the most talked about during the year. Even more astonishing has been what has not been visible to the naked eye; the judicial reforms that have paved the way for the multitudes to come ashore and call this city their home. 2021 as a year served both as an excavation and an invitation- to see Dubai afresh, to discover that its remotest corners and most familial places have been painted anew with a vision to march forward, no matter what the clouds foretell.
The seminal Expo event has already recalibrated the city’s growth trajectory higher. And as luxury has remained a common theme for 2021, it is inevitable that other segments of the market are now in the process of catching up. Despite the speedbumps along the way (both that transpired and the ones to come), the city is poised to enter and scale new frontiers of startup formation and financial innovation, serving as a hub for new talent.
Rediscovering within itself
Even as the Expo event meant that Dubai reached the apogee of its arc, its moment of maximum power, we are already seeing that everything has changed once again as its populace look ahead to plant new markers. The city’s repeated ability to consolidate and reposition has been the genetic code of Dubai. Its effects have been breathtaking to witness, but even as Dubai has become a world brand like no other, it cannot be understood without looking at its past and its determination to overcome adversity, regardless of the odds.
2021 marks a year where this was proven yet again. To quote Chekhov again: “It seemed to him that he had just seen both ends of the chain, both past and the present; and that when he touched one end, the other quivered”.
Dubai proves time and again that its real history is symbiotically connected with its future. It will remain for its children and grandchildren to find a path to rediscover the extraordinary place their ancestors have left behind.